by Ken Hunter (18 March 2016)

Do you know your facts from your opinions? Do you think to yourself, why do those politicians lie all the time? Do you filter your Facebook friends to those you agree with?

These issues were looked at during an event, “Fact or Fiction? A Myth Debunking Quiz”, hosted by FactCheckNI, and part of the Imagine! Festival of Politics & Ideas.

It seems we are bombarded daily with an ever-expanding array of news, information, sound-bites, ‘facts’ — all purporting to represent a true picture of what is going on in the world. And with the rise of social media it has never been easier for individuals and groups to publicise their views and create their own stories. In the midst of this information overload attempting to sort the truth from the errors and mistakes — or worse, the deliberate attempts to deceive and manipulate — can be difficult or even impossible.

FactCheckNI’s stated aim is to address the issue of false or misleading information in the public domain by undertaking and publishing high quality research. The quiz, hosted by Enda Young, was an entertaining and informative look at some real-life examples combined with tips on how to fact-check for ourselves using freely available online resources.

Audience members were equipped with electronic handsets that allowed them to confidentially vote ‘fact’, ‘fake’, or ‘not sure’, when presented with a series of real-life statements and assertions taken from recent media reports. These reports ranged from the amusing but trivial — this participant is still surprised to learn that it is, in fact, true that more Guinness is sold every year in Nigeria than in Ireland! — to serious and deliberate attempts to manipulate public opinion, for instance in connection with the Syrian refugee crisis.  

The variation in audience answers revealed just how difficult it can be to judge fact from fiction. It was not uncommon for opinion to be split down the middle. And it was often surprising to learn the truth behind the stories, and to see the often brazen manipulation used to spin and deceive. For example, an image of a burning Union Jack used on social media, and supposedly from a parade in Belfast, was revealed to actually be from a protest in Iran several years previously.  

Another common distortion was to twist mundane reality into ridiculous parody, as in an entertaining story from 2008 which asserted that new EU noise regulations would result in the banning of bagpipes. Investigation revealed that in reality the legislation related only to industrial noise level limits and even then only for people exposed to eight hours or more per day.   

And sometimes what seemed unlikely was revealed to be true: Donald Trump’s family really did — perhaps wisely — change their name from the original ‘Drumpf’.

All in all, an entertaining evening that combined fun with useful tips to help us all become a little more discriminating when faced with stories and assertions in the media.

FactCheckNI will launch its website on 7th April 2016, at Skainos Centre, Belfast.

FactCheckNI is funded by the Big Lottery Fund through The Building Change Trust.

Ken Hunter is a volunteer for the Northern Ireland Foundation.