10. What can we learn from fact-checkers?

The fact-checking process always starts with the same basic question: really? Once curiosity has been aroused, the claim is checked.

Research shows that the way fact-checkers approach new information on digital platforms, called “lateral reading”, has proven to be very effective. Traditional reading and textual analysis can be ineffective in the digital environment, because if readers start analysing unknown online information without first checking the source of the article, they may not realise that the whole text is based on biased or completely misleading information. In a lateral reading mode, the reader checks the background of the online information on different sites and sources before engaging with it. When confronted with previously unknown online information, fact-checkers immediately open several tabs in their browser and look for information about the organisation or the person behind it.

While the average reader may spend a considerable amount of time reading and thinking about incorrect information, fact-checkers use what is known as strategic ignoring. With a little scrutiny, online sources that turn out to be dubious and untrustworthy are quickly ignored. The premise is that the information is of poor quality until proven otherwise.

In its simplest form, when a fact-checker comes across a new online newspaper (e.g. the Daily Mail), he or she immediately opens a new tab in the browser, enters the name of the newspaper in the search engine and adds the word “reliability” or “bias” (e.g. Daily Mail reliability) and examines the results. The search engine will look for information that will help to assess the reliability of a website or news article. At the same time, it looks at what kind of articles have been published by the same media in the past, who is responsible for the magazine and who distributes its texts. In Finland, the website of the Council for Mass Media  provides a quick way to see whether an online journal has committed to its principles. In more complicated cases, the founder of a website can be traced back to the website’s founder, for example, through information in the code or various registry data.

Lateral reading also works when browsing through the stream of images and videos on social media platforms. When curiosity is aroused, the fact-checker looks at different sources to find out who published the claim, possible motives and, for example, where else the same image or video has been published before. There are a number of free online tools available to check the veracity of images and videos, which are described in more detail at the end of this article.

The working methods used by fact-checkers have become an essential part of digital information literacy. Fortunately, these online literacies can be learned, taught and developed, and the fact-checkers at FaktaBaari have collected some of their own and colleagues’

The working methods used by fact-checkers have become an essential part of digital information literacy. Fortunately, these online literacies can be learned, taught and developed, and the fact-checkers at FaktaBaari have collected some of their own and colleagues’ approaches to developing source criticism in particular in this article. We will supplement the articles in this guide with educational videos for the FaktaBaari website at: www.faktabaari.fi/DIL

Introduction to the fact-checking process and methodology

Fact-checking is the process of checking whether or not a claim made in the public domain is true. Fact-checking helps to distinguish between false, distorted, misleading or ill-founded claims, and reliable, truthful information.

According to the Duke reporters’ lab there are currently around 400 teams of investigators and journalists in 105 countries around the world who carry out fact-checking. In Europe, there are more than 110 fact-checking services. Some fact-checking services operate completely independently, some as part of the traditional news media and some, for example, as part of think tanks. 

Faktabaari is an independent fact-checking service established in Finland in 2014 with Open Society Association (Avoin yhteiskunta ry) as its administrative association. Faktabaari aims to strengthen knowledge and fact-based public debate in Finland. It works with the University of Helsinki as part of the Nordic NORDIS network, whose mission is to identify and combat mis- and disinformation. 

Fact-checking is needed because false or misleading information can undermine people’s opinions and influence their actions. According to Eurobarometer, 83% of Europeans see fake news and disinformation as a threat to democracy. The world has seen how disinformation can influence elections, erode trust in institutions, undermine freedom of expression or even reduce the willingness to take a vaccine. Verifying claims with reliable information from credible sources is one effective way of countering misinformation.

However, it is important to remember that the interpretation of claims is not always unambiguous and that facts can also be interpreted in different ways. For this reason, fact-checking seeks to be as transparent as possible in indicating the source of the information, so that the reader can judge for themselves the reliability of the sources and form their own opinion on the matter.  

The FaktaBaari editorial process:

1. Faktabaari selects the claim to be checked. The editorial team of the FaktaBaari screens socially relevant claims from social media and other public discourse that warrant review in order to promote a fact-based public debate. A claim for review can also be submitted to the editorial office via a hotline form or other means of contact.

2. The claim will be verified by a comprehensive collection of reliable data or by verification, for example by image, audio or video. Some checks can be done with just online fact-checking tools or a few phone calls, but some require several days of research, for example by looking at statistical data or scientific research on the subject. The first step in fact-checking is to get to the original sources. Often, the originator of the claim is first checked to see how the claim is formulated and offered the opportunity to correct it themselves. 

3. The fact-checking process involves interviewing experts. There is no such thing as a completely neutral expert and therefore expert opinion should always be checked by at least one other independent source.

4. The collected sources and information from the experts are compiled into a coherent fact-checking story. The fact-checked claim is presented by the fact-checker in the correct context and in accordance with good journalistic practice. If the experts have provided conflicting interpretations of the claim, the conflict must be openly documented. In difficult cases, further sources and experts are sought to verify the claim.

5. The decision to publish the fact-checking story is made by the Editor in Charge. Before doing so, its sources are checked once more. The content of the fact-checking story is reviewed by the editorial team and often with the experts interviewed for the story. However, the editorial team makes an independent decision on the content and publication of the story. The story is also published with an overall assessment of the validity of the claim made.

All material generated by the review is documented and archived. If Faktabaari has to justify its decision at a later stage, it must be possible to evaluate each stage of the review afterwards.

If the FaktaBaari publishes incorrect factual information, it will seek to correct it without delay and as comprehensively as possible.

Checking the accuracy of images and videos

When browsing the web, you often come across images and videos that raise questions. Has this been edited? Where and when was this filmed? What is really happening in the video or image?

Checking the authenticity of an image or video is not always easy and sometimes it can even seem impossible. However, technology is evolving all the time, and while it’s getting easier to edit images and videos, so is the technology to check their accuracy. Anyone can use the free online fact-checking tools that fact-checkers use in their daily work.

It is important to remember that it is not always the case that the video or image has been edited, but that the material is perfectly authentic but presented in the wrong context.

PICTURES

Reverse image search. Reverse image searches provided by various services are often the best places to start checking a photo. A reverse image search uploads or links to the image under review, allowing the search engine to find similar images. This can be used to find, for example, where and when a particular photo was taken, where else the same photo has been published before, or even who the person or building is in the photo. When searching for the original source, it is worth looking at the resolution of the images: usually the highest resolution image will lead you towards the original place of publication.  

Reverse image search can be found on Google (google.com/imghp), Tineye (tineye.com), Bing (Bing.com) and Yandex (yandex.com/images). These services work in slightly different ways and may find different things, which is why it is useful to do a reverse image search on several different services.

For example, when using reverse image search on Google, you can specify the time period for which you are looking for images. Google will always add a keyword after the image search, and you should try changing it to change the search results. Bing recognises the text in the image and sorts the images by size, while Tineye allows you to put the images in chronological order. 

The problem with reverse image searches is that they don’t usually find images posted on, for example, Instagram.

Image metadata. Images store a wide range of metadata, which can be viewed on sites such as Fotoforensics (Fotoforensics.com). The metadata may include the date and time the photo was taken. If the image is an original, it will probably also include information such as the model of camera or phone used to take the picture. Sometimes, although rarely, the metadata will also include the GPS coordinates of where the picture was taken. 

On the Fotoforensics website, it is also possible to obtain an Error Level Analysis (ELA) of the photograph, which can be used to identify image manipulation. ELA analysis helps to identify areas of the photograph where the compression level differs from other areas of the image. Areas that differ from the rest of the image may indicate image manipulation. 

Small clues. It is worth looking for small details and clues in the image. For example, are there signs, flags, license plates, weather conditions, or a recognizable building or landmark? Or can you infer something from the way the people in the picture are dressed?

If the image shows the sign in a foreign language clearly enough, you can upload the image of the sign to Google Translate, which will translate the sign text. The weather conditions on a particular day in a particular place can be viewed on Wolfram Alpha (wolframalpha.com). Various mapping services, such as Google Street view, Mapillary.com and Map.snapchat.com, as well as satellite imagery, can help you find the exact spot where the picture was taken.

VIDEO

Many of the above methods also work for viewing videos: searching for small clues, reverse image search and metadata often help you get on the right track. 

Reverse image search. It is also possible to reverse image search a video by taking screenshots of it and uploading them to the reverse image search. The InVid add-on installed in your browser helps you to perform multiple reverse image searches of different parts of the video at once. The InVid tool also allows you to view video metadata, such as the date of shooting.

Watch and listen. There is a lot of talk about real-looking deepfake videos, but so far this technology has not been widely used to disseminate disinformation. Deepfake videos use image manipulation to get a person to say or do things that they have not actually said or done.

More common than deepfake in video hoaxes is that the real video is, for example, cut in a misleading way, creating a distorted picture of what the speaker is saying. The editing may be very subtle and skilfully done, making it difficult to detect.

The original video can be found using a reverse image search or a search engine. There are other ways. By watching the video carefully, listening to the audio and looking for odd jumps, you can track down the editing manipulation. At watchframebyframe.com, you can link to a video posted on YouTube or Vimeo and watch every frame in slow motion, making it easier to spot a surprising jump. 

Translating a video in a foreign language. One of the ways in which misinformation is spread is by subtitling videos incorrectly and by placing the foreign language video in a completely false context. If the video is in Russian, for example, and the recipient does not speak that language, it is easy to use fictitious subtitles or a fictitious context to make claims that are not true.

However, the video can be translated into your own language. All you need is two different devices, such as a smartphone and a laptop. The Google Translate app, which can recognise speech and translate it, is downloaded onto the smartphone. On the second device, a video and audio is played, and Google Translate on the phone listens to the speech and translates it into the desired language. Translation services are not perfect, but the context of the video or the rough meaning of the speech can be understood by this method. 

The FaktaBaari website shares illustrative video tutorials on these typical basic skills for fact-checkers. www.faktabaari.fi/DIL

Examples of stories that have gone through this process can be found on the fact-checkers’ website - for FaktaBaari www.faktabaari.fi.

References:

(1) [i]Wineburg, S, Breakstone, J., McGrew, S., Smith, M., and Ortega, T. (2022) Lateral Reading on the Open Internet: A District-Wide Field Study in High School Government Classes Journal of Educational Psychology  https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2022-53872-001.pdf

(2) https://reporterslab.org/fact-checkers-extend-their-global-reach-with-391-outlets-but-growth-has-slowed/

Pipsa Havula is a freelance journalist  and a fact checker at Faktabaari. She has worked as a domestic and foreign news reporter for various newspapers since 2012. At Faktabaari, she has particularly focused on instructing readers on how to use fact-checking tools.

Artwork: Lumi Pönkä

Download the Digital Information Literacy Guide (PDF).

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