Factually: Why the Tories’ fact-check stunt matters

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. But not in this case.

The move by the U.K. Conservative Party’s press office to make its Twitter account look like a real fact-checking site holds implications for fact-checkers’ credibility and presents social media companies with a new test of how to respond to such ploys. There is also a possibility that it could backfire.

During Tuesday’s election debate between Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives changed the name of their official Twitter account to “FactCheckUK.” The avatar was changed to a check mark, similar to the logos used by fact-checkers worldwide.

But instead of true fact-checks, the tweets had a distinct point of view, as would be expected from a political party’s press shop. One tweet asserted that Johnson was the “clear winner” of the debate. (The account has since shifted back to its old name, CCHQ Press. All along, the handle remained @CCHQPress.)

We see three implications for fact-checking worldwide.

  1. It not only misleads the public, but undermines and delegitimizes real fact-checking operations. If people start to believe that fact-checking can come from partisan sources, they no longer have reason to believe it.

    Several responses on Tuesday night fell along those lines. “You dressed up party lines as a fact-check service. That is dystopian,” Emily Maitlis, a BBC “Newsnight” presenter, told Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly in an interview.

    Said the British fact-checker Full Fact: “It is inappropriate and misleading for the Conservative press office to rename their Twitter account ‘factcheckUK’ during this debate. Please do not mistake it for an independent fact checking service.” (Note: Full Fact is a signatory to IFCN’s Code of Principles).

  2. It gives a sense of what social media companies are up against in a fast-moving news cycle. The change lasted only as long as the debate, so Twitter didn’t have a lot of time to react. But events like debates are when people are paying the most attention. Afterward, Twitter did issue a statement saying that “further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information – in a manner seen during the UK Election Debate – will result in decisive corrective action.”

    Full Fact’s chief executive, Will Moy, said the platform could have acted more quickly.

  3. It plows the ground for more imposter plays around the world. This has already happened, actually, though not in quite the same way. Last summer, Cristina wrote about how the Mexican government has launched its own fact-checking operation. And as Daniel noted at the time in this newsletter, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) set up a fact-checking project called “Fact Squad” as part of her campaign for president.

    Now we have an established political party masquerading as a fact-checker. If the Conservative Party of Britain can do it, who else might try? “The cynical moves show the kind of disdain for the truth exhibited by another world leader, Donald Trump,” Chris Stevenson wrote in The Independent.

One question is whether the move will backfire. There was outrage from fact-checkers and other journalists almost immediately on Twitter. The platform had to respond publicly. And the U.K.’s Electoral Commission issued a statement calling on “all campaigners to undertake their vital role responsibly and to support campaigning transparency.”

For the sake of real fact-checkers, we can hope for a silver lining. Maybe the episode will draw new attention to the distinction between the legitimate fact-checkers and those who are just pretending to be.

. . .  technology

  • Applications for the IFCN’s Fact-Checking Innovation Initiative are now open! Grants will be awarded to 10 recipients in three tiers: $15,000, $50,000 and $70,000 for projects focused on new formats, sustainable business models, technology-assisted fact-checking and/or innovative media literacy solutions. Each applicant/organization may only submit one application (for one project in one grant amount tier). Apply by Dec. 8.

  • Facebook ads spreading misinformation about vaccines are being funded mainly by two anti-vaccine groups, according to a new study. The Washington Post reported that the researchers who did the study were surprised by the results, as some of this content may appear to be organic.

  • Lizz Winstead, a comedy writer and the founder of Abortion Access Front, a group that advocates for reproductive choice, argued this week in a piece for Vox that Twitter’s political ad ban could hurt non-profit organizations like hers. The platform recently changed its policy, but she argues it still could be problematic.

. . .  politics

  • Less than a month old, the Anti-Fake News Center set up by Thailand’s authoritarian government arrested a person for the first time. According to The Bangkok Post, the suspect, who was detained, had anonymously asked people to join messaging groups at Line (a WhatsApp-like app), then shared links to “obscene websites that came with advertisements for diet supplement products.” Cristina wrote an article about it.

  • As we write this, Iran is under a near-total information blackout, having been cut off from the internet for more than 100 hours. Fact-checkers from FactNameh (who are based in Canada for security reasons) have been using satellite connections to send their work to Iran, since Telegram, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram weren’t available. Here is an explanatory piece they published in English about misinformation regarding the rise of fuel prices. IFCN will keep reporting on this situation in the coming days. Follow its website and social media channels to learn more.

  • Facebook this week convened U.S. Census Bureau officials as well as other tech companies and civic groups for a summit on protecting the 2020 count. According to The Washington Post, people working on the problem are on the lookout for falsehoods that could discourage minorities, immigrants and non-English speakers from participating.

. . .  the future of news

  • The International Journalists Network interviewed BuzzFeed’s media editor Craig Silverman. Among his insights: “Everyone thinks there will be a rather effective deepfake video, but I wonder if, in the next year, will we see something that is actually authentic being effectively dismissed as a deepfake, which then causes a mass loss of trust.”

  • Deepfakes are probably overstated, three top information researchers write in Neiman Labs this week. But, they said, there are three approaches newsrooms can take to ensure that they provide a counterweight to disinformation.

  • French journalist Laurent Bigot transformed his doctoral thesis about fact-checking into a new book (in French only) about the impact of fact-checkers. “Can this work, entrusted to dedicated teams, influence the practices of all editorial teams?” he asks. “Fact-checking vs. Fake news, vérifier pour mieux informer” is available on Amazon.

Fact-checking during a presidential campaign has always been hard, but handling an impeachment process at the same time can be exhausting.

The team at (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact has had a tough week live fact-checking not only impeachment hearings but also the fifth Democratic presidential debate — with 10 politicians on the stage.

Here are some numbers:

PolitiFact has a team of 13 fact-checkers. At least three of them spent Tuesday, Wednesday and surely this Thursday glued to a TV to watch hearings related to President Donald Trump’s impeachment process. Many claims in those testimonies can’t be fact-checked, but PolitiFact still covered a few related to the impeachment process, as well as media appearances about the hearings.

Then Wednesday night came, giving PolitiFact’s team two hours of intense Democratic debate. It was the fifth meeting between politicians,co-hosted in Georgia by MSNBC and The Washington Post. During the event, PolitiFact published a wrap story with seven fact checks. It was Half True, for example, that 160 million Americans like their insurance plans. It was accurate that other countries have tried wealth taxes like the one proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

What we liked: To be able to do so much live fact-checking, PolitiFact needed a plan — and it had it on Monday morning. Each member of the team knew when they were going to work and were prepared to react quickly. And their audience responded to this.

  1. Wired looked at how machine learning could fight disinformation.

  2. False news is amplifying fear and confusion in Hong Kong, reported Agence France-Presse.

  3. This is rare: One paper cited a competitor’s fact-checker, by name, in one of its corrections.

  4. Lydia Polgreen, HuffPost’s editor-in-chief, argued in a piece for The Guardian that corporations should do more to reverse the collapse of the information ecosystem.

  5. Two Washington Post writers tackled the question of how bots might operate in 2020.

  6. Here’s another take on those manufactured local websites popping up across the United States, this time from The Guardian.

  7. The U.S. embassy and consulates in Brazil and the fact-checker Agência Lupa are sponsoring a free training program on content production and fact-checking techniques for journalists and journalism students from the five regions of Brazil. The program, called FactCheckLab, will have online and classroom phases, as well as a professional exchange trip to the United States.

  8. History vs. drama: People magazine is fact-checking the latest episodes of the new Netflix series, “The Crown.”

  9. A 2011 Vitamin Water ad suggesting the drink could be a substitute for a flu shot has been making the rounds online. Forbes explains.

  10. Trump’s attacks on the media as “fake news” are emboldening authorities around the world to do the same, The Washington Post said in an editorial.

That’s it for this week! We will take next week off for Thanksgiving, then return to your inbox Dec. 5. In the meantime, feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org.

DanielSusan and Cristina

  1. Get your facts faster. Sign up for our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox every Thursday morning.