The challenges of online fact checking: how technology can (and can’t) help

17 December 2020 | Phoebe Arnold

Full Fact has carried out research into the main challenges faced by fact checkers around the world when finding and checking claims which appear in online places. The resulting report is based on interviews with nineteen fact checkers across the globe, and includes ideas for helping to address some of the most common challenges, with a focus on technology and internet company partnerships.

Download the report (pdf)

Over the past few years online misinformation has become a concern for many fact checking organisations. Many have expanded their monitoring to include online platforms and adopted new skill sets and tools. 

Internet company collaborations have helped fact checkers build their profiles and clout. Alongside this high profile criticism and scrutiny have increased, as have legal threats and harassment, in common with other types of journalism and campaigning.

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The practical challenges of online fact checking are varied

Within the monitoring and selection process, fact checkers are grappling with large pools of potential claims to check, questions over how to define virality, the opaque nature of some platforms, and worries about whether cyber armies are gaming reporting. 

When it comes to researching the accuracy of a claim, fact checkers experience challenges including accessibility of information and the transparency of authorities, highly repetitive claims and research tasks, and changes to or discontinuation of online investigation tools. 

When publishing and distributing their work, challenges include grappling with the demand for fact checks from internet companies and the impact of these partnerships, internet shutdowns, the large effort required to set up new social media channels, and the difficulty of sustaining media partnerships. 

How can technology and technology companies help?

While technology already assists fact checkers and could be put to further use, particularly in terms of monitoring, claim matching, distribution and managing communities, there are limits to its effectiveness, as many of the challenges experienced by fact checkers are dependent on the political situation within a country. Technology cannot immediately resolve issues such as obtaining information from certain governments or lack of transparency and access to information. Meanwhile, technology is viewed with skepticism by fact checkers, with many believing that the phrase “automated fact checking” describes a project to misguidedly automate processes that require human judgments.

Up until now, fact checking organisations have generally reacted to proposals from internet companies in a piecemeal and unsystematic way, for example signing up individually to Facebook’s fact checking program before having joint discussions or asking collectively for certain conditions. This is understandable: the use of non-disclosure agreements is common, and many organisations struggle to simply keep head above water day-to-day, especially in pandemic conditions this year. 

Nevertheless, fact checkers now need to consider these questions. It is vital that we identify where there are opportunities to work together more effectively to protect fact checkers’ financial security and to ensure that fact checkers are proactively determining how our work is re-used by third parties in the online world beyond our websites. 

We are grateful to Facebook for funding this report, and would like to thank all the fact checkers and other colleagues who generously contributed their time to this research. 

Download the report (pdf)

Updates 18 December 2020:

Since we conducted these interviews, Pesa Check has expanded from three countries to twelve, and has syndication partnerships with eight media organisations in Kenya. Pesa Check now covers Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mali, Central African Republic, Côte D’Ivoire, Niger, Cameroon, Burundi, Guinea, Burkina Faso.

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