The world’s biggest fact-checking website aims to contribute to global conversations by helping people distinguish between fake news.
Established in 2006, PolitiFact rates the accuracy of statements given by officials in the United States. Although it produces an average of five fact checks a day—25-30 stories a week—it has managed to attract 6 to 7 million page views a month in 2007, which reached as high as 12 million a month during the US presidential elections in 2016.
On the sidelines of this year’s Global Editors Network Summit in Lisbon, PolitiFact’s Executive Director Aaron Sharockman told Venture why today’s media companies —including those in the Middle East—need to introduce methodologies that provide reporters in every newsroom with the tools to run fact checks.
How effective is fact checking in today’s world of social media?
I think it’s having an impact on the debate. I will give you a couple of examples in the United States. The first is politicians who know that fact checking is happening are more likely to be careful about what they say… Trump excluded. And there’s research in the United States that supports that. The second is that readers like it. So if you wrote a story about immigration and then you wrote a fact check about immigration, which is same exact topic, same exact points, people retain more information from the fact check than they do from the normal story. The glass half empty problem is that we are the biggest fact checking website in the United States and we are 11 people. We cannot get close to covering all the miss-information that exists. And then the people who spread misinformation have far bigger budgets and more resources than we do so they can still reach a lot more people. That’s a big challenge. We can do a good job but I think we need to realize that fact checking isn’t the solution, it is part of a solution and it needs to grow and I think it will; more countries and more journalists need to do it.
The other important thing is that we need to get back teaching journalists that all journalists should be fact checkers. In the United States, our hypothesis is that they stopped doing that which is what created fact checking as a standalone business, but now everyone needs to do it.
The New York Times has 1,000 journalists and one fact checker and that’s new, they hired that person last year.
Facebook has come under a lot of criticism pertaining to fake news, particularly during the US Presidential elections. How are you helping them combat fake news?
Facebook has created a tool that detects possible fake or false stories. We then have access to that list and we can fact check whatever we want on it or nothing. We rate what we want, they have no say over what we fact check or how we rate it. Once we publish the fact check we tell Facebook that this article that’s being shared is false. So they put it to the bottom of news feed. They don’t eliminate it, but it’s going to be a lot harder for that story to go viral. That’s the core of the project and we’ve been doing it now for 18 months. We have fact checked 2,400 articles; a lot of them are copycats.
How do you decide which articles to fact check?
By using judgment. We look for fact checks that would be interesting to do and for stories that are very popular. It’s a mix, we do politics first but we’ve done many things that are not political. At first, no one read the articles that were not about politics, but over time we’ve seen a broader reach for a lot of these articles. I think we are reaching new audiences with these types of articles. In the United States politics has been every day for the past three years and so a lot of people are thinking: “I’m done, I just don’t care.”
Your organization has also been accused of being biased. How do you deal with these accusations?
We are objective, transparent and fair. We think about everything we can to be as transparent in our process as possible. What we don’t want is someone saying “I don’t know how you do what you do” or “how did you come up with that decision?” That is why everything we do is on the record, we list all of our sources like a bibliography, and we have a whole step-by-step process of our methodology. We have done it consistently this way for 11 years. The second thing is when we get feedback and criticism that we are biased we want to know why? What we get back mostly is not criticism of our writing but of the verdict. What I need to keep reminding people is that this is neither science nor math, there is not one answer to that, this is our answer and we work really hard to be consistent. The other thing that we can work more on is more transparency in how we pick what we fact check. Of course we are 11 people so we have to pick carefully what we fact check, we cannot fact check everything President Trump says or everything that [Congresswoman] Nancy Pelosi says. So how do we pick? The answer, which is not satisfying to a lot of people, is we pick topics and statements that we think are the widest spread, and then if you heard the statement and say I wonder if that’s true then that’s it. At PolitiFact you have to be willing to fact check anyone saying anything.
Do you think each media organization today needs to have a fact-checking department?
I don’t think so. I do think that every media house needs to know how to do fact checking. So my advice would be, don’t start a fact-checking unit, it’s costly and you’re probably going to get frustrated and stop it because it doesn’t pay for itself. But I think it is rather how we can integrate fact checking into newsrooms rather than build stand-alone units.
You were in Lebanon recently. How big a problem is fake news in the Middle East?
It’s tough for me as a foreigner from the outside to judge but from my perspective I’ve noticed a couple of things. There are a lot of different issues related to race, ethnicity and gender, that may dominate more so than even traditional politics. Again it’s the same thing in the United States, people believe that they were born believing in this so they will believe the fake news that says the other guys are awful. I think that’s a big issue for sure. The other thing that we don’t necessarily have in the United States as much is the messenger apps. Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, all that communication is happening in private and there’s nobody watching or monitoring to say that’s not true and I think that’s a big issue because at least with the Facebook project we can see that you shared something wrong.
Do you think there should be similar organizations in the Middle East?
Yes, I think there should be. PolitiFact is 11 years old in August, we are according to most people pretty successful. But it took us eight years to be profitable and we relied on a media house to fund us. So we needed eight years to figure out how to sell our stories, find grant funders, find the right advertising, and to start a membership campaign so readers can donate to us. Today, the biggest funding we get is from selling our content to other media companies and that’ 25-30 percent, online advertising is maybe 20 percent, individual donations is 15-17 percent, and grants is about the same. To me that is the key, what is the long-term financial strategy and are you able to wait 5-6 years?