28 March 2019
As part of the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, FactCheckNI hosted a lunchtime seminar on the importance of fact checking, not only for facts’ sake but including perspectives from data science, journalism, and academic research. The proposition was that facts are a crucial but not exclusive source of information, and that by appreciating the interplay of facts, opinion, and power, we may have a better understanding of how human nature is responding to the dynamic of social media, for better and worse.
The panellists were Allan Leonard (Editor, FactCheckNI), Harith Alani (Professor of Web Sciences, Open University), Linda Keys (Data Scientist, NISRA), and Kathleen Carragher (former Head of Content, BBC NI). The event was sponsored by Linen Quarter BID. An edited video of the event was created by Alan Meban (Chair, FactCheckNI Advisory Group):
“We’re at Level 2”
Allan Leonard began with a definition of fact checking — a claim that can be verified or debunked — and that you can’t fact check someone’s opinion nor the future. He said that it is also important to consider the social, political, and cultural context in which claims are made.
Leonard presented his untested “theory of truth”, a multilayered sphere — perhaps as levels of reality. At the core is data — words and numbers inherently without meaning — that provide facts. Facts provide information, but not all information is objective: “It’s our personal experiences, how we interpret events.” Opinions don’t even need to be based on any facts or information, he added. Finally, encompassing it all is one’s values and beliefs — a summary of your worldview.
“The challenge of fact checkers,” Leonard said, “is that we’re at Level 2 (Facts). We’re dealing with words and data and claims that either can or cannot be debunked. The tricky bit is the Information sphere — here, what is the role of fact checkers, journalists, and politicians?”
Leonard concluded with a resume of his organisation’s work, including training in schools, communities, and government agencies. He described FactCheckNI’s research projects, such as Google’s Fact Check Tools; FactCheckEU; and a European Commission Horizon 2020 project, Co-Inform.
Bridging the gap
Hartih Alani is a professor of Web Sciences at the Open University, which is a fellow partner of the Co-Inform project, funded by the EU in order to tackle misinformation by fostering critical thinking and digital literacy.
Alani noted that there is a gap between the work produced by the many fact checking organisations globally and the social media platforms. Whereas it is easier to script an article to go viral on social media, it takes more time to correct articles of misinformation. One of the objectives of Co-Inform, Alani explained, is to use computer science to automatically spot false claims and show the corrective fact-check article.
Alani showed some examples (good, bad, and ugly), where a fact-check article was produced promptly enough and had the positive effect of quashing the false claim immediately and over time. Another example demonstrated the lag time between claim and fact-check article, where the falsehood flourished in the interim. Yet another example revealed that the fact-check article had initial success, but the original false claim kept re-emerging. Co-Inform wants to understand these relationships so as to know how best to intervene.
Acknowledging the truth that we may be good at spotting others’ biases but not so good at our own, Alani said that one challenge is having people recognise that they need digital tools that could help them prevent the spread of misinformation. He showed how Co-Inform is exploring the development of a tool that analyses what misinformation you (or your friends or enemies) have spread through Twitter accounts. More insightful is comparing your score with others as well as the composition of your network.
Data for the public good
Linda Keys’ work concentrates mainly on economic and labour market statistics for the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), whose goal is “to present trusted statistics for a better society”. Keys explained that NISRA wants to be the principal source for statistics in Northern Ireland, and operates for the public good. She added that to have people come to NISRA for research and sources of information requires trustworthiness, quality, and value. This was demonstrated by the fact that NISRA data rarely gets misrepresented, because of the good relationships that NISRA maintains with news media outlets, who NISRA is always ready to assist with explanations of it data products.
With the UK exiting the EU, Keys explained that there have been many requests by the public for all sorts of data, especially in regards to trade and movement. Instead of providing just one source of data for trade issues, for example, NISRA has worked to show a more complete picture in an accessible format. She showed an example of an infographic that NISRA produced:
Striving for accuracy
Kathleen Carragher began her journalism career working for several newspapers, before contributing to radio and television programmes and becoming head of BBC News Northern Ireland. She told the audience that she had always aimed to produce accurate stories: “There’s nothing worse than getting your facts wrong.”
She described some traditional challenges that all journalists face: hearing different claims from many voices; being accused of censorship if you don’t publish (because of not having sufficient or reliable enough information); and the pressures of tight deadlines (which can lead to unchecked sources of information).
Carragher said that in the public debate on Brexit, there is an imperative to present facts. Here, journalists do rely on organisations such as NISRA for accurate information. She added that a journalist’s job is to show the facts as we know them to be, but not to tell the public what they should do with the information: “They can make their own judgements in the end.” Carragher remarked that with increased pressures, it is good to have organisations like FactCheckNI.