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.

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-check (no, really!)

Jesse Holcomb   Buffeted, whipped, bullied, pulled

Tim Carmody   Newsletter writers need a new ethics

Nicholas Thompson   The year AI actually changes the media business

Lisa Heyamoto   The independent news industry gets a roadmap to sustainability

Peter Bale   Rising costs force more digital innovation

Eric Thurm   Journalists think of themselves as workers

Alexandra Borchardt   The year of the climate journalism strategy

Dannagal G. Young   Stop rewarding elite performances of identity threat

Anita Varma   Journalism prioritizes the basic need for survival

Julia Angwin   Democracies will get serious about saving journalism

Emily Nonko   Incarcerated reporters get more bylines

Alex Perry   New paths to transparency without Twitter

Don Day   The news about the news is bad. I’m optimistic.

Kerri Hoffman   Podcasting goes local

Mario García   More newsrooms go mobile-first

Daniel Trielli   Trust in news will continue to fall. Just look at Brazil.

Michael Schudson   Journalism gets more and more difficult

Sarah Alvarez   Dream bigger or lose out

Jim Friedlich   Local journalism steps up to the challenge of civic coverage

Karina Montoya   More reporters on the antitrust beat

Jenna Weiss-Berman   The economic downturn benefits the podcasting industry. (No, really!)

Mael Vallejo   More threats to press freedom across the Americas

Andrew Donohue   We’ll find out whether journalism can, indeed, save democracy

Alex Sujong Laughlin   Credit where it’s due

Joni Deutsch   Podcast collaboration — not competition — breeds excellence

Sue Robinson   Engagement journalism will have to confront a tougher reality

Jaden Amos   TikTok personality journalists continue to rise

Burt Herman   The year AI truly arrives — and with it the reckoning

Eric Nuzum   A focus on people instead of power

Sarabeth Berman   Nonprofit local news shows that it can scale

Pia Frey   Publishers start polling their users at scale

Wilson Liévano   Diaspora journalism takes the next step

A.J. Bauer   Covering the right wrong

Eric Ulken   Generative AI brings wrongness at scale

Sarah Stonbely   Growth in public funding for news and information at the state and local levels

Barbara Raab   More journalism funders will take more risks

Rodney Gibbs   Recalibrating how we work apart

Elite Truong   In platform collapse, an opportunity for community

David Cohn   AI made this prediction

Jessica Maddox   Journalists keep getting manipulated by internet culture

Ben Werdmuller   The internet is up for grabs again

Kirstin McCudden   We’ll codify protection of journalism and newsgathering

Francesco Zaffarano   There is no end of “social media”

Kaitlin C. Miller   Harassment in journalism won’t get better, but we’ll talk about it more openly

Anna Nirmala   News organizations get new structures

Sue Schardt   Toward a new poetics of journalism

Leezel Tanglao   Community partnerships drive better reporting

Matt Rasnic   More newsroom workers turn to organized labor

Juleyka Lantigua   Newsrooms recognize women of color as the canaries in the coal mine

Sarah Marshall   A web channel strategy won’t be enough

Tre'vell Anderson   Continued culpability in anti-trans campaigns

Mariana Moura Santos   A woman who speaks is a woman who changes the world

Susan Chira   Equipping local journalism

Janelle Salanga   Journalists work from a place of harm reduction

Parker Molloy   We’ll reach new heights of moral panic

Alan Henry   A reckoning with why trust in news is so low

Julia Beizer   News fatigue shows us a clear path forward

Rachel Glickhouse   Humanizing newsrooms will be a badge of honor

Masuma Ahuja   Journalism starts working for and with its communities

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

Jakob Moll   Journalism startups will think beyond English

Joshua P. Darr   Local to live, wire to wither

Christina Shih   Shared values move from nice-to-haves to essentials

Michael W. Wagner   The backlash against pro-democracy reporting is coming

Gabe Schneider   Well-funded journalism leaders stop making disparate pay

Snigdha Sur   Newsrooms get nimble in a recession

John Davidow   A year of intergenerational learning

Delano Massey   The industry shakes its imposter syndrome

Paul Cheung   More news organizations will realize they are in the business of impact, not eyeballs

Andrew Losowsky   Journalism realizes the replacement for Twitter is not a new Twitter

Hillary Frey   Death to the labor-intensive memo for prospective hires

Errin Haines   Journalists on the campaign trail mend trust with the public

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau   More of the same

Ryan Kellett   Airline-like loyalty programs try to tie down news readers

Kaitlyn Wells   We’ll prioritize media literacy for children

Alexandra Svokos   Working harder to reach audiences where they are

Tamar Charney   Flux is the new stability

Eric Holthaus   As social media fragments, marginalized voices gain more power

Simon Galperin   Philanthropy stops investing in corporate media

Molly de Aguiar and Mandy Van Deven   Narrative change trend brings new money to journalism

Jennifer Choi and Jonathan Jackson   Funders finally bet on next-generation news entrepreneurs

Cari Nazeer and Emily Goligoski   News organizations step up their support for caregivers

Amethyst J. Davis   The slight of the great contraction

S. Mitra Kalita   “Everything sucks. Good luck to you.”

Jonas Kaiser   Rejecting the “free speech” frame

Gina Chua   The traditional story structure gets deconstructed

Moreno Cruz Osório   Brazilian journalism turns wounds into action

Shanté Cosme   The answer to “quiet quitting” is radical empathy

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Well-being will become a core tenet of journalism

Esther Kezia Thorpe   Subscription pressures force product innovation

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Journalists productively harness generative AI tools

Sue Cross   Thinking and acting collectively to save the news

Nicholas Jackson   There will be launches — and we’ll keep doing the work

Khushbu Shah   Global reporting will suffer

Ariel Zirulnick   Journalism doubles down on user needs

Laxmi Parthasarathy   Unlocking the silent demand for international journalism

An Xiao Mina   Journalism in a time of permacrisis

Upasna Gautam   Technology that performs at the speed of news

Zizi Papacharissi   Platforms are over

J. Siguru Wahutu   American journalism reckons with its colonialist tendencies

Ståle Grut   Your newsroom experiences a Midjourney-gate, too

Sam Guzik   AI will start fact-checking. We may not like the results.

Joanne McNeil   Facebook and the media kiss and make up

Anika Anand   Independent news businesses lead the way on healthy work cultures

Basile Simon   Towards supporting criminal accountability

David Skok   Renewed interest in human-powered reporting

Joe Amditis   AI throws a lifeline to local publishers

Cindy Royal   Yes, journalists should learn to code, but…

Ryan Nave   Citizen journalism, but make it equitable

Bill Grueskin   Local news will come to rely on AI

Janet Haven   ChatGPT and the future of trust 

Sam Gregory   Synthetic media forces us to understand how media gets made

Brian Stelter   Finding new ways to reach news avoiders

Christoph Mergerson   The rot at the core of the news business

Doris Truong   Workers demand to be paid what the job is worth

Cassandra Etienne   Local news fellowships will help fight newsroom inequities

Sumi Aggarwal   Smart newsrooms will prioritize board development

Mary Walter-Brown and Tristan Loper   Mission-driven metrics become our North Star

Priyanjana Bengani   Partisan local news networks will collaborate

Mar Cabra   The inevitable mental health revolution

Jody Brannon   We’ll embrace policy remedies

Mauricio Cabrera   It’s no longer about audiences, it’s about communities

Johannes Klingebiel   The innovation team, R.I.P.

Raney Aronson-Rath   Journalists will band together to fight intimidation

Felicitas Carrique and Becca Aaronson   News product goes from trend to standard

Anthony Nadler   Confronting media gerrymandering

Cory Bergman   The AI content flood

Peter Sterne   AI enters the newsroom

Richard Tofel   The press might get better at vetting presidential candidates

Surya Mattu   Data journalists learn from photojournalists

Nikki Usher   This is the year of the RSS reader. (Really!)

Taylor Lorenz   The “creator economy” will be astroturfed

Danielle K. Brown and Kathleen Searles   DEI efforts must consider mental health and online abuse

Victor Pickard   The year journalism and capitalism finally divorce

Al Lucca   Digital news design gets interesting again

Ayala Panievsky   It’s time for PR for journalism

Emma Carew Grovum   The year to resist forgetting about diversity

Megan Lucero and Shirish Kulkarni   The future of journalism is not you

Walter Frick   Journalists wake up to the power of prediction markets

Kathy Lu   We need emotionally agile newsroom leaders

Dana Lacey   Tech will screw publishers over

Jennifer Brandel   AI couldn’t care less. Journalists will care more. 

Jessica Clark   Open discourse retrenches

Dominic-Madori Davis   Everyone finally realizes the need for diverse voices in tech reporting

Gordon Crovitz   The year advertisers stop funding misinformation

Ryan Gantz   “I’m sorry, but I’m a large language model”

Martina Efeyini   Talk to Gen Z. They’re the experts of Gen Z.

Larry Ryckman   We’ll work together with our competitors

Amy Schmitz Weiss   Journalism education faces a crossroads

Josh Schwartz   The AI spammers are coming

Jim VandeHei   There is no “peak newsletter”

Jacob L. Nelson   Despite it all, people will still want to be journalists

Laura E. Davis   The year we embrace the robots — and ourselves

Stefanie Murray   The year U.S. media stops screwing around and becomes pro-democracy

Brian Moritz   Rebuilding the news bundle

Jarrad Henderson   Video editing will help people understand the media they consume