As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, people around the world are desperately trying to make sense of the pandemic. However, accessing accurate and trustworthy information about the coronavirus has become a minefield littered with mis and disinformation, myths, and conspiracy theories.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has dubbed this phenomenon as an “infodemic” – “an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
One way to stem the spread of mis and disinformation is to inundate the information ecosystem with accurate, evidence-based information in plain language. This is where accurate reporting and fact-checking comes in and why, together, they are essential to curbing the spread of dis/misinformation.
Fact-checking relies on a set of skills that can be learned and is one way for concerned citizens to join the fight against COVID-19 misinformation circulating in their community.
Starting up your own COVID-19 fact-checking group is in some ways akin to starting a small business or a nonprofit, and while it may feel daunting, this introductory guide is designed to make it easier.
Here are some key items to consider before and after you launch your fact-checking practice:
Whether you structure your fact-checking organization as a non-profit, as a volunteer-driven initiative, or a for-profit, your mandate will be to debunk misinformation and disinformation, separating fact from fiction – and providing accurate information for the public.
But what will you fact-check? Is there a topic or theme you are more interested in fact-checking than others?
You can debunk viral claims shared online by spotting misleading content, images or videos and the fake social media accounts that spread them. For example, you could fact-check popular memes and other content shared by your friends and strangers across various social media platforms and messaging apps.
You can fact-check claims made by public figures for accuracy. For instance, you could review statements made by your regional or district councilors, your town’s mayor, or heads of other governing bodies who have an impact on your community’s daily life.
Depending on your educational and professional background, you may wish to fact-check health-related content shared online such as posts promoting natural medicine as a cure for COVID-19.
Do some research to see if there are other fact-checkers in your country or in your city, who are covering the area or topic you want to fact-check. Is there a competition in your area, region, city, or country?
Depending on your part of the world, being a fact-checker might not be viable or feasible, or you could live in an area where the market is saturated. (That should not necessarily stop you!) If that is the case, explore whether there is an organization in your country or city you could collaborate with or partner with.
If you find that there is an unmet need for fact-check, then by all means, read further.
Consider a name that reflects the work you do, but that helps you stand out from the crowd. Resources for entrepreneurs suggest that a business “name should convey the expertise, value and uniqueness of the product or service you have developed”, so it is not surprising that many fact-checking organizations included in our dataset contain keywords like “fact” and “check” in their official names.
Please also note if you are incorporating your organization, you are likely to be required to register your business name with the government to ensure that this name is distinct from other businesses in the country. If that is the case, you might be required to use a service to verify that your proposed business name is in fact unique. For example, in Canada, such service is NUANS. Check out this helpful page with tips about naming your business.
In addition to following any legal requirements when choosing a name for your group, you might also want to check whether a domain name for your future website is available. Online tools like Panabee can be of help during this step.
Finally, in conjunction with choosing your business name, you might also want to develop a logo to identify your business online and offline. While this is not usually legally required, it is great for marketing and communication purposes. Here is a post that summarizes some popular online tools to help you develop a visually appealing logo.
At the beginning, you might start out as a one-person-band, passionately devoting time and energy to your fact-checking mission. That way is an easy way to burnout. But long term, we recommend having at least 3-5 people for a successful team, so that you are bouncing ideas off others who have complementary skill sets, experiences and perspectives. But be strategic about staff size. Recruit people with the skill sets you need, not just your three best friends.
Ideally, these are the skillsets they should have: someone needs to be web savvy to run your website and social media distribution channels. Someone needs to have journalism or writing skills, research and digital skills, so that you can create fact-checks. It would also be ideal to recruit a person with a data science background to help you with things like detecting when a photo or video has been manipulated. Someone with bookkeeping experience, to take care of the finances, and someone to lead the way.
There is not an exact science to building a fact-checking team. In the non-profit world, for example, some organizations do not have any paid staff at all and are run by volunteers. Non-profits often start with a volunteer board, who divide up the roles, responsibilities and work in order to get off the ground or until the group’s finances are healthy enough to hire a director. Essential roles often include a bookkeeper to keep track of your finances (the donations, grants or other monies you are awarded), a lawyer for any legal representation and a marketer for any marketing activities.
Once you have determined the need for fact-checking as a non-profit, for-profit or volunteer group in your part of the world, outline your goals for the group. You can do this in a business plan, or a set of bylaws or rules, aka a mission statement for your group.
Trust & credibility may be the fact-checkers’ most precious commodity. To earn and keep the trust of the public, fact-checkers must strive to provide transparency at all times and to focus on all sides of the political spectrum. Your mission statement, bylaws and rules should include a plan on how you will instill trust in your fact-checks.
As part of this process, consider conducting a SWOT (Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats) analysis to build out some of the plan areas. Ask the following questions:
- What makes your fact-checking group different from others?
- What makes your mission or mandate unique?
- What are your group’s weaknesses?
- Are there others you might collaborate with?
- Are there any legal threats or governmental regulations or rules that would thwart your activities?
Based on the data from our COVID-19 Fact-checkers Dataset, some of the most common ways, that existing fact-checking groups are organized, are either embedded in larger media organizations, stand-alone non-profits, or as for-profit businesses. The following chart is based on a sample of 224 fact-checkers.
If you want to start a fact-checking organization as a for-profit business, consider the structure it will have – do you want to be a sole proprietor, corporation, limited liability company or partnership?
Articles of incorporation are required for the establishment of a company in many countries. These are written rules about running the company, agreed on by the directors and shareholders. Here is an introductory page maintained by a law firm that lists incorporation requirements for different countries.
In some countries, non-profits, charities, cooperatives also incorporate, as doing so may offer certain benefits such as being eligible for tax-exempt status in your country. Depending on your jurisdiction, the incorporation process may vary. So do your research! Access the Digital Legal Library from the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law to learn more about relevant regulations in your country. For example, in Canada, as part of incorporation, a non-profit organization is required to establish and approve a by-law, which can be created using this online tool from Corporations Canada. We recommend investigating this in your country.
For small fact-checking businesses, an avenue of funding you might want to consider are angel investors. “Originally a term used to describe investors in Broadway shows, ‘angel’ now refers to anyone who invests his or her money in an entrepreneurial company.” Other options for funding include charging for placing ads on your websites or in podcasts, or charging a consultation fee for running training sessions on how to fact-check.
For non-profits, funding is just as important. Typical funding sources for non-profits are donors of all sizes: individual donors, major donors, corporate donors, grants and crowdfunding. Crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are popular for raising funds for small projects, campaigns, or startups. The advantage of using a crowdfunding site is the sheer number of individual small donors involved.
Based on a sample of 224 fact-checkers, the chart below shows eight common ways different groups fund themselves (note: color represents different organizational structures). About 44 percent of the fact-checking groups in our sample have two or more revenue streams.
Below are some specific examples of how different fact-checking groups fund their activities:
From being intrusive or irrelevant, digital and programmatic advertising technology has advanced to the point where ads can be targeted to appropriate audiences. Fact checkers use digital advertising on their websites for revenue. Boatos.org, for example, sells banner ads on its site for between R$100-300 depending on the position and length of time. The Logical Indian generates revenue through online ads and sponsored articles. Tamil fact-checking site YouTurn.in garners advertisement revenue from article and video views. Snopes uses programmatic digital advertising as one of its revenue streams, and “Truth or Fiction” is almost entirely funded through programmatic digital advertising sales.
Fact-checking organizations have found funding through individual donations, like UK-based FullFact or Chequeado in Argentina, both of whom count crowdfunding as a revenue stream. Politifact had a great example of crowdfunding, when it launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to live fact-check the State of the Union address in 2015. It raised over $20,000 USD. In 2019, Snopes raised $636,000 from a crowdsourced GoFundMe, and $522,000 from reader contributions.
There are private non-profit foundations like National Endowments for Democracy and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) that have provided funding to fact-checking organizations. There are also trusts including the Millennium Trust and the Colefax Charitable Trust.
The following is a small selection of philanthropic organizations who funded fact-checking organizations in 2020: Rita Allen Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raith Foundation, Rudolf Augstein Foundation, Schöpflin Foundation, Stanton Foundation, Adessium Foundation, Luminate, The Democracy Fund, The Craig Newmark Foundation.
State or government grants
Some fact-checking organizations are funded through grants provided by government bodies such as the European Parliament, the United States Department of State, The European Union through the Europe for Citizens program, Australian Bureau of Statistics or the Electronic Media Agency (Croatia).
For example, EFE Verifica is indirectly funded by the Spanish state. The fact checker is fully financed by Spanish news agency Agencia EFE, but the agency receives compensation from the Spanish state for providing a service of general economic interest.
Selling content to media organizations
Agencia Lupa in Brazil sells its content to Brazilian newspapers, radio, and web portals for a fixed monthly fee and through columns sold individually. Pagella Politica in Italy produces weekly content for an Italian broadcaster and for a news agency.
Consulting about fact-checking and misinformation, and teaching or training on fact-checking is another avenue for funding. Fact-checkers hold workshops and events, educational activities and lectures for schools, universities, companies and others. BOOMLive in India, for example, receives funding from contract work, media literacy and training. In 2019, educational activities accounted for 40% of Brazil-based Agencia Lupa’s total revenue.
Third-party and tech-industry funded initiatives
The International Fact-Checking Network’s annual State of Fact-Checkers survey found more than half (53 per cent) of the fact-checking signatories were for-profit. The report also found that the largest source of revenue for those surveyed was Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program. This program works with IFCN-certified fact-checkers to review and verify the content on Facebook.
Below is a list of useful online resources with information about different funding sources (not exhaustive).
- State or government grants
- Third-party or tech-industry funded initiatives
In this section, we discuss the processes involved in fact-checking. Professional fact-checkers follow established verification processes and methods for determining the who, where, why and when of a claim. Some make their methodology transparent on their websites, highlighting the steps they go through to come to their verdicts. Details can vary from outlet to outlet, but the basic mechanics are similar across the board: select a claim to fact-check, consult the author of the claim, verify the information by consulting experts and/or finding alternative sources, and write a report. Below are some tips related to each of these steps.
- Selecting a claim to fact-check
The claims you choose to evaluate will depend on your organization’s mandate. Some fact-checkers only focus on COVID-19 misinformation, while others focus on politics and politicians’ statements. For example, AAP FactCheck in Australia mostly fact checks statements made by political and public figures in the news media. Political fact-checkers look at transcripts of television and talk shows, tv ads, presidential remarks, speeches, press conferences, committee hearings involving politicians, and social media posts to find claims.
In deciding what to fact-check, Politifact considers the following: “Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? Does the statement seem misleading or sound wrong? Is the statement significant? We avoid minor ‘gotchas’ on claims that are obviously a slip of the tongue. Is the statement likely to be passed on and repeated by others?”
Also consider, is the claim likely to be widely seen? A claim might have an impact on society, on public debate, and have the potential to mislead a lot of people.
- Consult the author or speaker
When fact-checking a claim, professional fact-checkers aim to consult the author of the claim directly, to help them understand more about the claim. Washington Post Fact Checker, Africa Check, and FullFact all try to contact the author of a claim. “Unless the claim’s source is self-evident, we try to contact the claimant to ask them about their source, and for any other information we need to understand it,” FullFact writes.
“The burden is on the person or organization making the claim to provide the evidence to support it,” according to FactCheck.org.
- Verifying the information
In this step, fact-checkers establish what exactly was said – that is, identify the context in which the claim was said or reported. In searching for the origin of a statement, sometimes putting the claim into a search engine will verify its provenance. Most often, more research is needed. Your goal is to look for the best available evidence regarding the claim.
Seek a reliable source, like a transcript or video or audio recording to verify statements. Fact-checkers draw on publicly available information such as government reports, state, federal and municipal open data, court documents, etc. Other primary sources can include academic studies and experts.
Many fact-checkers consult alternative sources, especially if access to official data is not possible. American fact checker TruthOrFiction writes, “when necessary, we review historical documents, video and radio interviews, and books, cross-referencing whatever we can with open-source information.” In Canada, The Walrus Fact Checking team requires “at least two secondary sources” when a primary source cannot be found.
- How to evaluate which sources are trustworthy
Check the provenance of the material. Where did the information, image, video or document come from? Check whether the content is supported by evidence and multiple quotes or sources, or if there is information left out.
Check the timeliness of the information to see if it is up to date.
Check the authority: Who is responsible for the source of information? Review the About section of the website where information came from. Look up authors by name through Google search, through Pipl search, or through Google Scholar. Is the author qualified to write or speak about the topic?
- Write a report, setting out the claim and the evidence, step by step
The final step in the fact-check process is usually preparing a report, walking readers through the research they have done. In this, fact-checkers make a point of being transparent and disclosing every source consulted or used to analyze the claim. This is to make sure that anyone reading such a report could verify the same information.
Such reports often describe why the claim was reviewed, how expert reviewers were chosen (if applicable), and how the verdict was reached.
After this step, fact-checkers send the report to other editors to review before publication and to confirm appropriate verdict or rating.
Examples of Fact-checking Methodologies
Fact-checkers distribute their fact-checks through a variety of channels – through their website, their social media accounts, through podcasts, on television and radio – all of which we will discuss in further detail in this section.
You do not need a lot of distribution channels to disseminate your fact-checks. Depending on your resources, your region and your audience, publishing only through Facebook posts or Telegram groups may be the best option for you. Alternatively, you may decide to publish on as many distribution channels as you can find.
The majority of fact-checking organizations use a website to distribute their fact-checks. Most often, it is in conjunction with additional distribution channels, like social media. For example, only ~1/3 of the COVID-19 fact-checkers in our dataset only use a website to promote and share their fact-checked content.
There are now many free and low-cost hosting providers and online services such as WordPress that offer easy-to-use web tools for website development. Check out this PCMag guide to learn more about how to set up a website.
- Social Media
The most commonly used distribution channel to share fact-checks with the public is a combination of website and social media. In our dataset, nearly 70% of fact-checkers used various social media channels to distribute their content in addition to sharing them on their website and other distribution methods.
There are many online tutorials on how to effectively use social media platforms; one just needs to search for them on Google. But first, start by creating an account on social media platforms that are most popular in your country/region. For many, it would be Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. But don’t forget about emerging platforms that are rapidly gaining popularity like TikTok and messaging apps like Telegram.
See what social media platforms are popular by reviewing results from surveys on social media use in your country. For example, in Canada, Ryerson University Social Media Lab publishes reports about social media use and users. If you are in the US, check out recent reports from the Pew Research Center.
The use of podcasting to distribute fact-checks is especially popular in Latin America. For example, fact-checking organizations in Bolivia (Bolivia Verifica), Costa Rica (DobleCheck), Paraguay (El Surti), Peru (Convoca.pe), and Columbia (ColumbiaCheck) rely on podcasts (along with other distribution channels) to disseminate their fact-checks.
Here are some useful online resources to get started with podcasting:
- Television and Radio
Investigative journalist and International Center for Journalists TruthBuzz Fellow Matt Riley writes: “Fewer use traditional mediums like radio and TV, which ends up excluding a large audience from encountering fact-checking at all.“
Our data suggests television as a medium is never used by itself to distribute fact-checks, but rather as one of several channels. Of the 13 fact-checking groups in our dataset who use television as a distribution channel, nine of them are based in Europe and the United States. In Spain, for example, the Newtral.es team creates fact-checking content for television, through El Objetivo de Ana Pastor, broadcast every Sunday evening on LaSexta.
Radio is a good distribution channel for fact-checking in some areas of the world. CongoCheck, for example, uses radio broadcasts to distribute their fact-checks. “Radio is an affordable option in Congo where, according to a 2019 survey by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the average monthly cost of one gigabyte of data was roughly 26% of average income,” according to the Poynter Institute.
- Other creative ways fact-checkers publish content
In our dataset, about 10% of fact-checkers used alternative and creative distribution methods, ranging from newsletters to workshops, comic book graphics, and apps.
Distributing content through newsletters is not an overly common method for COVID-19 fact-checkers in our data. But, we identified a dozen of organizations that offered a newsletter, including fact-checkers from Canada, Columbia, Denmark, France, Germany, Macedonia, Poland, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Ireland and the United States.
In addition, we discovered other creative ways fact-checkers were distributing their content. For example, AosFatos in Brazil has a Messenger fact-checking bot, Fatima, and comic book checks. Evrim Agaci in Turkey has an app. The Journal in Ireland hosts Zoom discussions. FakeHunter, by the Polish Press Agency, has a plug-in.
- How to get the most reach
One way for fact-checkers to get a wider reach for their content is to syndicate content to other news organizations. In a post for the Reuters Institute chief editor Anim Van Wyk writes, “Africa Check syndicates its content to other news organisations to republish free of charge, provided proper attribution is given. The team also regularly discusses its findings on radio and television to reach offline audiences, since internet penetration is still comparatively low in most of Africa.”
If you are publishing your fact-checks via a website, make sure to use an appropriate markup schema like ClaimReview or Fact Check Markup Tool. This way, Google and other search engines would properly recognize and index your review reports.
- How to decide what distribution channel to use
With the distribution options we have illustrated above, how will you decide what will work best for you? If you have a choice between podcasts and radio, how do you pick? Your decision on distribution channels depends on your organization’s circumstances. No two fact-checking organizations, or distribution strategies, are the same. To help you decide, ask yourself these questions:
- How much time do you have to dedicate to this effort?
- What is your budget?
- Can you afford a website? How much do you have to spend on web hosting and a domain name?
- What type of personnel do you have, and what are their skills and abilities?
- What physical infrastructure do you have access to?
- What social media platforms do you have access to, based on your region or country?
- Can you partner with an established media organization or a social media platform?
- Who are you calling a fact checker?
- Fact-checking 101
- What is fact checking and why is it important?
- Verification and Fact Checking
- Factually: How misinformation makes money
- COVID-19 Data Sources to Make Fact-Checking Easy (a tuition-free online course by Poynter)
- Get it out the door fast…and right
- Verification Handbook For Disinformation And Media Manipulation published by the European Journalism Centre
- Ryerson’s Social Media Lab COVID-19 Misinformation Dashboards – Information management tools for tracking debunked coronavirus claims from 100’s of trusted fact-checkers from around the world
- Google Factcheck Explorer – Search fact check results (as done by other fact-checkers) from the web about a topic or person
- Bellingcat’s Online Investigation Toolkit
- Fact Checking | Journalist’s Toolbox
- Verification Toolbox – First Draft
- Exposing the Invisible: The Kit – Investigative Techniques and Tools
- Project START2THINK Factcheck Toolbox
- Open Source Intelligent Tools (OSINT)
Disclaimer: The Social Media Lab has no control over the contents of third-party websites in this list, and accepts no responsibility for them or for any loss or damage that may arise from your use of them. Links to third-party sites are provided solely as a convenience to you and is in no way an endorsement by the Social Media Lab. If you decide to access any of the third-party websites shared on this website, you do so entirely at your own risk and subject to the terms and conditions of use for such websites.
The guide is a work in progress. The Social Media Lab is committed to updating the guide periodically as we get feedback from the community. If you have a question or suggestion, we want to hear from you. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at us @SMlabTO.