Election cycles can spark a huge amount of misinformation and disinformation. But fact-checkers can counteract the noise, providing a vital counterweight.
What is an event-based approach?
Event-based fact-checking is a comprehensive approach to tackling mis- and disinformation related to a single event, scheduled well in advance. The most common events for such an approach are elections or referenda, which usually occur on a predictable timetable or can reliably be assumed to take place by a certain date, such as the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom or the US election in November 2020. This type of fact-checking is most often conducted by a newspaper or other media unit marshalling significant professional resources. The fact-checking begins months (and occasionally more than a year) in advance of election day. The fact-checkers consider not just the statements made by politicians and other public actors, they also attempt to counteract the power of bots, trolls and other malicious actors to spread disinformation and manipulate the public into voting a certain way. As such, event-based fact-checking usually works on multiple platforms, including social media, print newspapers, television and radio.
What kinds of mis- and disinformation does this approach most effectively address?
Event-based fact-checking most effectively deals with disinformation propagated by politicians running in elections (or advocating for particular positions in a referenda) and other participants in public events. It is also useful in countering planned disinformation campaigns orchestrated by other state or private actors seeking to subvert democratic debate. For example, false claims about past performance records, public programs or proposed policies can be counteracted with this approach. It also aims to block malicious rumor campaigns orchestrated to undermine specific candidates or contenders on social media.
What are the advantages of this approach?
Event-based fact-checking can effectively counter disinformation campaigns directed at specific decisions being made by states or by the general public through elections or referenda. The advantage is that additional resources can be mustered in advance and fact-checkers can anticipate the general areas that are likely to produce disinformation or fake news with sufficient preparation. Specific temporary outlets can be created solely for the purpose of checking facts relating to a single event so that the work of fact-checkers can be concentrated and the public can be directed to a dedicated source of fact-checking. By preparing in advance, fact-checkers can deliver rapid-response checks to information, sometimes even before it can go viral on social media. Robo-checking systems can also process claims of political actors against publicly available records.
What are some of the challenges for this approach?
Preparation for events can be expensive and time consuming. In the case of elections and other major public events, it may be difficult to compete with the increased quantity of news, both legitimate and purposefully false, that will be generated. Trust among the public must already be established so that people are willing to accept the judgement of these specially created outlets. At the same time, the speed of event-based fact-checking can be manipulated or hijacked by those seeking to gain quick credibility through the endorsement or even the amplification effect of condemnation by fact-checking organizations.
How does it compare to other approaches?
This approach is only appropriate in cases of events that are predictable. Breaking news situations or disinformation campaigns that are not organized around a scheduled event cannot be targeted in this way. Event-based approaches are compatible with other techniques including investigative journalism and algorithm-based methods, but organized around pre-determined timelines.
What are some examples of (projects/organizations implementing) best practice?
In the United Kingdom, Fullfact – an independent fact-checking charity – devoted special resources to covering the vote on the British exit from the European Union and subsequently committed sections of its website to covering Brexit news and events. Since the Brexit vote and the process of its implementation were so socially contentious and subject to competing campaigns that often made false or highly debatable claims, Fullfact was able to act as a neutral arbiter beyond the partisan competition of both the Leave and Remain campaigns.
In Ghana Penplusbytes, a non-governmental organization set up a social media tracking tool. By using software programmed with keywords to track what Ghanaians are posting online during the polling in 2016, the organization aims to pick up on problems on the ground and get them resolved quickly. Penplusbytes has partnered with several official organizations and NGOs, including Ghana's Electoral Commission, the National Election Security Taskforce (which includes army and police) and a coalition of domestic election observers so that it can directly pass on its reports to those responsible.
In Brazil, Comprova aimed to use automated techniques to conduct real-time checking of political claims by politicians during the 2018 election campaign. Using publicly available records about past voting records and policy decisions, Comprova inputs claims into a system that can rapidly check the veracity of public statements and thus immediately counter disinformation on the campaign trail.
Nuts and Bolts:
Costs: high for independent research and development, especially in cases of automation;
Funding: self-funding by media outlets or grants from foundations;
Topics: elections and other high-profile voting-based public events such as referenda;
Inputs: online news, social media, political events;
Outputs: dedicated websites, social media accounts and media interviews.
Related resources: First Draft’s Essential Guides
Deutsche Welle Akademie, Investigative Journalism Dossier
Washington Post, Fact Checker