Many of the most successful and reliable fact-checking initiatives have been driven and staffed by independent media or trained journalists. Those actors are best placed to understand how to thoroughly investigate misleading content, reliable sourcing, and communicating in a dispassionate way about how and why a piece of content or a particular narrative is misleading. However, this is also a space in which civil society organizations have played a critical role.
First, CSOs often complement fact-checking initiatives by acting as sources of information. Where journalists do not have firsthand knowledge of an issue, community, or geographical area subject to disinformation, civil society plays an essential role in either helping journalists debunk a claim through sharing their expertise, or in identifying the ways in which disinformation is impacting, for instance, marginalized communities. Given that disinformation disproportionally targets wedge issues in society, this second role is particularly important.
In India, after hate speech and disinformation on WhatsApp led to real-world violence and loss of life, Facebook – WhatsApp’s parent company – limited group sizes and message forwarding. Multiple governments have shut down encrypted messaging platforms at various points. And even advanced democracies have started to demand – and even legislate – to create encryption backdoors for law enforcement.
Secondly, because civil society is less constrained than journalists in terms of methodology and available solutions, they have a wider surface area on which to innovate. For instance, the spread of disinformation on encrypted private messaging apps was an issue that caused so much consternation that many argued for the end of encryption altogether.
Similarly, in Ukraine, civic groups have led the development of fact-checking initiatives to counter both Russian propaganda and domestic disinformation.
VoxUkraine is a non-profit digital media platform with a focus on economic issues. As part of its services, which also include research, analytical reports, explainer journalism, and economic education initiatives, its VoxCheck service uses a staff of experts to verify politicians’ public statements on economic issues. The non-profit, civic orientation of these outlets provides several advantages; these fact-checking initiatives are situated within larger initiatives that focus on advocacy, journalism, public education, and media literacy. Furthermore, as digital outlets, they are largely able to retain more editorial independence than television, radio, and print outlets. However, these advantages entail tradeoffs. Representatives of VoxCheck, for example, noted that while they had a large audience, it was situated primarily in the capital of Kyiv, and was composed of younger, wealthier, and more educated consumers, who may already be likely to agree with their reports.4
Civic groups considering fact-checking initiatives should consider being intentional about identifying new audiences, particularly those that might not be otherwise inclined to engage social media.
Hundreds of civil society fact-checking initiatives have sprung up over the last five years around specific flashpoints, with the lessons learned and infrastructure built around those flashpoints then being applied to other issues that impact the same information ecosystem. Among the most systematic forums of international collaboration is the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN)5, a program at the Poynter institute that brings together factcheckers, provides training, creates basic standards for fact-checking, and advocates for factcheckers worldwide. The group also facilitates informal, reactive collaboration: in May 2020, a group in France shared a story with the IFCN that alleged that the Italians had found a way to potentially cure COVID-19. Within an hour, other groups across Europe shared evidence of the same false story circulating in other countries, and their own evidence debunking the story.
During the 2018 Mexican general elections, a CSO-driven initiative, Verificado 2018 partnered with Pop-Up News, Animal Político, and AJ+ Español, along with 80 other partners to fact-check and distribute election-related information, particularly among youth. Before the elections, Verificado was established as a youth civil society group, Verificado19S, named in reference to the September 19, 2017 Puebla earthquake that caused much destruction in the Mexican states of Puebla and Morelos and the Greater Mexico City area, leading to hundreds of deaths. The fact-checking initiative reached more than 200,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter and over 10,000 WhatsApp subscribers. Verificado19S aimed to gather and provide information regarding the earthquake from eyewitnesses through an online questionnaire. Verificado 2018 then utilized the infrastructure and reputation built around the earthquake to replicate a similar initiative around the elections. The initiatives filled an information vacuum in the absence of government-led initiatives and other trusted, reliable sources of information. The initiative received a broad base of financial support from Facebook, Google News Initiative, Twitter, Open Society Foundation, Oxfam México, and Mexicanos contra la Corrupción y la Impunida, further expanding its reach and ensuring the real and perceived independence of the initiative.
Colombia has similarly developed strong fact-checking and research groups focused on the online space that integrate fact-checking. A network of journalists known as the "Editorial Board"(Concejo de Redacción) supports various journalistic initiatives including training and investigation support as well as fact-checking, and supports a group called ColombiaCheck that works to fact-check political statements. This work is inspired partly by the model of Cheqeado, a group based in Argentina. ColombiaCheck began fact-checking information around the peace process negotiations between the government and the FARC rebel group in 2015, and has since continued to develop its methodology through subsequent elections and continuing political events6. ColombiaCheck is certified by the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network and has worked to check content on Facebook as a third party fact-checker.
Latin America as a whole has developed strong fact-checking initiatives, including in Brazil where Agência Lupa represents one of the first initiatives that began in 2015 and is now integrating with the Folha de São Paulo's UOL network, the second largest online media network in the country. In the 2018 national elections, various organizations including Agência Lupa, Aos Fatos and traditional media organizations worked to collaborate through Comprova, a joint initiative supported by First Draft, which is a global project to combat mis- and disinformation that also provides the information disorder framework this guide is partly based on. This is based on the "CrossCheck" model where various media organizations "cross-check" facts and confirm them jointly across platforms, which has been replicated in France, Germany, Nigeria, Spain, the UK and the US. There is no shortage of successful fact-checking initiatives around the world, ranging from Africa Check, the Cyber News Verification Lab in Hong Kong, BOOM in India, Checazap in Brazil, the Centre for Democracy and Development Fact Check archive in West Africa, and Meedan's Check initiative in Ukraine. As part of CEPPS, Internews has supported various initiatives globally ranging from Ethiopia to the Philippines and Turkey.
4 Interview by Bret Barrowman and Dina Sadek (International Republican Institute), October 2019, Kyiv, Ukraine.
5 Disclosure: IFCN is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, IRI’s parent organization.
6 Interview by Daniel Arnaudo (National Democratic Institute) with Pablo Medina, ColombiaCheck Director, February 18, 2020.