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Busting the Viral: Fact-checking on social media

An interview with three groups and organisations working on fact checking: Africa Check, Stop Fake and Verify Syria.

Despite fact-checking being under the focus of various groups, scholars, journalists and activists; it was brought into the mainstream recently during the US presidential debate. At the centre of the social media storm surrounding the US presidential debate, fact checking occupied centre stage.

The debate started by calls to fact-check the candidates, or rather one of them, developing into whether the moderator should be fact-checking the candidates or not in the first place. While many insisted that part of a journalist's job is to check facts they share, the Commission on Presidential Debates had a different approach: “leave the fact-checking to the candidates.” This sparked a much wider response with contributions from major media outlets and from many on social media; and accusations on both sides of the US presidential campaigns.

On one candidate's side the argument was that “moderators should moderate”, while on the other campaign a 'How To' fact-checking guide was released; yet it only worked to fact check the rival candidate and not as a public tool for both. Whether it is for one candidate's benefit or the misfortune of the rival, the debate clearly shows that fact-checking left professional corridors and entered into the wider public discussion. 

In times when news moves faster than ever in an increasingly polarised world, where “viral” rules over facts; from state propaganda, news blown out of proportion, fabricated statistics, misplaced images, wrongfully attributed videos, and twisted facts masqueraded as studies; accuracy is key for many facing life-or-death situations.

In the face of all of this, verification becomes crucial and a key tool for many, from human rights organisations to media outlets to the general public. In the following piece we interview the following three groups and organisations working on fact checking: 

Africa Check / South Africa

Africa Check is a non-profit organisation based in South Africa working "to promote accuracy in public debate and the media in Africa. The goal of our work is to raise the quality of information available to society across the continent."

Stop Fake from Ukraine

StopFake, a fact-checking website launched by faculty and alumni of The Mohyla School of Journalism and students from the Digital Future of Journalism programme for journalists and editors, and whose main purpose is to “check facts, verify information, and refute verifiable disinformation about events in Ukraine covered in the media.”

Verify Syria

Verify Syria, a platform created by a group of Syrian journalists and activists that “came from the huge false media materials, related to Syria, published mainly on social media, causing the Syrian revolution media to lose credibility.” They work to detect false and fabricated news on media platforms and to correct the information delivering accurate news to the public.

The human factor

The three platforms we interviewed agree on the challenges faced within the fact-checking sphere. Apart from lack of sufficient funding in certain cases, and for some groups the lack of access to tools and technical resources, fact-checking remains under the challenge of time and a race against the viral spread the unchecked original receives. It is also strained under the desire to score a scoop. By the time needed for a team of fact-checkers to prove a piece of news wrong or right, it is sometimes shared and read by thousands who multiply the exposure with every click and interaction pushing the manipulated news higher on the algorithm of social media platforms. Once this misinformation is out there it is considerably harder to try to get the information taken down or corrected than it would be in the first place to verify it.

Intentions, good or bad, matter little when it comes to accurate or misleading information. Though some might share a piece of news in the hope to help others, Africa Check's editor Anim van Wyk tells of cases where the spread of inaccurate or false information had its toll on human life. For example the case where two people died and 20 hospitalised over the unfounded yet widely-spread information around a cure for Ebola spread via BBM messages in Nigeria. 

A sign that says “[w]atch out ! The Ebola threat is for real” is displayed in downtown Abidjan, Ivory Coast, as part of steps to prevent the deadly virus from reaching this West African nation. Photo: AFP/Issouf Sanogo. Found here

Manual labour in most cases is the basis for debunking lies and misinformation, and the work is far from being an automated task or left in the hands of an algorithm. Methodologies for fact checking and verification could vary like the tools used, despite common denominators. But the three organisations we interviewed all agree that the human factor is key.

Verify Syria, an independent volunteer-based group of journalists and activists focused on verifying news from and about Syria, depend almost entirely on manual labour. Dirar Khattab from Verify Syria (Taakad in Arabic), told Exposing the Invisible that their work is centred on their journalistic expertise, depending mainly on “at least two” verified sources “on the ground.” In certain cases they view an enormous amount of videos to verify or debunk one screenshot depending on their expert eye in the territories in Syria and the concurrent seasonal changes. A tedious and tiresome task that Dirar contrasts with the gratification of sharing the results with the wider public, knowing that they contribute to a better understanding of the situation in Syria.

Image taken from Verify Syria correcting news concerning Turkish soldiers providing food and water to Syrian women and children. The image being used was from an event that happened two years prior in Turkey.

StopFake also speak of a “journalistic approach” where they would approach authorities to get official statements on unverified news related to the State. In the case where two contradictory versions of the same news prove hard to check and chose from, both versions are posted to show the conflictive narrative thus highlighting the contradiction. They also depend on users sending news to be verified, and with time and accumulated experience, now StopFake has a list of websites known for spreading fabricated news in a systematic way and they monitor them regularly. On the other hand Maria Zhdanova, media spokesperson of StopFake, spoke of two generalised categories of websites, ones with wide reach and what seems like a credible public image, and those are monitored by StopFake; and conspiracy blogs which are rather ignored due to restricted reach and the outrageous exaggeration that is easy to spot by the general public.

Beyond social media 

Fact checking and verification tend to focus on media, journalism and social media platforms; but politicians and political/NGO campaigns also sometimes fall prey to manipulation and distortions. Africa Check holds this as one of its main objectives in defense of a democratic society. “For democracy to function, public figures need to be held to account for what they say. The claims they make need to be checked, openly and impartially” reads their website.

Anim from Africa Check highlights that some stats could be accurate in a certain context, but one should “be careful with big databases even that of the World Bank, the UN, or the WHO. You need to look at the source and timely nature of that data. Be critical about data sources, and ask exactly how this was determined and what could've influenced the accuracy. Is it recent? Is it still describing our current reality? Evaluating each source on its own, and evaluating if it is accurate or not.” She continues to ask individuals, organisations and the press to “be careful when you hear something is the worst in the world, or best in the world; or all Africans, or all Zimbabweans. Some include polls run on websites and make headlines out of them. Polls that are definitely not representative of the entire population of a specific country but rather of the visitors to that website.” Sensationalist titles rarely carry facts in the body of articles. media has taken journalism and reporting of news beyond the traditional confinement of established journalistic institution, accountability is diluted in the absence of a clearly identifiable source. Dirar Khattab tells us: “The rise and spread of social media platform, though has a positive outcome, also posed a widely-publicised platform for many, whether individuals or groups, to spread fabricated news and have the receptive audience for it. This is how we started thinking of the project Verify Syria.”

Debunking fake news on both sides

Both StopFake and Verify Syria work in a polarised political context both locally and internationally, and both of them affirm that they holdvno bias but rather debunk fake news from both sides of the spectrum andveveryone in between. For example, StopFake stays away from Ukrainianvgovernment funding to maintain independency and agency over what theyvwork on.

Verify Syria verifies news from many of the different parties involvedvin the aggravated situation in Syria, however they speak of a differencevin approach to fake news between the state-sponsored or regime-loyalist media and some opposition portals. They see more collaboration from the latter in admitting mistakes in reporting which they interpret as coming from lack of experience, or over excitement to share what they believe are pressing human rights violations as opposed to pro-regime platforms that are more consistent and systematic in their fabrications and less-to-non cooperation when it comes to taking down false news. They also witnessed huge disparity in the production of fabricated news between the two sides, weighing predominantly towards state-sponsored or pro-regime media and websites. This is echoed in the work of StopFake which hasn't witnessed much correction of debunked news from state-sponsored media or those close to the Russian government such as Russia Today and Sputnik. Maria from StopFake told Exposing the Invisible that around the initial launch of their website the server couldn't handle the load of visitors reflecting the public interest in such platforms especially in countries with sensitive contexts.

StopFake is under much attention, but so far it hasn't been a threatening journey for them, one reason being that the organisation members are not public figures making it harder to target them. Yet, they have been verbally attacked by pro-Putin journalists and individuals during public appearances in conferences. In addition to not being widely identifiable, Maria highlights the non-centralised structure of the work and the fact that they mostly work online and remotely from each other, as a form of protection. Similar to the work of the volunteers and activists within Verify Syria. Their presence in various countries (Turkey, Germany and Syria), and the protection of their sources in Syria from the public eye, is a challenge and a form of protection.

Case Study: The methodology behind the verification of videos and images at StopFake

Artem Babak, who identifies himself as a 'fact checker', shared with us his methodology of verification of videos and images at StopFake.

For videos, Artem speaks first of 'details', he says: “sometimes there are details in the shots that tell us it is fake.” In the following example from StopFake, the team looked at shadows of the people in video, the speed by which a burying pit was filled, and the appearance/disappearance of objects in the footage; all to prove it is fabricated. Through this step by step process StopFake shows how small details can lead to big conclusions.

Image taken from StopFake of the burying pit mentioned above

All groups use and emphasise reverse image searches whether for video or photos. Artem recommends in the case of videos - reverse searching through using the icon of the video. When looking into a YouTube video, Artem recommends right clicking on the thumbnail image to run a reverse image search because usually “fake and original video often have the same icons.” Artem also recommends using the YouTube Data Viewer, a tool made by Amnesty International and Citizen Evidence, which extracts the exact upload date and runs a reverse image search on the thumbnail image of the video. In the case of non-YouTube videos Artem suggests taking a screen capture of some of the “most juicy scenes” and run a reverse image search. “If you are lucky, your search engine will show you similar pictures that might lead to the original video.”

For photos Artem highly recommended installing RevEye Reverse Image Search on Chrome. With it you can easily carry out reverse image searches by= using any or all of these different search websites such as Google, Yandex, Bing, TinEye, and Baidu (for Chinese search results). Artem is a fan of TinEye in particular, and favours its results over other engines. “Sometimes TinEye can not find anything. But when it shows you something - you can be sure that this is something important. Plus it has convenient filters and ordering options (by date, most changed image, and so on). Artem stresses the importance of using all these websites and not to restrict searches to Google Image Search.

While Artem prefers TinEye, he highlights two aspects of Google Image Search that he finds quite useful. First the option to set date intervals allows users to cut everything that was posted outside of the date range of interest. In the context of the war in Ukraine he says “it is almost perfect.” Another option he is fond of is Google search through using the code "site:" when searching for something. It enables users to hide all websites from a specific domain. For example, by adding -site:ru Google will not show Russian websites in the search results. 

Another tactic Artem uses for checking images is to take a look at 'hidden data' (metadata) of an image to know if it was edited by a particular editing software, such as Photoshop. He uses ImgOps or Jeffrey's Metadata Viewer although he favours ImgOps for its “friendly design and wide range of options.” Another important website for looking at traces and investigating images is FotoForensics. Though for Artem he realised that “after few experiments I found it useless. By adding simple blurring into edited pictures you can trick Fotoforensics.”

Looking at image metadata and investigating images is not a task foreign to Exposing the Invisible. In our guide Decoding Data we included a chapter on metadata with recommendations on some tools.

Checking themselves

Africa Check shares the concerns of the other two groups in making sure everything they post is “100% accurate.” Anim says “It is a big challenge to be a fact-checking organisation as we can't afford any mistakes. With everything we publish we have to be 100% sure of every little detail in it to avoid any mistakes.” But she continues by highlighting this key point “yet, it is important to highlight that mistakes do happen and we openly correct them to encourage others and lead by example to admit mistakes and issue corrections.” 

Dirar from Verify Syria agrees with Africa Check on that but shares a personal frustration between his hunches and his commitment to providing evidence. “Sometimes we cant find evidence that something is not true, and it is frustrating when this happens, especially when we know for sure it is not true. Yet, we don't make it public without evidence.”

Image taken from Africa Check 

The responsibility of all 

All three organisations and groups we interviewed agree that it is crucial for social media users themselves to double check sources and fact check news before sharing them. This is key in fighting the spread of lies and fabricated news restricting impact and consequences. The three groups encourage and advocate user participation in the fact-checking process, both on their platforms and as an individual responsibility before sharing news. Verify Syria, like StopFake and Africa Check, invites users to contribute news or to help verify facts and debunk lies. Dirar advises social media users to double check the news before they share it, extending his pleas for users to think about the impact false news could have on families stranded in Syria or scattered in countries of refuge. He recounts a case of false news being spread about victims of an attack where the family of the alleged victim were notified and his mother almost lost her life to the shock. To him, news verification is not only a political and journalistic ethical question, but also as a responsibility understanding the impacts false news might have on people's lives and wellbeing both physical and emotional.

With many thanks to Africa CheckStopFake and Verify Syria, in particular to Anim, Artem, Dirar and Maria.  Africa Check can be found here and followed on Twitter here. StopFake can be found here and followed on Twitter here. Verify Syria can be found here and followed on Twitter here.