Fact Forward: Fact Free Assault on Online Misinformation

Fact Forward: If you had $50,000, how would you change fact-checking?

From the post:

The International Fact-Checking Network wants to support your next big idea.

We recognize the importance of making innovation a key part of fact-checking in the age of online misinformation and we are also aware that innovation requires investment. For those reasons, we are opening Fact Forward. A call for fact-checking organizations and/or teams of journalists, designers, developers or data scientists to submit projects that can represent a paradigmatic innovation for fact-checkers in any of these areas: 1) formats, 2) business models 3) technology-assisted fact-checking.

With Fact Forward, the IFCN will grant 50,000 USD to the winning project.

For this fund, an innovative project is defined as one that provides a distinct, novel user experience that seamlessly integrates content, design, and business strategy. The innovation should serve both the audience and the organization.

The vague definition of “innovative project” leaves the impression the judges have no expertise with software development. A quick check of the judges credentials reveals that is indeed the case. Be forewarned, fluffy pro-fact checking phrases are likely to outweigh any technical merit in your proposals.

If you doubt this is an ideological project, consider the implied premises of “…the age of online misinformation….” Conceding that online misinformation does exist, those include:

1. Online misinformation influences voters:

What evidence does exist, is reported by Hunt Allcott, Matthew Gentzkow in Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election, the astract reads:

Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many have expressed concern about the effects of false stories (“fake news”), circulated largely through social media. We discuss the economics of fake news and present new data on its consumption prior to the election. Drawing on web browsing data, archives of fact-checking websites, and results from a new online survey, we find: (i) social media was an important but not dominant source of election news, with 14 percent of Americans calling social media their “most important” source; (ii) of the known false news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favoring Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook, while those favoring Clinton were shared 8 million times; (iii) the average American adult saw on the order of one or perhaps several fake news stories in the months around the election, with just over half of those who recalled seeing them believing them; and (iv) people are much more likely to believe stories that favor their preferred candidate, especially if they have ideologically segregated social media networks.

Or as summarized in Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media by Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild:

In addition, given what is known about the impact of online information on opinions, even the high-end estimates of fake news penetration would be unlikely to have had a meaningful impact on voter behavior. For example, a recent study by two economists, Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, estimates that “the average US adult read and remembered on the order of one or perhaps several fake news articles during the election period, with higher exposure to pro-Trump articles than pro-Clinton articles.” In turn, they estimate that “if one fake news article were about as persuasive as one TV campaign ad, the fake news in our database would have changed vote shares by an amount on the order of hundredths of a percentage point.” As the authors acknowledge, fake news stories could have been more influential than this back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests for a number of reasons (e.g., they only considered a subset of all such stories; the fake stories may have been concentrated on specific segments of the population, who in turn could have had a disproportionate impact on the election outcome; fake news stories could have exerted more influence over readers’ opinions than campaign ads). Nevertheless, their influence would have had to be much larger—roughly 30 times as large—to account for Trump’s margin of victory in the key states on which the election outcome depended.

Just as one example, online advertising is routinely studied, Understanding Interactive Online Advertising: Congruence and Product Involvement in Highly and Lowly Arousing, Skippable Video Ads by Daniel Belanche, Carlos Flavián, Alfredo Pérez-Rueda. But the IFCN offers no similar studies for what it construes as “…online misinformation….”

Without some evidence for and measurement of the impact of “…online misinformation…,” what is the criteria for success for your project?

2. Correcting online misinformation influences voters:

The second, even more problematic assumption in this project is that correcting online misinformation influences voters.

Facts, even “correct” facts do a poor job of changing opinions. Even the lay literature is legion on this point: Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does; Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds; The Backfire Effect: Why Facts Don’t Win Arguments; In the battle to change people’s minds, desires come before facts; The post-fact era.

Any studies to the contrary? Surely the IFCN has some evidence that correcting misinformation changes opinions or influences voter behavior?

(I reserve this space for any studies supplied by the IFCN or others to support that premise.)

I don’t disagree with fact checking per se. Readers should be able to rely upon representations of fact. But Glenn Greenwald’s The U.S. Media Suffered Its Most Humiliating Debacle in Ages and Now Refuses All Transparency Over What Happened makes it clear that misinformation isn’t limited to appearing online.

One practical suggestion: If $50,000 is enough for your participation in an ideological project, use sentiment analysis to identify pro-Trump materials. Anything “pro-Trump” is, for some funders, “misinformation.”

PS: I didn’t vote for Trump and loathe his administration. However, pursuing fantasies to explain his victory in 2016 won’t prevent a repeat of same in 2020. Whether he is defeated with misinformation or correct information makes no difference to me. His defeat is the only priority.

Practical projects with a defeat of Trump in 2020 goal are always of interest. Ping me.

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