An Urgent Task: Bust the Myth
Deconstructing Gossip, Rumours and Lies: Battling Misinformation in a Climate of Fake News
Has Malta’s population doubled over the past 10 years? No. Will the World Health Organisation assume powers over Malta’s constitution? No. Can dogs get high from cannabis smoke? Sure. These are only a drop in the ocean of fake news, misinformation, and disinformation that has been hitting Malta for years. The Times of Malta is the first media house in Malta to have a proper fact-checking service that clears some of the most important stories in the news and buzzing all over social media. With politicians and common users alike making unsubstantiated claims or disseminating such claims without checking them first, this initiative by the Times of Malta together with the University of Malta and other partners of the Mediterranean Digital Media Observatory (MedDMO) could not come soon enough.
3CL caught up with Neville Borg, the curator of the misinformation-busting service, to discuss his experience of leading this initiative locally.
An Initiative to Fight the Mis- and Dis-information Threat
Why did the ToM feel the need for such a fact-checking service?
I think fact-checking is increasingly becoming a core function of news organisations around the world. Media and news organisations have, of course, always done some form of fact-checking as part of their regular reporting and investigation, but the nature of the spread of misinformation and disinformation today means that this is more crucial than ever.
We need to acknowledge that misinformation and disinformation are not fleeting concerns, they are here to stay and are likely to become an even greater threat to society in the future. We know that false news makes its way around the world in the blink of an eye, far quicker than true stories do, and bad actors are becoming more adept at tailoring false narratives to local contexts and using technological developments for malicious purposes.
So media organisations need to adapt to this reality by tackling the spread of misinformation head-on. I think fact-checking services, such as the one run by Times of Malta, are one way of doing that.
Aside from that, there’s a European perspective to all this. The Times of Malta’s fact-checking service forms part of a broader network of fact-checkers in Greece and Cyprus, called the Mediterranean Digital Media Observatory (MedDMO). This is part of an initiative that the European Commission has undertaken over the past years to combat mis- and disinformation, creating fact-checking and media literacy hubs throughout all EU member states.
What kind of feedback did you receive so far? Do readers read fact-checked stories and share them on their social media channels?
The feedback has been excellent, we were positively surprised to see just how much thirst there was for this type of content. The indications we have are that readers would like to see even more fact-checking articles and appreciate the way that this type of content helps them discern whether a claim is true or not.
All in all, the first few months of our fact-checking work have been very encouraging.
The Process of Fact-Checking Stories
What are the criteria you use to decide whether a story needs to be checked?
We generally try to evaluate the kind of impact that an issue might have. The way we do that depends on the type of story that we are dealing with. Just to give you an example, if it is a relatively straightforward issue (such as a falsified video or photo, for instance) we might look at how widely it is being shared, whether people are incorrectly believing it to be genuine, the degree of harm it could be causing, and so forth.
In some more complex instances, such as when we are dealing with political statements, we might look into whether a false narrative is being frequently repeated and becoming part of public discourse and how relevant the fact-check would be to the broader public debate about the issue.
What are the criteria you apply when checking a story?
The first thing we set out to do when kicking off the service was to develop a code of principles based on established international fact-checking standards and practices.
Amongst other things, this code of principles explains how we commit to being open and transparent in terms of the methods we use to fact-check claims, the sources of data we cite, and the processes we adopt when fact-checking a claim.
We also clearly explain the rating system we have developed, which is nuanced in a way to reflect various levels of truth and falsehood within claims.
What kind of stories have you fact-checked? What was the outcome of the assessment? At a glance it seems most stories are political in nature.
The claims we have fact-checked so far vary wildly in nature. As you mentioned, several of them are political in nature, although I suppose it is difficult to see any issue that a media organisation deals with as political, ultimately.
However, as you point out, some deal directly with statements made by political figures or in political fora, while others deal with scams, technology (such as artificial intelligence), or just old-fashioned fearmongering, in some cases.
Misinformation and disinformation come in many shapes and forms, so I think it is important for a fact-checking service to be open and flexible enough to debunk it regardless of where or how it is being spread.
Settling the Score in a Maltese Context
Which story proved the most challenging to fact check? Why?
There hasn’t been a single specific story that I would say was more challenging than others, but in general, fact-checks that are based on political statements tend to be particularly challenging for several reasons.
For starters, these statements are often made within the context of a broader political debate being carried out by different political agents, each with their own partisan interests and agendas and each adopting varying shades of truth and falsehood throughout the debate. So, once you begin trying to untangle a claim it quickly becomes quite complex and messy.
Secondly, political statements are often presented as opinions or couched in subjective or nebulous terms that make them more difficult to debunk or directly contradict.
Do fake news, misinformation and disinformation in the Maltese context follow international trends or is it different?
They do follow international trends in some respects, but they also diverge in others.
Very often when a false or manipulated photo or video is being shared as a form of misinformation or disinformation, we find that this has also been shared in other countries, often for similar purposes. Likewise, scammers operating in Malta tend to operate internationally, so the scams we see are very similar in nature to those that take place internationally, using similar tools, techniques, and methods.
On the other hand, some forms of misinformation or disinformation are sometimes tailored to the local context, especially when they deal with issues that are of particular concern to the Maltese people. So, for instance, we have recently seen several false claims about Malta’s population and the number of foreigners in Malta, all preying upon people’s (sometimes legitimate) concerns about issues like demographic change.
Do you think this fact-checking service is making a difference to the Maltese digital media landscape and its consumers?
That’s probably a question that readers and other people working within the media landscape can be better placed to answer, to be honest. Personally, I like to think that it has made some sort of impact and I find it quite interesting to see that some other people operating within the media sector (including some that have been subjects of fact-checks themselves) are starting to present some of their own work as fact-checking.
Should other Maltese media offer the same service? How can we increase citizens’ level of digital literacy?
I think having more fact-checking initiatives can only be a good thing. Combating disinformation needs to be a collective effort that is not only the prerogative of the media, but also of other sectors of society, including the political class, the education system, and others.
Digital literacy is key to this, because it limits the spread of misinformation and disinformation by equipping the public with tools to question and critically assess whether something they come across online could be false or manipulated.
In fact, improving digital literacy is one of the main goals of this fact-checking project. One thing we try to do in many of our fact-checks is explain the methods we use to verify information and be transparent with how we obtained the data, in an effort to show our readers that they too can carry out their own fact-checking.