Hoaxes, myths and lies: a driving force for a more collaborative media?

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CrossCheck is the brainchild of First Draft, a non-profit initiative dedicated to improving skills and standards in the reporting, working in collaboration with Google News Lab. It is supported by 37 news organisations covering this year’s French presidential elections. The project was launched on 6 January this year with it’s primary focus to ensure that hoax stories, rumours and false claims in the run-up to the French election are debunked while misleading or confusing stories are accurately reported.

Bringing together expertise from the media and technology industries to launch a project of this magnitude and complexity does not happen overnight. Or as Jenni Sargent, managing director at First Draft revealed at FIPP’s Digital Innovators’ Summit (DIS) in Berlin in March, they first had to get all 60 participating journalists together in a chateau in Paris “to play table football and have a good drink” to start trusting each other. “These are competing newsrooms who have never worked together before. So sharing their verification processes and flagging to each other to identify that something is fake is effectively scooping each other,” explains Sargent.

CrossCheck (First Draft)

Participating newsrooms now collaborate to verify the authenticity of reports flagged up by the public or journalists that could possibly be fabricated. As soon as all newsrooms have endorsed a report, it can be confidently shared on social media and also carries a visual icon to confirm the fact that all the news organisations are endorsing its validity. Both verified and false reports (with their own ‘hoax’ visual icons) are shared on a live blog on the First Draft website.

Claire Wardle, a director at First Draft says after three months it’s difficult to accurately quantify how many false stories, rumours or hoaxes they have prevented from taking hold on digital platforms and social media but with 250 questions submitted by the public and 50 follow up verification stories posted on the blog, this was much more than they first anticipated.

Some degree of success can be measured in the hoaxes they have identified. She references a report shared on Twitter on 2 March by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a French parliamentarian and niece of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, in which it is claimed that another presidential candidate, Emmanuel Macron, is Saudi Arabia’s “preferred candidate” in the election. After a brief verification process CrossCheck revealed the fake news article did not come from Agence France-Presse — as the byline claims — and lesoir.info is not the Belgian newspaper Le Soir’s official website – it is lesoir.be. The clone site uses exactly the same font, design and page layout as the newspaper’s site. However, the domain for the clone site lesoir.info is registered to someone in Delaware in the United States.

Wardle says stories like the above example are often circulating in closed Facebook groups, but once it is tweeted by persons of interest – like Marine Le Pen’s niece in this case – it can gain real traction. CrossCheck’s verification process aims to debunk and expose the claims and hopes to prevent the hoax story from being shared further.

One of the most positive aspects of CrossCheck is that the public embraced it, asking questions via CrossCheck’s online form, which is embedded on all news partner websites, with some insisting that specific pieces of content shared on social media be checked out.

As for the future of CrossCheck, Wardle warns that it is still early days. “We have always said that CrossCheck is a laboratory. When the election is over, we need to do a thorough ‘autopsy’ to see what worked and what didn’t. Did audiences see our debunks? Did it stop them from sharing? Did trust in the debunk increase because there were multiple newsroom partners working together? Did we amplify rumours that would have been better left quiet? There are many questions.”

The same goes for the practice of using visual icons to indicate that content has been verified successfully.  

One thing is certain though – when it comes to misinformation it is closed messaging apps, groups and emails that poses the greatest challenge. “We don’t know what people are sharing so it’s impossible to try and fight those rumours. This is going to be one of the biggest challenges.”

The CrossCheck process:

  • When a reader sees an image, video, comment, quote or claim on a digital platform (or hears a rumour) they submit a question on the CrossCheck form, which is embedded on all news partner websites.
  • Partner newsrooms investigate claims and questions as well as posts and stories that have been flagged by using tools such as CrowdTangle, NewsWhip and Google Trends.
  • A project editor writes a summary report to be sent to participating editors.
  • Agence-France Presse reviews final reports and publish findings to the CrossCheck website.
  • CrossCheck posts can be shared by readers through social media and email, and is also shared through a newsfeed on the CrossCheck Facebook page and Twitter handle.

Useful links:

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