Fact-checking: who should (or should not) pay for the fight against global disinformation and fake news?

Fact-checking: who should (or should not) pay for the fight against global disinformation and fake news?

The solution to disinformation not only lies in the expansion and funding of platforms specialised in fact-checking but, as some experts argue, in stronger support for a more sustainable media ecosystem and quality journalism. Photo taken in 2016 of the EU Council Press Centre.

(EC-Audiovisual Service/Mauro Bottaro)

More than 30 false statements a day, six times more than usual, were uttered by the United States President Donald Trump during the midterm election campaign, according to at least one analysis in the Washington Post. A sharp increase was seen, according to the newspaper, in the number of unfounded statements made by political representatives as well as in the so-called ’fake news’ traffic on social media in the run-up to the elections.

The same thing happened during the two rounds of elections in Brazil, according to some of the main observers, including the Organization of American States (OAS). The level of disinformation was unprecedented, as highlighted in a report drawn up by the OAS electoral observation mission, which prompted the organisation to call on Brazil to investigate claims of corporate-backed networks systematically creating and distributing fake news to discredit the Workers’ Party (as revealed by the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper).

“Brazil has given us a wake-up call, as it attests to the massive existence of disinformation, which, for the first time, is being distributed mainly through WhatsApp,” explains Myriam Redondo, an expert in journalistic fact-checking. “A change is also being seen in the form it takes: we have gone from the false information boom to the prevalence of memes and images that have been doctored or taken out of context.”

Distributed through closed social network such as WhatsApp, these high-impact instant messages, suitable for all audiences regardless of their level of education, and designed to exploit the receiver’s emotions, are more difficult to expose.

During the Brazilian campaign, Cristina Tardáguila, from the fact-checking agency Agencia Lupa, called on WhatsApp to limit the ability to send mass messages through the application, to no avail.

This is the complex reality facing fact-checking teams – mostly made up of journalists and data analysts – around the world, which are ever-growing in number but are not yet backed by solid plans to ensure their financial viability. “Most fact-checking platforms have funding problems. They typically secure revenues through grants, donations from sponsors, collaborations with the media or contributions from members,” explains Clara Jiménez, co-founder of Maldita.es, one of the pioneering fact-checking teams in Spain.

Fund-raising (especially that based on creating a citizen support base) requires a great deal of effort and time, which the platforms find themselves having to ‘steal’ to be able to wage the fight against disinformation on the web. This stumbling block would, in theory at least, be easier to overcome with subsidies from both state and supranational institutions. As of this year, the European Union will increase its annual funding to the media system to €8 million (some US$9.2 million), focusing on programmes ranging from building citizens’ digital literacy skills to promoting media pluralism. Greater community involvement could provide the framework for proposed initiatives such as the creation of a European fact-checking team or a specific line of financing for the platforms currently dedicated to this task.

Whether economic injections from institutions should be accepted or not has become a major source of debate among fact-checking professionals around the world.

“We cannot work on projects with public funding or accept money from institutions such as the European Union. If one of their logos were to appear on our website, we would lose all credibility. Eurosceptics would doubt our independence on issues such as Brexit, for example,” explains Jiménez.

The same view is expressed by journalist Ana Pastor, founder of Newtral, a pioneering fact-checking platform in Spain, which performs part of this task directly through social networks and television. “Of course we need money to do our work, but there are other ways of contributing, such as improving access to data, to sources, ensuring greater transparency, continuous collaboration, whilst always respecting the basic underlying principles: freedom of expression and the right to give and receive information,” she explains.

Fact-checking: the rule, not the exception

For other experts, such as Ricardo Gutiérrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, the solution to the problem of disinformation does not lie solely in the proliferation and financing of fact-checking platforms. Another crucial antidote, in his view, is a more sustainable media ecosystem and quality journalism.

“All journalists are fact checkers. We shouldn’t spread the (false) idea that journalists don’t check information; that the only ones that do so are the super-journalists, the ‘fact checkers’. Some studies have shown that fact checkers have little impact.”

“The fight against disinformation would be much stronger with the help of Europe’s 600,000 professional journalists,” he insists.

“All media outlets and all journalists have a duty to stop the spread of fake news by ensuring they do not publish it in their own spaces. And if they do, they must quickly contribute to correcting it,” explains Redondo, an expert in online fact-checking.

The day-to-day work of fact-checking platforms however reveals that the global spread of disinformation does not rely on traditional media outlets. According to these fact-checking teams, it would be very difficult to detect if it were not for the specific services devoted to conducting systematic checks that often rely on the collaboration of ordinary citizens. “We keep track of our WhatsApp fact-checking service, which the Newtral team set up for the first time in Spain, on a daily basis. It enables any citizen to write to us and to ask about a headline, a montage or a photo that seems suspect. We look at data, we make calls, we consult experts, we search the internet for previous viral [stories]...And we provide each user with a personalised response,” explains Lorena Baeza, a journalist at Newtral.

The difficult balance between regulation and censorship

Stopping the flow of intentional lies spread on a planetary scale through social media such as Facebook and Twitter gives rise to another crucial debate: is legislating the right way to tackle the problem?

A joint report published by Access Now, the Civil Liberties Union for Europe and European Digital Rights on the role the European Union should play in the fight against disinformation (Informing the ’disinformation’ debate) advises against going down the punitive route, as Germany, France and Italy have done. “The European Federation of Journalists is in agreement with this position,” explains Gutiérrez. “Some 23 per cent of European journalists have faced legal threats based on defamation laws. New anti-disinformation laws are going to increase the pressure,” he warns.

The main fear is that a potential legislative framework against disinformation could be exploited by those wanting to restrict freedom of the press and critical voices. International organisations representing media workers have already warned of this danger.

“Authoritarian regimes would use such legislation against traditional media outlets and journalists. We are very concerned about what is happening in Italy. And even more so with the situation in Hungary, Poland, etc. A recent study by the Council of Europe shows that 30 per cent of European journalists had practised self-censorship,” says Gutiérrez.

It is difficult, moreover, to formulate ‘optimal’ legislation around a phenomenon for which the full impact remains to be seen. “There are still no scientific studies that have been able to measure the social and political impact of disinformation. For now, we can only guess at its seriousness,” concludes Redondo.

This article has been translated from Spanish.