In June, inside a crowded auditorium of the Oslo Met University in Norway, YouTube’s Brandon Feldman was fielding questions from fact-checkers from around the world.
Feldman had just finished a “fireside chat” with Baybars Orsek, the director of the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN), when he was bombarded with questions from the audience.
To the applause of fellow fact-checkers, one speaker after another exposed YouTube’s failure to stop the spread of false information on the platform.
A participant from Pakistan’s Soch Factcheck said he came across a flood of potentially fatal false claims on YouTube. Others exposed videos with hate speech that went unchecked. Feldman promised reform, but it was too little, too late to appease fact-checkers.
I was in Oslo for the annual Global Fact 9 Summit, the first in-person conference in three years with nearly 500 participants from 69 nations.
I clicked through our own South Asia Check and showed articles debunking conspiracy theories around Covid-19.
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In one session, employees of TikTok, a short-video platform that is becoming increasingly popular in Nepal, spoke about how they were tackling information disorder on the platform. There was a session on automated fact-checking. At another panel, a Meta speaker noted that Facebook does not moderate political content.
After a week of this, I was a little overwhelmed by the work that lay ahead back in Nepal which is having federal and provincial elections on 20 November. If the local election in May was any indication, this one too would be fought on social media platforms.
Balen Shah and Sunita Dangol, who ran for mayor and deputy mayor of Kathmandu in May were the targets of rumours and false information. Disinformation actors aim to delegitimise candidates or attack rivals with propaganda. The objective is to influence, if not manipulate, public discourse.
With easy access to the Internet, more Nepalis are getting news and entertainment through their mobiles. This will inevitably lead to a proliferation of falsehood because social media algorithms promote clicks that are designed to attract users, and keep them on the platform.
Both Facebook and TikTok have features that help content go viral. During significant news events, such as elections, people unknowingly share false information (also called misinformation) with significant impact on the integrity of the electoral process.
Fact-checking, supporting media literacy initiatives, and media monitoring during elections can all contribute to fostering trust in public institutions.
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One of the reasons we started NepalCheck.Org as the elections approached was to combat misinformation. But it is difficult to distinguish fact from fake, truth from trolls, and most importantly, to expose public officials who are lying. The fact-check report must be supported by reliable, authoritative evidence.
How do we do it? The same tools that help spread misinformation and disinformation can also be employed to identify and debunk false claims.
We conduct keyword searches on Google to verify information. Finding problematic online content requires constant social media monitoring. Since the news is the main source of false information, fact-checkers must be up to date on current affairs.
Online search skills are also crucial. But there is a catch: you have to keep refining your searches and building on what you find in order to identify the origin of a misleading photo or video.
Since fact-checking started in the US in the early 2000s, a lot has changed. It picked up steam during the 2016 US presidential elections. Recent international events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, have demonstrated how you can find the truth by utilising information that is publicly available.
It has prompted the creation of novel tactics such as open-source intelligence, which assesses data from readily available sources using more sophisticated technologies to combat misinformation.
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Despite the rise in popularity of fact-checking, the pervasiveness of viral disinformation makes it appear like an intractable challenge. A quote often attributed to American author Mark Twain succinctly captures the situation: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is putting on its shoes.”
In my two and a half years as a fact-checking editor, I have occasionally felt like I am up against powerful fake news factories. Only a small portion of online misinformation and disinformation can be fact-checked.
New studies in ‘inoculation theory’, have given me hope for a better future. Researchers from the universities of Bristol and Cambridge in the UK found that users can more effectively battle misinformation and disinformation if they are aware of the techniques used to distribute it.
A total of 30,000 participants watched video clips to become more familiar with manipulative strategies, including employing polarising and emotional language. The study advocated immunising people against the tactics of misinformation and disinformation, drawing on the psychological concept of ‘inoculation’.
Exposure to less harmful disinformation can aid in the development of a person’s defences against propaganda and misleading claims, much like a vaccine does.
As we progressively recover from the Covid-19 pandemic thanks to the vaccine, let us hope that a new vaccination will be an effective tool against the ‘infodemic’.
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Deepak Adhikari is the editor of NepalCheck.Org, a new bilingual fact-checking platform in Nepal. He was the editor of South Asia Check from March 2020 to July 2022.