Fri, Jul 12, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Fact-checks hobbled by reach: study

ECHO CHAMBER:Garnering only up to 0.3% of Twitter engagement, fact-checking groups are being forced to mimic the memes of the fake news they aim to debunk

Reuters, BRUSSELS

The EU has called on Facebook and other platforms to invest more in fact-checking, but a study shows that those efforts might rarely reach the communities worst affected by fake news.

The analysis by big-data firm Alto Data Analytics over a three-month period ahead of this year’s EU elections cast doubt on the effectiveness of fact-checking, even as demand for it is growing.

Facebook over the past year has quadrupled the number of fact-checking groups it works with worldwide and its subsidiary WhatsApp launched its first fact-checking service.

The EU, which has expanded its own fact-checking team, urged online platforms to take greater action or risk regulation.

Fact-checkers are often journalists who set up nonprofits or work at mainstream media outlets to scour the Web for viral falsehoods.

Their rebuttals in the form of articles, blog posts and tweets seek to explain how statements fail to hold up to scrutiny, images are doctored or videos are taken out of context.

However, there is little independent research on their success in debunking fake news or preventing people from sharing it.

“The biggest problem is that we have very little data ... on the efficacy of various fact-checking initiatives,” said Nahema Marchal, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. “We know from a research perspective that fact-checking isn’t always as efficient as we might think.”

Alto looked at more than two dozen fact-checking groups in five EU nations and found they had a minimal online presence — making up 0.1 to 0.3 percent of the total number of retweets, replies and mentions analyzed on Twitter from December last year to March.

The study points to a problem fact-checkers have long suspected: They are often preaching to the choir.

Alto analyzed abnormal, hyperactive users making dozens of posts per day to deduce which political communities were most tainted by suspect posts in each country.

Less than 1 percent of users — mostly sympathetic to populist and far-right parties — generated about 10 percent of the total posts related to politics.

They flooded networks with anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-establishment messages, Alto found in results that echoed separate studies by campaign group Avaaz and the Oxford Internet Institute.

Fact-checkers had little penetration in those same communities.

In Poland — where junk news made up 21 percent of traffic compared with an average of 4 percent circulating on Twitter in seven major European languages more than one month before the vote, according to the Oxford study — content issued by fact-checkers was mainly shared among those opposed to the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Italy and Spain also saw content from fact-checkers unevenly spread across political communities.

More than half of the retweets, mentions or replies to posts shared by seven Italian fact-checking groups — mostly related to immigration — came from users sympathetic to the center-left Democratic Party.

Only two of the seven groups had any relatively sizeable footprint among supporters of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party, which surged to become the third-biggest in the European Parliament.

French fact-checking groups, which are mostly embedded in mainstream media, fared better. Their content was the most evenly distributed across different online communities.

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