New media and the information revolution have not only empowered access to information but also fuelled the spread of disinformation. Such is the scale of the problem that the World Economic Forum has defined misinformation as one of the world’s most urgent problems. Corrupt, neo-authoritarian rulers have become skilled at using disinformation to confuse their opposition, break down trust and fracture civil society. Increasingly, disinformation is used as a weapon by closed societies to attack more open ones. Inside democracies whole segments of society are pulled into alternative realities which are manipulated by violent extremists and dominated by conspiracy theories. Some commentators have even speculated that we are entering a “post-fact” age where political candidates reinvent reality on a whim. This poses a serious danger to deliberative democracy and good governance: if we cannot agree on the facts, debate and decision-making break down.

“Fact-checking” has become an increasingly popular way to fight back against the deluge of disinformation. Having originated in the US, the movement is growing throughout the world, from the information wars of Ukraine through to the Middle East and Latin America. It is a young discipline still working out how it can maximise its impact. In this paper we look at the different methodologies of two of the most advanced fact-checking organisations, Politifact and Full Fact, and see what lessons can be drawn from their experiences during the US Primaries and EU Referendum. We then look at the latest technological innovations in fact-checking, and make recommendations for how best to develop fact-checking across the world and especially in those countries and communities most at risk from the spread of false information.

In order to progress fact-checkers and funders need to:

  • Mainstream Fact-Checking in the Media: Fact-checking currently exists in a niche where it is sought out by those who have an a priori interest in “the facts”. One way forward is to include fact-checkers live in current affairs debating shows and news programmes. This can also help make fact-checking entertaining. Media development agencies, donors and international public broadcasters such as the BBG, BBC Media Action and World Service could fund and create programmes with built-in fact-checking. A more permanent fact-checking presence in US and UK broadcasting and debating shows would help nip politicians’ lies in the bud.
  • Understand and Penetrate Echo Chambers: Social media and search algorithms have led to audiences self-selecting the “facts” they want to hear. Simply hurling “the truth” at them produces a back-fire effect which solidifies prejudices. Instead, echo chambers need to be analysed and understood and the key influencers identified. Once the underlying world-views have been understood, fact-checkers can engage more meaningfully with the audience. This audience-centred approach needs to inform fact-checking across the board, but is especially urgent for echo chambers which form a security risk, such as ones dominated by violent extremist ideologies.
  • Export Fact-Checking Technologies: Some of the most advanced fact-checking technologies are being developed by established fact-checkers in the US and the UK: from widgets that make verified fact-checks easy to share online, through to programmes that can automatically spot claims online and link them to similar claims that were already fact-checked. These innovations could help fact-checkers spread their work wider and publish it quicker. They could also help reduce start-up costs for new initiatives in countries such as Ukraine where disinformation is rife.
  • Encourage Education and Regulation: Fact-checking needs to be seen as part of a broader push for improving a fact-based public discourse. In order to help a new generation find their way through new media, media literacy needs to be reinvented in schools, with fact-checking a major component of school curricula. At the regulatory level a Standards Authority for Political Campaigns could help ensure politicians cannot lie with impunity.
  • Establish a Transparency International for Disinformation: Disinformation is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. There is a space for a specialised NGO that leads on this issue, playing the same role with regards to disinformation as Transparency International does with corruption and Human Rights Watch with human rights. Fact-checking needs to be more than merely reactive; it should be part of a broader aim to empower people to engage with public debate. If power is inextricably linked with knowledge, then fact-checkers could give power to those who feel powerless by ensuring that accurate, genuine knowledge is not only accessible to all, but predominant in political discourse.

About the Author

Alistair Shawcross is a Research Intern in the Transitions Forum team at the Legatum Institute. His academic interests include the evolution of Islamism and the effect of transnational networks on the state in the Middle East and in particular, Iraq. Since finishing his studies, he has worked as a researcher for the conflict-resolution charity The Next Century Foundation, and as an analyst for the Strategic Communications company, SCL Group. Alongside his work with the Legatum Institute, Alistair is a Fellow of Forward Thinking. Alistair holds a BA in History from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in Middle East Politics (Distinction) from SOAS, University of London.

About the Beyond Propaganda Series

The 21st century is seeing a new scale of media manipulation, psychological war and disinformation. The technological capacity of the information age, a more liquid use of ideology by authoritarian regimes, and the West’s own difficulties in projecting democratic values have redefined the threat of propaganda. The Transitions Forum’s ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series investigates these challenges and aims to identify solutions.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.