Fact-checkers and the social media misinformation tsunami: A Q&A with Lucas Graves



Angie Drobnic Holan

Not so many years ago, fact-checking went hand-in-hand with elections reporting and political journalism. With the rise of social media, though, fact-checkers have spent more and more time debunking online misinformation, viral memes and other hoax content.

That shift has raised an important question for those who analyze and follow the work of fact-checkers: Has online misinformation reduced the amount of attention from fact-checkers to elections fact-checking and the fact-checking of government?

Professor Lucas Graves of the University of Wisconsin attempts to answer that question in his latest paper, “From Public Reason to Public Health: Professional Implications of the ‘Debunking Turn’ in the Global Fact-Checking Field,” written with colleagues Valérie Bélair-Gagnon and Rebekah Larsen.

“What practitioners call ‘debunking,’ once a minor focus, now dominates the agenda of leading outlets and accounts for the bulk of fact-checks produced worldwide, driven in part by commercial partnerships between fact-checkers and platform companies,” they wrote.

Graves is one of the foremost chroniclers of the fact-checking community, both in the United States and internationally. His 2016 book, “Deciding What’s True: The rise of fact-checking in American journalism,” charted the rise of the U.S. fact-checkers, while his subsequent scholarship has looked at the growth of fact-checking worldwide and what it means for the globalization of journalism.

Graves had a recent online conversation with Angie Drobnic Holan, director of the International Fact-Checking Network, about his findings and their implications for the fact-checking community.

Angie Drobnic Holan: Thanks for talking with the IFCN, Lucas. I think we can all agree that online debunking has come to dominate fact-checking in a way it didn’t in our earlier years. How did you document this shift, and what years would you say it really got going?

Lucas Graves: The shift has been unmistakable to anyone who follows fact-checking, but it’s tricky to document because we don’t have perfect data. I think the most striking evidence comes from Thomas van Damme’s brilliant master’s thesis analyzing five years of worldwide ClaimReview data, which shows the spike beginning 2017 and 2018, with debunking shooting up to about two-thirds of global output in 2020. That sample overrepresents partners in Meta’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program program, but it’s clear that 3PFC partners have driven much of the overall growth in fact-checking, especially in Asia. It says something that AFP launched its fact-checking unit just in 2017 and is the biggest fact-checker in the world today.

You see the same shift looking at how many long-standing political fact-checkers have evolved in recent years. For instance, by my quick unscientific count just now, only about 21 of the last 100 fact checks on PolitiFact focus on public figures. It’s the same story at Full Fact, Africa Check, and others — debunks dominate the day-to-day output, though that’s partly because they can be published much more quickly.

Holan: What did fact-checkers tell you about the pros and cons of platform partnerships? And did you get any sense of the roles that different platforms played, such as Meta vs. YouTube vs. TikTok?

Graves: Fact-checkers have a very nuanced view of these partnerships. Nobody is under any illusions about what motivates globe-spanning tech firms to work with them, and as a rule fact-checkers want more transparency about what the algorithms are doing with their work and what the long-term impacts are. But fact-checkers from very different parts of the world all mentioned how rewarding it is to debunk some hoax and know that it has an immediate, concrete effect in making that post less visible. That doesn’t happen when you check politicians or major media outlets.

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