Overcoming closed borders: opening up fact-checking solutions

Overcoming closed borders: opening up fact-checking solutions
Interview with Giovanni ZAGNI (Director, Pagella Politica)
by Allan LEONARD
24 November 2020

“I haven’t seen some of my colleagues in six months,” remarked Giovanni Zagni, director of Pagella Politica, based in Milan. Conducting this interview via Zoom was a salutary reminder of unprecedented times in which we are living — never before have so many people globally have had to attempt to conduct their work, commerce, research, and collaboration remotely. Fact checkers may be more accustomed to applying their digital skills from anywhere — online access permitting — but remote camaraderie is a new phenomenon.

The pandemic has concentrated the efforts of fact-checking organisations around the world. Many are signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network, which initiated a CoronaVirusFacts Alliance. This project has produced a compilation of COVID-19 related fact checks and an overview of how the claims themselves spread across the globe, mirroring the epicentres of the virus infection itself.

Zagni explained how the pandemic affected his organisation’s work. “Pagella Politica translates as ‘political scorecard’, which ran the risk of people thinking that we were politicising the pandemic. So we created another fact-checking website called Facta.news, which is currently mostly populated with COVID-19 material but is ready for more non-political articles.”

Facta.news is organised by two main categories, fact checks (‘antibufale’, or hoaxes) and explainers (stories). Zagni deems that the site has been a success to date: “Facta is receiving about 80-90% of user traffic as that of Pagella Politica, and that’s with just after eight months’ existence in comparison with eight years’ of Pagella Politica.”

Pagella Politica has several EU-funded projects underway, including one for media literacy and critical thinking training in a set of schools in Italy. This project is called SPOTTED, and although the mitigating lockdowns have prevented the delivery of this so far, the team is working to ensure success.

Training the general public to conduct their own fact checking includes providing tutorials on a variety of offline and online tools. Zagni makes a distinction between political fact checking and debunking rumours published online, and this is reflected on Pagella Politica’s website. In inspecting political claims, its fact checkers use public databases and ask the sources of the claims — often politicians themselves. If need be, the team will submit an official freedom-of-information request to authorities. In contrast, debunking mis- and disinformation found online is achieved using tools such as Trendolizer as well as public resources, such as Google’s reverse image search and Jeffrey’s Image Metadata Viewer (“an excellent tool”). Thus there are different tools for different audiences of users.

SOMA is another project that Pagella Politica is participating in. Zagni explained that SOMA is designed to benefit fact checkers and researchers more than journalists. That prompted us to have a brief discussion on the distinction between the two, including an observation that the former have demonstrated a more ready willingness to collaborate with each other, while the latter benefit from fact checkers’ output but operate in a more competitive environment. There is also the matter of different timely deadlines, where a fact checker may require a day or two to conclude with a verdict, while a journalist may have hours or minutes to submit the story.

An aim of SOMA is to bring together fact checkers, to work together on mutually beneficial assignments, using the specifically designed online platform. Zagni explained how this application of technology is different than the efforts of the major technology platforms:

“Facebook and others work inside their own platform environment and in different ways. For example, Facebook will apply treatments to postings that have been debunked by participating fact-checking organisations, as well as to postings that Facebook thinks are close enough matches. Twitter itself will choose individual tweets to label, while Google will highlight some items that appear in its search results.

“SOMA overcomes such closed borders, by providing an external reference point to any platform. We’re on a different playing field.”

Zagni is excited about the collaboration between the SOMA project and another Horizon 2020 project, Co-Inform, which is led by Stockholm University. Namely, users of Co-Inform products — which include a browser plugin and dashboard resource — will be able to submit claims, which will get delivered to the SOMA platform for enqueuing. Then, answered claims will be returned to the Co-Inform platform. Both projects’ teams have worked hard on the technology to make this happen. “I think it is great!” said Zagni.

Yet there are many more challenges ahead. First, Zagni wants to evolve the ‘external platform’ issue, so that even more European-based fact-checking organisations see the benefits of collaboration. Here, he is facilitating a conversation on the EDMO project. Second, while Zagni is encouraged by efforts to combat the relatively few items of disinformation disseminated by ‘super spreaders’, how do we address “that huge area of grey information — half-truths spread by big media and politicians?” Finally, as in much of journalism, what are the sustainable business models for fact checking? Who is willing to pay for truth?

This article is cross-published at Co-Inform.