To fact-check or not to fact-check?

When the torrent of mis- and disinformation is more than anyone can handle, you have to learn to pick and choose, or risk being overwhelmed by trivia

Graphic of a person spinning plates
Graphic of a person spinning plates

It’s a regular conundrum for journalists and fact-checkers: they come across, or are sent, a post, video, photo, or meme that, on the surface, looks like it needs to be fact-checked. But the flood of such information has become such that it’s not humanly possible to keep up with it.

Indeed, this is a tactic that those wishing to control and manipulate information networks try to use — Steve Bannon infamously said the way to wrongfoot the media was to “flood the zone with shit”.
(original — Bloomberg: subscription)

But all information is not equal. And when it feels like you’re about to be overwhelmed, there are a few criteria you can set to help you decide what needs your immediate attention, what can be pushed onto the back-burner and monitored, and what can be safely ignored.

Graphic outlining criteria for deciding what needs to be fact-checked
Graphic outlining criteria for deciding what needs to be fact-checked

It always feels good to be among the first to find something, and a journalist’s instinct is to report. But how did it come to your attention? Did you fish it out with obscure search terms? Were you alerted to it by someone else? Could it have been a deliberate effort by someone trying to increase engagement by targeting media?

If it’s only circulating among a few barely-followed Twitter accounts, or in a feverish corner of the chan-swamp, do you want to be the one responsible for bringing it to a mass audience?

Be wary, also, of following simple metrics without looking into their underlying causes. So much of the statistical information online is driven by artifical and/or automated activity. Something may be doing great numbers — it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s getting under the noses of real people. Unless, of course, you put it there.

Flat earth, chemtrails, shape-shifting lizard people… there are few theories out there that haven’t gained some level of following. But try to exercise at least some judgment on what should get an airing. If it seems highly unlikely that anyone beyond the usual suspects is going to believe it, then it’s probably ok to leave it, at least until you’re finished dealing with something that could quickly gain mass acceptance.

Even if it meets the first two conditions, it may well be harmless fluff. You may still want to run a fact-check at some point — particularly if your publication likes quirky, off-beat stories. But the level of urgency should be dictated by the potential consequences — a claim about a “miracle cure” that is toxic if misused should outrank a video of a dog that can seemingly sing The Yellow Rose of Texas (Memo to self: This isn’t the reality in many newsrooms).

I haven’t included it in the graphic, but you also need to understand what can actually be fact-checked. Examine the content carefully, separate specific claims from opinion and speculation — any mention of figures can be useful to quickly pinpoint some of these — and identify the resources, such as official statistics or qualified experts, that will help you to confirm or debunk.

In the end, it’s about exercising judgment. The idea of the media as a “gatekeeper” isn’t one I’m particularly keen on — it conjures up images of paternalistic condescension toward a public that seemingly can’t be trusted to look after itself.

Wizard of Oz gatekeeper scene
Wizard of Oz gatekeeper scene

I prefer to think of the role as that of an interpeter, a provider of a service that helps that public come to its own conclusions.

Information is powerful. Treat it with respect, and handle it with care.

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