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Learn from a veteran of the ‘misinformation beat’ about how to better check the facts Date: 03/31/21

Daniel Funke

By Bara Vaida

Throughout the pandemic, the non-partisan fact-checking website PolitiFact has sought to correct misinformation about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Their work has become more important than ever as alarm has grown over the potential impact of COVID-19 misinformation. Efforts to end the pandemic through vaccination could stall if too many people refuse to take the vaccine because they don’t have enough facts to make an informed decision.

Here, PolitiFact staff writer Daniel Funke (@dpfunke) discusses his work and advice for other journalists seeking to get the facts out to the public and alert them to misinformation.

Q: How did you become a reporter on the misinformation beat?

A: I kind of stumbled into it. I joined the Poynter Institute (the owner of PolitiFact) as a Google News Lab fellow in 2017 as a media reporter. Over that summer, Poynter got a grant to expand the International Fact-Checking Network to hire a reporter to cover misinformation around the world. I also covered the legal dispute between and its business partner and got a window into this misinformation world. I was a fan of PolitiFact and knew false news was a problem, so (in July 2019) I moved from the IFCN to PolitiFact to cover misinformation for general audiences.

Q: Take us back to a year ago when the pandemic began. What misinformation were you seeing?

A: We published our first story about the coronavirus on Jan. 24, 2020, and at that point, it was still in China, but it was quickly becoming a misinformation topic spreading on social media. But the (first) impeachment (of former President Donald Trump) trial was also happening, so we were really focused on that (in February). Then in March (when the pandemic was declared), it pretty much became all about coronavirus, exclusively, through May. The initial false information was about the source of the pandemic and whether it was a bioweapon or caused by Bill Gates. Then the misinformation spread to the treatment of the virus, like drinking hot lemon water, bleach or colloidal silver (to kill it).

Q: How did the misinformation evolve after that?

A: It shifted and became more political as President Trump and his allies became concerned it would impact his re-election and his allies (falsely said) the pandemic was manufactured by Trump’s enemies. For most of the year, the misinformation was about denying or downplaying the severity of the virus. That became (what PolitiFact labeled) the lie of the year, which is a set of statements that are so egregiously false that we call it a lie. So much of the year, we spent fact-checking statements from politicians who said lockdowns don’t work, social distancing doesn’t work, masks don’t work, etc.

Q: What can journalists do to help the public and combat false information beyond saying, “this statement isn’t true?”

A: I pitched this idea (to my PolitiFact editors) that we could do more to explain where misinformation comes from and what the context is around it. So that is what we have tried to do. For example, we have tried to explain the QAnon and the save the children (conspiracy theories) in a broader context. Over (last) summer, there was the conspiracy of sex trafficking (pushed by QAnon and) to a casual person on social media; they might think that this is a worthy cause. So explaining where this came from and explaining how this conspiracy lives on social media and inspired rallies and protests around the country is an example of how we tried to provide context. It isn’t enough to debunk the claim. You also have to explain where it came from and why that person who said it might have an ulterior motive. It’s the journalism saying: ‘Show. Don’t tell.”

Q: Do you think what PolitiFact has been doing with this misinformation beat has had an impact?

A: It is a good question. We use Google Analytics, and our traffic has hit record levels over the past year because of the pandemic and the election, so we measure our impact that way. We get lots of reader emails saying they value our work. We also partner with Facebook to identify and flag misinformation on that platform, and that is an effective program for us. It gets our fact-check work (to a broader audience). If someone tries to share a post with false information, they will see a little flag that says: ‘PolitiFact says this is false. Are you sure you want to share it?’ and Facebook has said it reduces the reach of false posts in the News Feed by up to 60 percent. We keep looking for new formats. We launched the Truth-O-Meter Minute in the spirit of bringing fact checks to new people and (to make them) more sharable on social media. And a final thought: There have been studies that show you can change people’s minds about a single social media post, but you can’t change their political views. PolitiFact is trying to get as many facts in front of people as we can so they have the right facts to make decisions for themselves.

Q: How do you debunk a false statement and misinformation without amplifying it?

A: There is no easy answer. Generally, PolitiFact uses the “tipping point criterion.” Claire Wardle, U.S. director of First Draft (a non-profit focused on researching and addressing misinformation), says to look for when a narrative or a claim has gone beyond a small set of people and broken into the mainstream. We are always looking into claims that are not only wrong but also have the potential to misinform a broad swath of the public. We look at how many shares a post with false information has and who said it. We also think about what is in the news and the potential for misinformation. We want to pre-bunk things before they become bigger narratives. And we remain cognizant of media manipulation projects, like Project Veritas, and not giving oxygen to people who have been shown to spread misinformation in the past.

Q: You must have to spend a lot of time on social media. How do you stay on top of all the misinformation spreading out there?

A: It is hard to stay on top of everything. We do have a team of reporters doing this. (Through our partnership with Facebook, we have) a dashboard of potentially false claims on Facebook. It is (populated by) both user reports and machine learning algorithms. So we‘ll do a keyword search on that and just see what things have been widely shared and what things seem false.

Q: What other technology do you use to look for misinformation?

A: CrowdTangle is good for checking the temperature of social media conversations and it is user-friendly for journalists. Tweetdeck is good for tracking what people are talking about on Twitter.

Q: How do you think journalists should be thinking about the issue of “balance” in news stories today, given how many experts and politicians there are out there now who are either misrepresenting facts or making them up?

A: More embedded fact checks inside of stories are needed. If someone is saying something that is false, try to put it into context. Include a graph in brackets with context. Make sure the reader has a full picture. Avoid putting things in an overly objective context. (i.e., in reporting

“this person said ‘x’ and this person said ‘y’ and you decide the truth”). I saw this with a lot of the TV coverage last summer of the “Save Our Children” protests against sex trafficking. While it was true they were protests against child trafficking, there needed to be context (about how they were tied) to a false (Qanon) conspiracy movement.

Q: Where is the worst of misinformation happening on the pandemic?

A: It’s hard to say. We don’t have a great way to quantify misinformation and where it is coming from because we’d have to fact-check everything on the Internet. But PolitiFact is partnered with Facebook because it has 2.8 billion users and that is the largest social media platform in the world and, therefore, likely has the biggest amount of misinformation. Facebook does have a partnership with more than 60 fact-checking organizations and has gotten smarter about what it allows and what it doesn’t. Next (in terms of most misinformation) is YouTube. They don’t have any fact-checking partnerships. They do (surface fact checks in search results), and they have policies against vaccine and COVID-19 misinformation. But it is a black box and it is of major concern. We have also started to pay attention to TikTok. That is a growing area of concern for us.