Journalism and fact-checking

07. In the mind of a fact checker /

So what is a fact-checker’s working day like? What qualities do they need acquire in order to work quickly and well? Immerse yourself in the head of a fact-checker who perfectly illustrates the multifaceted aspect of fact-checking in 2020.

Sophie Malibeaux – Journalist – RFI – France

There is a kind of asymmetric war between those who manipulate and have hours’ worth of videos circulating on Twitter, and the time we have as journalists to dismantle these erections of totally nefarious theories.

I’m Sophie Malibeaux, journalist at Radio France Internationale, where I work on fact-checking and conspiracy theories in a program called ‘Les Dessous de l’Infox’.

What qualities does a fact-checker require?

Sophie Malibeaux – Journalist – RFI – France

It is to honestly question the news, to always seek to know more, to cross-reference sources. And to be wary of your own bias. To distance yourself from your beliefs, and to question the facts as they happen and not to hesitate to challenge yourself.

I don’t like the word ‘objectivity’, because we always make choices when we deal with news – or fake news, for that matter.

You must be aware of this; it’s a matter of professional honesty.

What instance of fact-checking marked you the most?

Sophie Malibeaux – Journalist – RFI – France

Ahead of elections in Guinea Conakry and Côte d’Ivoire, a State Department document virtually announced a war in these countries, with the involvement of armies and UN resolutions.

In actual fact, I’ll spare you the details, but the State Department communiqué was oddly formulated; not in its usual form.

The turns of phrase weren’t administration-speak. There were spelling and translation errors.

It shouldn’t even have been translated.

There were myriad clues to its fake status.

Anyway, the communiqué was nowhere to be found on the State Department website. 

For images, there are tools. More technical stuff, the famous reverse image search.

Sometimes the tools are shaky.

Here, I’ll ask our science or health specialists to find out which researcher is working in that particular field.

What we are seeing – and what we’ve seen a lot with the Covid-19 crisis – is geneticists talking about symptoms of respiratory syndrome. It’s inappropriate. We’re spoiled for choice, but that choice is a serious matter.

How do you spot misinformation, suspicious claims and doctored photos?

Sophie Malibeaux – Journalist – RFI – France

As President Trump has personally legitimised a lot of misinformation, the rate of circulation on the networks is huge, and we can tell that people really believe what’s being said.

Some of the media in the United States relay this misinformation.

I’m thinking, for instance, of what has been said about Biden’s son, Hunter, who has had the odd scandal. But they built a file on him ahead of the US election.

It was very interesting to see media like Fox started to trick people into believing that Joe Biden’s son’s computer had been found to contain paedophile photos. And just when Fox say they’re about to receive the documents and exhibit them, they inform us that, sadly, the documents have gone missing.

What was interesting is that the same morning, American journalists showed us that Fox did in fact manage to wriggle out of it, because the documents were fabricated.

But they had already been picked up by US Senators, important people in the system. So the damage was done.

What problems might a fact-checker encounter?

Sophie Malibeaux – Journalist – RFI – France

One of the difficulties is what’s called ‘attribution’. We see things circulating, but it’s hard to know who lays them on the table. Who sends them, and why?

There is a lot of data and manipulation from Russia, denounced by Europeans.

In some cases it’s true.

In others, the Russians aren’t required.

Back in 2016, there was a lot of Russian interference in the US presidential election. But since then, all the disinformers in the United States have really started producing their own misleading content locally.

So I’m wary of attribution, of saying ‘So-and-so is doing such a thing.’

Often, it’s impossible to dismantle the entire minsinformation itinerary. That’s partly due to the fact that there is a certain opacity to social networks. 

What should a fact-checker be most wary of?

Sophie Malibeaux – Journalist – RFI – France

Among those who intentionally misinform are some highly technically skilled players.

We have very elaborate products, like deep fakes, for example.

This is a real problem, because they’re hard to detect. We can spot them for now, because it’s fairly slipshod. When you put words in Obama’s mouth that don’t match, you’re alerted, and there are technical tools available on internet that can enable you to unmask these ‘deep fakes’.

They’re called ‘deep’ because you have to dig to find them.

I know the younger generation would love to be able to dismantle this manipulation.

It is up to journalists to do this research, but a good part of the general public would be interested in being equipped to block out misinformation.

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