Wednesday, 19 December 2018
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BREAKING NEWS

As fake news flourishes, the UK’s fact-checkers are turning to automation to compete

It is when the clarion voice of House of Commons Speaker John Bercow calls “Jeremy Corbyn”, that Full Fact swings into action. It is midday on a Wednesday in late March, and in the fact-checking charity’s office in central London, all eyeballs are on two TVs showing Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Since its inception in 2010, Full Fact has been parsing claims from British politicians and media, cross-referencing them with reliable data and labelling them as inaccurate or correct. Claims are picked from sources including TV programmes such as Question Time or Newsnight, newspapers, electoral materials, and PMQs, which Full Fact probes before posting results in real time on Twitter.

Opposite the screens, near a window overlooking St. James’s, senior fact-checker Claire Milne, one of five in the verification team, sits at a Post-It-plastered desk, facing three monitors. A live PMQs transcript scrolls on one of them. If Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else makes a claim that resembles something Full Fact has already assessed, an alert pops up, linking to the pertinent fact-check. Sometimes the spotter works, sometimes it stumbles. Here, the system rightly serves an analysis of access to mental-health services when the prime minister mentions the subject, but later on it rattles off stats on crime figures when May is simply deploring hate crimes. Milne tweets the link to the mental-health fact-check channel and flags the incorrect suggestion to the tech team.

Senior fact-checker Joseph O’Leary paces the room as if it were the deck of a boat sailing treacherous waters. On the screens, May and Corbyn trade barbs and figures. The Prime Minister says that mental-health spending has increased to “a record £11.6 billion”. The Opposition leader retorts that spending “fell by £600 million between 2010 and 2015”.

O’ Leary, a jovial man in his late twenties, shakes his head. “We don’t know if that’s a record level,” he says, as official data are incomplete. Milne posts as much in a thread of tweets. The debate shifts to the NHS. “Can you find something generic about spending on health?” O’Leary asks. Joël Reland, a fact-checker with black-rimmed glasses, starts searching.

Corbyn and May keep lobbing figures.

Claims will be broken down to essentials: facts, numbers, contextual information – which in turn will be dissected and compared with data from the Government, institutions such as the Office for National Statistics, or research organisations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In some cases, Full Fact will ask the opinion of independent experts. If the facts cannot be found anywhere, one of the fact-checkers will phone the person who made the claim and ask where they got the information. The eventual outcome will be an online article providing “the whole picture” about the claim, often with the aid of graphs and always linking to the original sources. At the top of the page, there will be a banner juxtaposing the original statement with Full Fact’s conclusion.

Full Fact only checks declarations about the economy, Europe, health, crime, education, immigration and law, focusing on national politics and limiting itself to claims that can be verified with publicly available information: O’Leary, for example, will not touch the Cambridge Analytica scandal, until after an inquiry.

“We take the view that if a member of the public had to check this information, could they? If they can, we’ll fact-check that,” he says. Are Full Fact researchers just full-time citizens?, I ask. A half-smile flickers on O’Leary’s lips. “Full-time citizens with a lot of skills.”

Once upon a time, a fact-checker was a person working on a newspaper or magazine, who made sure that stories reporters filed were grounded in reality: they called sources, double-checked quotes and pored over archives to verify points of fact. Such a figure can still be found in some larger publications’ offices – The New Yorker’s fact-checking unit has attained quasi-legendary fame. But, in the early noughties, “fact-checker” came to signify something else: someone whose job is not to avoid mistakes being printed, but to call out people (often politicians) who – willingly or otherwise – pollute the public debate with inaccuracies.

The first independent political fact-checking website, FactCheck.org, launched in the US in 2003 – the brainchild of a reporter and an academic who had spent years scrutinising political ads. It billed itself as a “consumer advocate for voters”, besieged and bewildered by campaign-trail whoppers and political fact-massaging. Two years later, Channel 4 launched FactCheck, the UK’s first fact-checking blog.

Academics explain fact-checking partially as a reaction to the internet’s great disintermediation: the web weakened traditional media’s vice-like grip on information, allowing anyone – from citizen journalists, to cranks, to Twitter-happy politicians – to become a news source in their own right. The end of media gatekeeping resulted in a lot of noise, and fact-checkers stepped in to sort the wheat from the chaff – ironically, by launching websites.

Fact-checking is also – even if some fact-checking groups are offshoots of established news outlets – a not-so-veiled piece of criticism of how traditional media operate.

“The rise of fact-checkers in the US happened because politicians were making claims that were inaccurate, and weren’t being corrected by the media,” says Michelle Amazeen, assistant professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. “The US media is driven primarily by the mantra of ‘If it bleeds, it leads’: they focus on the political horse-race – who’s ahead, who’s behind, rather than on the accuracy of the candidates’ policy statements.”

Besides sensationalism, bias and, more recently, traffic-driven churnalism, American fact-checkers resented the so-called “he said, she said” fallacy: the idea that objectivity is best attained by giving a platform to each side of a debate, regardless of the accuracy of their claims. Similar issues were also present in the UK, where a partisan press coexisted with the sometimes puzzling conceit of impartiality on television news.

“In British television, you have this concept of ‘BBC balance’: as a journalist, your job is to look at the story, give equal weight to both sides, and your job is done,” says Patrick Worrall, lead writer of Channel 4’s FactCheck. “But it’s frustrating when you watch the news and there are people on each side screaming at each other over a factual dispute. I think it’s journalists’ job to act on this recurring factual dispute.” (The BBC launched its own “Reality Check” in 2015.)

Over the last decade, fact-checking organisations have mushroomed around the world. According to Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, as of November 2018, 161 fact-checking outfits were operating globally. In September 2015, the realisation that a new phenomenon was taking place led a group of fact-checkers from various countries to launch the International Fact-Checking Network under the aegis of The Poynter Institute, a journalism school based in Florida. One year later, the Network issued a code laying down five core rules of fact-checking: nonpartisanship and fairness; transparency of sources; transparency of funding and organisation; transparency of methodology; and open and honest corrections. It counts 53 verified signatories, including Full Fact.

Some of the challenges fact-checkers grapple with are roughly similar, regardless of where they are based: online fake content and obfuscating politicians can as easily be found in France as in, say, Brazil. Other issues are more geographically specific. Take Istanbul-based fact-checking website Dogruluk Payi: since its launch in 2014, it has witnessed Turkey descend into polarisation, authoritarianism, and diminished freedom of the press. Such turmoil has only made Dogruluk Payi more relevant, as its non-partisan, data-based articles are less amenable to governmental intervention.

“Compared with journalists, our work is allowing us to be more active,” founder Baybars Örsek says. “We are just presenting facts and comparing them with statements by political actors.”

Problems arise when official facts cannot be trusted – a rare scenario in the UK, less so in Turkey – in which case Dogruluk Payi would point out the problem in its fact-check and turn to international sources. Sometimes, Örsek says, data is simply nowhere to be found – a common occurrence with military operations in Syria, for instance.

Laura Zommer, executive director of Argentinian fact-checking venture Chequeado, also has to deal with elusive data. Argentina’s National Institute of Statistics stopped publishing crime and poverty figures between 2009 and 2015. “They just decided not to publish those figures, because they were not necessarily good news,” she says. For the occasion, the outfit coined a new label – insostenible or “unsustainable” – to designate politicians’ statements that cannot be verified with existing data.

As Argentina braces itself for a general election in October 2019, the situation is compounded by the rise of disinformation websites. Chequeado hopes new technological tools and partnerships with larger media outlets will let her reach the widest possible audience. Its goal has not changed in eight years. “We want to increase the cost of lying,” Zommer says.

ILLUSTRATION: ADAM SIMPSON

Will Moy says he decided to launch Full Fact after working in the House of Lords. Moy, 34, explains how in 2007, he was working as a 23-year-old assistant for crossbencher peer Colin Low. Like all politicians, Lord Low received cartfuls of briefings, reports and evidence from lobbying organisations, think tanks, charities and pressure groups trying to influence lawmakers.

“Some was complete nonsense,” Moy says. “And some of that nonsense was being picked up by important people trying to make important decisions. And that was very frustrating – seeing how bad information can lead to bad decisions that people would have not made if they’d had good-quality information.”

Two years earlier, journalist and commentator Peter Oborne had published The Rise of Political Lying, a book in which he took aim at politicians’ and spin doctors’ complicated relationship with accuracy, and proposed the creation of “a body to bring back integrity to the political process by monitoring the statements of politicians of all parties” – mentioning FactCheck.org as a model.

Moy was convinced that he could build such a body, and pitched the idea to parliamentarians and political journalists. “They immediately said, ‘This sounds like an important thing to do’. You don’t get that speed of response from those kinds of people unless they mean it,” he says.

The project secured funding from Michael Samuel, a former Conservative Party donor, and from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a left-leaning organisation with no party affiliation. In early 2010, Full Fact set up an office above a sex shop in Soho. Since then, it has been through three general elections and three referendums, has partnered with newspapers, radio and TV, and averages 309,000 unique visitors per month.

From the beginning, Full Fact was at pains to establish its non-partisanship: “Our work is only valuable as long as people trust us,” Moy says. For that reason, Full Fact has its strategic directions set by a board of trustees including representatives from various parties, and on both sides of the Brexit debate. And, in order not to appear beholden to anyone i