In the previous chapter 10 of the Digital Information Literacy Guide, we discussed the methods used by fact-checkers in an easily manipulated digital information environment. The same source-criticism and critical reading skills apply for social media. Social media is often overlooked when it comes to monitoring media, even though, for better or worse, social media is part of citizens’ everyday lives. Fact-checkers are kind of “role models” of digital information literacy, with particular expertise in this ethically challenging environment. But what are the professional ethical issues involved in their work?
This chapter briefly reviews the ethical codes of fact-checking that have evolved to complement classic journalistic principles and codes. Fact-checking is a public service that is still in search of sustainable funding models. The chapter opens up premises for fact-checking as a public service to assess information disorders, especially mis- and mal-information, and explains how ordinary citizens can identify a fact-checker committed to an ethical code of transparency and use this work to promote a more fact-based public debate in the midst of the information war. There is a war on facts, but together we can work to ensure that our knowledge is built on the most reliable and transparent approach possible.
Fact-checking based on openness and transparency
The reliability of fact-checking has traditionally been based on exemplary openness and transparency. These principles are also reflected in the international codes of ethics for fact-checking, which form the basis of the Faktabaari Code of Conduct described in Chapter 10 above.
The International Fact Checking Network (IFCN) compiled its transparency principles into the first common code in 2016. At its core, it continues to unite verifiers around 1) requirements for impartiality and fairness, together with 2) transparency of methodology, sources, funding and correction policies. Since then, these principles have been refined both in regards to content since the scope of social media cooperation has increased and territorial cooperation deepened. The table in the annex to this chapter provides links to complementary transparency codes and their memberships.
Following the establishment of the IFCN Global Code of principles, a transparent and regular review process for the evaluation of review services was built into it. The aim was to answer the important question: who checks the fact-checker? This development was spurred by the fact-checking services’ initial collaboration with social media companies such as Facebook and Google in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election. The fact-checkers took the initiative to also serve the public on social media channels, which evolved into a “third party fact-checking” programme. Over the following years, this programme became a development that strongly professionalised fact-checking but also oriented its content priorities. With funding from social networking sites, and Facebook in particular. Fact-checking became increasingly focused on content from paying sites and outright disinformation, while the traditional and still important work of fact-checking claims made by politicians diminished.
As part of the same professionalisation brought about by the platform partnership, a quantitative requirement for regularity was added to the quality code in 2017, which meant weekly fact-checking. In this context, many smaller fact-checking services or those that focused on background checks with limited resources had to withdraw from the code or change their strategy. In principle, however, all fact-checkers continued to be members of the IFCN community, including meeting collegially to learn from each other at the annual Global Fact events, which have grown to become the main event in the sector.
Social media companies wanted to demonstrate through this “independent fact-checking” programme to politicians, particularly in the US and at EU level, who were eager to regulate them, that they were able to weed out as much disinformation as possible from their platforms so that their business would not be disrupted by new legislation. However, the independent fact-checking programme posed a dilemma for fact-checkers: while few politicians are known for wanting to be fact-checked, social media companies had no interest in embarrassing their regulators.
The platforms incentivised the fact-checking services they funded primarily to focus on potential disinformation cases identified by their algorithms. The details of the contracts with the fact-checkers and social media companies were protected by non-disclosure agreements typical of corporate law. This arrangement placed unreasonable demands on many small fact-checkers. They were able to serve their audiences through new channels, but with less transparency. Statements by elected politicians were excluded from the review activities funded by US companies on the basis of free speech arguments.
For example, during Donald Trump’s four-year presidency, the Washington Post reviewed more than 30 000 inaccurate or distorting statements to hold the president accountable for what he said. The project was, however, a significant and symbolic investment by the traditional media fact-checking service itself against post-truth. In contrast, the “independent fact-checking” programme, which was funded by social media and grew global, checked a wide range of conspiratorial claims - particularly in relation to the important COVID 19 pandemic. This is something that the social media platforms always remember to mention in their PR speeches. However, it is not known how much of an impact the fact-checking exercise has had in limiting the information disorders circulating on the platforms, as it is not reported despite the fact-checkers’ claims. In this regard, fact-checkers have called for more transparency from platforms in order to develop their operations in a modern, data-driven way.
The Nordic checkers have also continued to monitor the claims of politicians. In many developing countries, fact-checking has often just become, for the lack of other funding, the content moderation of highly skilled data workers on web platforms.
The choice of platforms not to fund the fact-checking of the politicians’ claims has forced fact-checkers to critically evaluate their platform partnerships and also to invest in the search for complementary funding. This development was enforced after the election rigging in the run-up to, for example, the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote.
Social media companies are more interested in the bigger fact-checking services within the most influential countries. In smaller countries or language areas, platform cooperation was not yet possible in the first years of the 3rd party fact-checker programme or it was avoided for various reasons. For example, Faktabaari, which focuses on information literacy and elections, saw already in 2017 more problems for the reputation and independence of the checker than concrete benefits. The Nordic fact-checkers have avoided platform dependency through various transparent trust-building arrangements, more details on them provided on their respective websites - in accordance with the code.
However, thanks to their social media experience, fact-checkers have integrated into the new digital media reality in a more agile manner than traditional media, and without abandoning their principles, and are thus suitable for public scrutiny in social media. On the other hand, the majority of people on social media may not even encounter fact-checks in social media, as Facebook (Meta) and Google, for example, use algorithms to lower the visibility of content that fact-checkers classify as disinformation in their feeds, to the point where it often has to be searched for. As noted, fact-checkers do not have a detailed understanding of the algorithms that regulate the visibility of their output, but have naturally requested more information on their effectiveness in order to improve their performance. The data on this is currently only available to the platforms.
The IFCN’s original 2016 openness code has been adopted globally and in all Nordic countries, for example, also in terms of quality alongside national codes (e.g. Finnish JSN and other Nordic media councils). Membership of the IFCN can be seen as a quality mark to be valued by the reader. Unlike Faktabaari, which focuses on digital information literacy, other Nordic fact-checking services are full members of the IFCN and also check claims for news companies.
Awareness of the ethical implications of platform cooperation, including through funding, for editorial choices has also increased via research and information leaks. This is particularly strong in the European Union, which has developed its privacy legislation. As a result, many fact-checkers have expanded their activities towards media and information literacy. The broader field also raises new ethical choices. Awareness of information disorders has also been strengthened in the NORDIS EDMO consortium of all Nordic fact-checkers and four research universities, launched in 2021. NORDIS is currently focusing its EU-funded efforts on checking, understanding and limiting social media information disorders. In practice, this makes NORDIS reviewers particularly good partners for societal actors and citizens interested in various forms of digital information literacy.
European cooperation to deepen transparency coding and broaden the scope of restrictions
Since 2017, fact-checking and related media and information literacy in Europe have been promoted through theoretical work and projects with the support of the EU and the Council of Europe, among others. One contribution of the Council of Europe is the funding of a basic book on digital information disorder (Information Disorder), already mentioned in this guide. The EU woke up to the opportunities of fact-checking after Trump’s election and Brexit, before the European elections. Practical resourcing has also been slow to take off, but started to bring important diversity to previous funding from social media and foundations.
Two of the projects, mainly facilitated by the European Commission, are currently preparing the ground for a regional quality code that will complement the IFCN code, while allowing more regional bargaining power towards the social media platforms.
The most important European network of researchers, fact-checkers and media educators dedicated to disinformation is the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO). Its aim is to create a European network of regional centres of excellence, with a particular focus on tackling disinformation. The Nordic countries are involved in EDMO through the NORDIS network initiative. Alongside EDMO and NORDIS, another ongoing European project is to tighten up the IFCN code in a European context and to seek cooperation with the open source intelligence (OSINT) community. OSINT is most famously represented by Bellingcat, which has excelled in the information wars. While the EDMO network membership is still largely based on the above-mentioned international IFCN codification - with a slightly lighter European quality assessment process, under the European EFCSN will be negotiating a genuinely deeper quality code for the European context would be foreseen in 2022.
Recently, all projects have been strained by the fight against COVID misinformation and, most acutely, by the information war that Russia has fuelled in order to divide Ukraine’s supporters.
The main objective of these network projects on codes is to bring added value in intensifying cooperation across broader networks in thr fight against mis- and disinformation.
Table: Qualitative development of the international fact-checking code from a European perspective
Where are we going with the transparency code(s)?
To summarise for the Nordic audience, the IFCN membership and quality stamp (see below) required for platform collaboration represent the most important code set so far, for which the European EDMO fact-checking community (see link) is a code set of equal quality without any impact on the visibility through the algorithms of the web platforms.
Provided that the European EFCSN community reaches a consensus on a more rigorous code in the course of 2022, European operators will be in a position to negotiate their own European-specific cooperation patterns with the web platforms, supported by the EU legislation that will enter into force between 2023 and 2024.
The global community will certainly continue to play its aggregating role as well as its role in product development. Platform collaboration has recently expanded to include the smaller Twitter and gradually also the fast-growing Chinese-owned TikTok and Google’s YouTube.
However, alongside traditional content review, the increasing role of data and algorithms, different legislation, but also cultural differences between countries and practical challenges are now facts in favour of complementary regional quality work. The Nordic countries still represent a unique entity in terms of relatively strong institutions and journalist media. With their own strong and sometimes exceptional institutional information structures, such as strong school systems, broadcasters and libraries, Nordics stand out even within the EU.
The NORDIS network has good potential to develop our response to digital information disruption and to represent the Nordic countries in these wider contexts. It will focus on the Nordic communities of trust, which are also now forced to reassess themselves. For the time being a need for a separate Nordic fact-checking code has not been identified.
How to recognise a fact-checker committed to transparency from a fake fact-checker?
As quality codes become more established, as they grow, the laterally-reading citizen would look for 1) maximum transparency and openness on the part of fact-checkers regarding sources, authors, funding and, more generally, policies (see Chapter 10 of the Guide) and 2) one of the following quality marks from the IFCN and EDMO.
In principle, a commitment to good journalist practice, as defined for example by an independent national media council, such as the Finnish Council of Public Opinion (JSN), also indicates that the journalism is at least responsible. Commitment to codes and principles should always be checked with primary sources: even fake fact-checkers have claimed to be part of codes.
On the other hand, one such fake fact-checker “War on Fake”, which spread Russian propaganda about Ukraine, did not go this far, but rather sought to undermine the trust in fact-checking. As we learned in Chapter 9, even raising suspicion can work if reality does not match one’s expectations.
In terms of source criticism, digital information literacy assumes that the main line of defence against information manipulation is in between everyone’s ears. We recommend fact-checking as an approach, supported by pedagogical fact-checking by professionals. When your own skills may not be sufficient, or you feel that a wider public debate would benefit from evaluating a claim, contact a fact-checking service. Fact-checkers are happy to take story tips and turn them into pedagogical checks, as well as support material to disseminate the checked information with your support. For more information: www.faktabaari.fi/DIL
Sources and further information:
https://datalab.au.dk/nordis including links to fact-checking services
Mikko Salo is chair to Finnish transparency NGO Avoin yhteiskunta ry in charge of Faktabaari he founded in 2014 for fact-based public debate. He joined the 2018 European Commission’s High-Level Group on Fake News and Online disinformation as an expert on fact-checking and media and information literacy. He continues as an independent member to the EC expert group on media literacy, with several advisory roles in national and international networks tackling digital information disorders. He is NewsBeez media start-up Co-Founder and EU Senior Advisor to LUT University management on EU research and innovation policy and digital affairs.
Artwork: Lumi Pönkä
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