Belling the cat: The rise of independent fact-checking at scale

“For a fact-checking effort to gain trust, the arbiters of truth cannot also be its distributors.”

Over the past few years, much has been said and written about the post-truth nature of our world. We’ve dissected and analyzed the problem from various vantage points. After much handwringing, finger-pointing, and bemoaning of the end of democracy, fact-checking was anointed the primary antidote. We patted ourselves on our backs for solving a hard problem.

But not much has changed with the post-truthiness of the world. We are, it appears, at an impasse, because who will bell the cat? Who will take on the responsibility of fact-checking? But more importantly, who do we trust to do the job?

In 2023, we will see a new set of challengers attempting to bell the cat. We’ll witness the rise of independent, technology-driven fact-checking at scale. (Fingers crossed.)

These new efforts will build on the foundation laid down by the numerous fact-checking outfits already doing commendable and laudable work. They’ll continue to rely on and take inspiration from the mainstays — the consortiums of fact-checkers, ethical codes governing the practice, and the generally accepted taxonomy for facts.

This new breed of fact-checkers will set themselves apart by excelling where the old ones faltered, in achieving the trifecta of trustworthiness, scale, and sustainable financing.

Trustworthiness

Most fact-checking operations are part of or have close ties to larger media ventures. Therein lies the problem of trust: When trust in media is at historical lows, how can you build trust in facts as determined by the same media brands?

In a world where the lines between objective facts and subjective opinions are blurry, it’s increasingly difficult to prove non-partisanship. Facts are by nature tribal. A sense of shared reality is the glue that holds together social groups; one’s beliefs, masquerading as facts, become part of one’s social identity. Anything that threatens that identity is deemed an outsider — a partisan hack job that should not be trusted.

For a fact-checking effort to gain trust, the arbiters of truth cannot also be its distributors. Journalism will have to rely on third-party fact-checkers.

Scale

Fact-checking as it’s done today relies heavily on the expertise of trained professionals. It’s a time-consuming manual process.

Facts are, among other things, temporal and geographical. The veracity of the statement “It’s raining” depends on when and where it’s said. These are only some of the many challenges that make fact-checking extremely complex to automate.

To keep up with the rate of generation and circulation of mis/dis/mal-information, it’s imperative to be able to scale up fact-checking. And that means more automation, more machine-aided human-in-the-loop decision-making. It also means more well-designed, well-sourced, and frequently updated knowledge graphs.

Sustainable source of financing

The financial incentives for separating the signals from the noise are misaligned. Some skepticism would not be misplaced when expecting a social media site that profits (at least in the short term) from the virality of a fake account to police the account effectively.

Today, fact-checking, when not part of a media organization, usually takes the form of nonprofits relying on grants or exists as a line item in the CSR efforts of large corporations.

As we’ve learned painfully time and again in journalism, any effort that cannot sustain itself financially will be left by the wayside at the first sign of economic trouble. It’s therefore important for fact-checking to be a revenue center and not just a cost or a write-off.

Information disorder is an intractably large problem for any one institution to solve or address by itself. It will take many attempts, missteps, and capital disasters before we arrive at a working solution.

And when we do, the new crop of fact-checkers will most likely be venture-funded independent entities where the primary product or service offering is fact-checking powered by technology. These will be systems that can peek into the walled gardens of social media to identify harmful narratives. (While we’re at it, I hope 2023 will also be the year the walls come down and walled gardens of social media become more open.) They will not be monopolies but a group of agencies working in tandem, not unlike how credit scores work today. They will work closely with journalism and other civic institutions. They will operate behind the scenes away from the spotlight. And once again, our shared sense of reality will become less fragmented.

It will also throw up a new set of challenges around the regulation of these agencies, the structuring of capital to maintain church-and-state separation between funders and facts, and more. But that’s for another day and another year.

Kavya Sukumar is a developer-journalist who leads technology and media investment at Lightrock India.

Over the past few years, much has been said and written about the post-truth nature of our world. We’ve dissected and analyzed the problem from various vantage points. After much handwringing, finger-pointing, and bemoaning of the end of democracy, fact-checking was anointed the primary antidote. We patted ourselves on our backs for solving a hard problem.

But not much has changed with the post-truthiness of the world. We are, it appears, at an impasse, because who will bell the cat? Who will take on the responsibility of fact-checking? But more importantly, who do we trust to do the job?

In 2023, we will see a new set of challengers attempting to bell the cat. We’ll witness the rise of independent, technology-driven fact-checking at scale. (Fingers crossed.)

These new efforts will build on the foundation laid down by the numerous fact-checking outfits already doing commendable and laudable work. They’ll continue to rely on and take inspiration from the mainstays — the consortiums of fact-checkers, ethical codes governing the practice, and the generally accepted taxonomy for facts.

This new breed of fact-checkers will set themselves apart by excelling where the old ones faltered, in achieving the trifecta of trustworthiness, scale, and sustainable financing.

Trustworthiness

Most fact-checking operations are part of or have close ties to larger media ventures. Therein lies the problem of trust: When trust in media is at historical lows, how can you build trust in facts as determined by the same media brands?

In a world where the lines between objective facts and subjective opinions are blurry, it’s increasingly difficult to prove non-partisanship. Facts are by nature tribal. A sense of shared reality is the glue that holds together social groups; one’s beliefs, masquerading as facts, become part of one’s social identity. Anything that threatens that identity is deemed an outsider — a partisan hack job that should not be trusted.

For a fact-checking effort to gain trust, the arbiters of truth cannot also be its distributors. Journalism will have to rely on third-party fact-checkers.

Scale

Fact-checking as it’s done today relies heavily on the expertise of trained professionals. It’s a time-consuming manual process.

Facts are, among other things, temporal and geographical. The veracity of the statement “It’s raining” depends on when and where it’s said. These are only some of the many challenges that make fact-checking extremely complex to automate.

To keep up with the rate of generation and circulation of mis/dis/mal-information, it’s imperative to be able to scale up fact-checking. And that means more automation, more machine-aided human-in-the-loop decision-making. It also means more well-designed, well-sourced, and frequently updated knowledge graphs.

Sustainable source of financing

The financial incentives for separating the signals from the noise are misaligned. Some skepticism would not be misplaced when expecting a social media site that profits (at least in the short term) from the virality of a fake account to police the account effectively.

Today, fact-checking, when not part of a media organization, usually takes the form of nonprofits relying on grants or exists as a line item in the CSR efforts of large corporations.

As we’ve learned painfully time and again in journalism, any effort that cannot sustain itself financially will be left by the wayside at the first sign of economic trouble. It’s therefore important for fact-checking to be a revenue center and not just a cost or a write-off.

Information disorder is an intractably large problem for any one institution to solve or address by itself. It will take many attempts, missteps, and capital disasters before we arrive at a working solution.

And when we do, the new crop of fact-checkers will most likely be venture-funded independent entities where the primary product or service offering is fact-checking powered by technology. These will be systems that can peek into the walled gardens of social media to identify harmful narratives. (While we’re at it, I hope 2023 will also be the year the walls come down and walled gardens of social media become more open.) They will not be monopolies but a group of agencies working in tandem, not unlike how credit scores work today. They will work closely with journalism and other civic institutions. They will operate behind the scenes away from the spotlight. And once again, our shared sense of reality will become less fragmented.

It will also throw up a new set of challenges around the regulation of these agencies, the structuring of capital to maintain church-and-state separation between funders and facts, and more. But that’s for another day and another year.

Kavya Sukumar is a developer-journalist who leads technology and media investment at Lightrock India.

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