Factually: A busy week tests U.S. fact-checkers

It was one of the busiest weeks for American politics in recent memory.

On Sunday, President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg aired dueling ads during the Super Bowl. Monday was the Iowa caucuses, which kicked off the primary election season (as of this writing, we still don’t have all of the results). On Tuesday, Trump delivered the annual State of the Union address. And all of this happened amid a backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak, a Senate vote to acquit Trump of impeachment charges and a looming primary in New Hampshire.

(Poynter-owned) PolitiFact fact-checked a slew of statements, social media posts and ads throughout the busy news week. It proved to be especially fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

On caucus day, conservative organizations spread misinformation about potential voter fraud in Iowa. The claim, that eight Iowa counties had more registered voters than adults, was spread far and wide on social media. But Iowa’s secretary of state publicly rebutted the allegations, and PolitiFact rated them False.

Also on Monday, once it became clear that there was an issue with the Iowa Democratic Party’s system for tallying caucus results, conspiracies started to circulate online. Some supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) falsely claimed the delay was because Democrats were “blocking the caucus.” Others constructed an elaborate conspiracy about connections between the app that was used to report caucus results and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.

If this week taught us anything, it’s that timing is everything.

False voter fraud claims and conspiracies about caucus results spread widely because they circulated during developing news stories, when journalists were still trying to get confirmed information about what was happening. Misinformation about the coronavirus went viral because there’s still much health officials don’t know about the disease. On social media, news consumers want answers as quickly as possible — and conjecture and falsehoods often fill that gap.

The lessons for fact-checkers are obvious: respond quickly to hoaxes about developing news, live fact-check key political events and prioritize claims with the biggest potential impact on voters. Because at the end of the day, we can’t fact-check everything, and it’s only February.

— Daniel Funke, PolitiFact 

. . . technology

  • Jigsaw, owned by Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc., is testing a tool called Assembler that could help journalists identify manipulated media, said Jared Cohen, the company’s CEO, in a blog post.
    • A dozen news and fact-checking organizations around the world are trying out the tool, including Animal Politico in Mexico, Rappler in the Philippines, Code for Africa, Agence France-Presse and Les Décodeurs du Monde.
    • “The tool uses ‘detectors’ to analyze an image or deepfake; determine if it’s authentic; and if it’s not, inform the user where the image may have been manipulated,” Jay Peters wrote in The Verge.
  • Twitter also released new rules aimed at addressing manipulated media, the company said in a blog post. Beginning March 5, it said, users may not deceptively share synthetic or manipulated media that are likely to cause harm.
    • In addition, it said, “we may label Tweets containing synthetic and manipulated media to help people understand the media’s authenticity and to provide additional context.”

. . . politics

  • Misinformation experts told the Associated Press that they expect election manipulation efforts by foreign governments and domestic actors to become more sophisticated this year, aided by cheap targeted ads online.
    • “Experts say political campaigns, foreign government and trolls will continue to push the boundaries, testing to see which messages, images or videos resonate with potential voters based on their data,” the AP wrote.
  • YouTube said this week that it will enforce policies that prohibit videos that spread falsehoods related to elections.

. . . the future of news

  • In anticipation of a wide range of misinformation challenges news organizations are expected to face in the election year, API is creating a network to connect local newsroom leaders across the country with experts who combat disinformation and other threats to honest reporting and election integrity.
    • API is hiring a community manager to operate at the hub of this project, a job that will start immediately and last through the year.

Fact-checking isn’t always just debunking. Sometimes it involves making sure the audience has practical information. And that is what Full Fact did this week when the United Kingdom left the European Union. The British fact-checking organization helped its audience to understand crucial changes in daily life – and also found an easy way to reach its followers, answering straight-forward questions at the moment they most needed it.

On Jan. 31, Full Fact’s team delivered a helpful newsletter called “Brexit: what changes after 31 January?” listing practicalities British people had to learn. The email had six fact-checks and a link to a robust article where readers could find easy answers for more than 10 common questions citizens might have been  asking themselves.

“Will I have to pay roaming fees on my phone?” (So far, no), “Do I need a visa to go to Europe?” (Not until 2021), “Will I be able to drive in the EU?” (Yes. It won’t change until 2021).Full Fact did not use the traditional format of fact-checks. It didn’t choose a post on social media and a false or true rating. It simply wrote its article in a Q&A format, with answers no longer than three paragraphs.

What we liked: Fact-checking is about delivering reliable information when it is most needed. Full fact’s team played an important role by offering solid sources and answering daily life questions in the most efficient way possible.

— Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN 

  1. A doctored Newsweek article, a false Pentagon letter, a fake tweet and a very suspicious call from the father of a “missing U.S soldier” became “serious news” on Iran’s State Television.

  2. The #CoronaVirusFacts collaboration, coordinated by the International Fact-Checking Network, has published 285 fact-checks in 39 countries so far. In its fourth report, it points out that Facebook, Google and Twitter could do better to support the fight against hoaxes about the new disease.

  3. The first legal challenge to Singapore’s law against online misinformation was rejected this week. Opponents say the law is being used to stifle dissent.

  4. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for misinformation remedies continues to be a subject of misinformation itself. Lead Stories this week sought to clear it up.

  5. From Mother Jones: Conservative groups are trying to peddle conspiracy claims of voter fraud in the Iowa caucuses.

  6. University of Pennsylvania professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a co-founder of FactCheck.org, will receive the 2020 Public Welfare Medal, the highest medal of honor from the National Academy of Sciences.

  7. NPR spoke with journalist Maria Ressa and “A Thousand Cuts” documentary maker Ramona Diaz about the spread of disinformation on social media in the Philippines.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org.

DanielCristina and Susan

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