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Nov. 30, 2017, 10:42 a.m.
Reporting & Production

After a rocky reception, Le Monde’s Décodex is almost a year into fighting intox (fake news) in France

It’s preparing to partner with other international newsrooms.

On Wednesday, when Donald Trump retweeted three unverified anti-Muslim videos from the leader of a British far-right extremist group, Le Monde was on the case: It posted a debunk of the videos, with context and background.

These quick debunks are just one part of how Le Monde is getting fact-checks out to its readers. It started developing Décodex, a suite of public-facing fact-checking tools, two years ago, and launched it in January as part of Les Décodeurs, the fact-checking section of its website

The response to the new project, coming out amidst the controversial French presidential election campaign, was…not warm. “We had lots of critics — we were called the cops, the police, stuff like that,” said Samuel Laurent, deputy editor of Le Monde and head of Les Décodeurs. “We survived, and now more people are using it and thinking it was a good idea, and understand what we are trying to do. Some think that it maybe wasn’t our role as a newspaper to launch it. But no one else was launching it.”

Today, Décodex allows readers to search a database of around 1,000 websites and social media profiles (up from about 600 at launch in January). Sites are divided into four categories: those that regularly disseminate false information; those that are unreliable (occasionally publishing fake news, not citing sources); satire; and reliable. (The methodology is public, here.) There are also extensions for the Firefox and Chrome browsers, and a Facebook Messenger bot that users can ask to either verify a site or search for information on hoaxes that Le Monde has debunked (so far, about 160 hoaxes spread by more than 5,000 links).

(Translation: Type here a few words related to the info that you want to check (e.g. ‘vegetable garden tax 2017’). If my journalist colleagues at Décodeurs have denied or validated it, I will give you an answer. The garden tax refers to a resilient French hoax that the French government was planning to tax people’s kitchen gardens.)

The Firefox extension has over 12,000 users, while the Chrome extension has nearly 27,000 users. Adrien Sénécat, the site’s editor, told me that a “few hundred” people use the Messenger bot each week to find information about a specific site or story: “It’s not massive, but it shows how people are looking for information…a lot of people wonder, if they’re in front of a computer: What is the website, the Facebook page, the Twitter account I am reading right now? We are helping people to answer that.” Readers seem especially confused by satirical sites, even those that fairly explicitly state that they’re satire, Sénécat said — which isn’t that surprising since Décodex found that satirical stories are frequently picked up and re-reported by other sites as fact.

The team is starting to amass data to reveal broader trends. In September, Sénécat logged about 1,000 articles and videos disseminating false information in a public database, including: a link to each article or video, whether the entire site it’s on claims to be satire or whether the story itself was supposed to be satire, the piece of information that needed to be fact-checked, the findings of the fact-check, and how many times the original article or video was shared, commented on, or reacted to on Facebook. Sénécat wrote in a blog post:

It’s impossible to know how many readers have viewed them, but it’s an order of magnitude [greater than the number of times false stories were spread by other sites]: these links generated about 4.3 million shares on Facebook, for about 16 million interactions on the social network (shares, likes, and comments). That suggests that this collection generated hundreds of millions, even billions of visits to the sites concerned. Of the 101 stories we identified, three-quarters (74 percent) generated more than 10,000 interactions.

Of the 10 most-shared stories, only two related to politics; most were related to health. The most-shared story, by far, was a story about a Chinese man contracting worms after eating sushi, which Le Monde debunked here.

In addition, the analysis found most sites sharing just one or two pieces of fake news amid real news; for the most part, these sites weren’t solely publishing misinformation. In some of those cases, when Le Monde debunked the stories, it faced backlash, Sénécat told me. “People who spread false information don’t want to be called as such,” he said. “A lot of websites will share false information, and change their story as soon as they are proven wrong, but never correct it. They never tell the reader it was false. What we do is expose this. At some point, it’s up to our readers to wonder…if a website can be trusted or not,” and he thinks part of Décodex’s job is showing the evidence to help readers make the decision.

Moving forward, Sénécat said that the team plans to continue to strengthen the Décodex’s existing features and build up its database of sources. (Rolling out new features isn’t a priority for now.) “We’re also keen to work with other outlets to translate our work in other languages,” he said, noting that a fair amount of the information that Décodex debunks comes from American sites. Laurent said that Le Monde is in discussion with newsrooms in Brazil, Spain, and Denmark about sharing material, as well. (It was also a partner in CrossCheck, the country-wide fact-checking initiative around the French election.)

“We know there is a difference between the media making mistakes [versus] when you can show that, in a couple of months, a specific website shared 10 or more [pieces of] false information,” Sénécat said. “We have to continue to show people what is the difference…The Décodex is a proof of concept, and the more we strengthen it, the more we will show to the world that it is possible to do this work.”

POSTED     Nov. 30, 2017, 10:42 a.m.
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