In an era when facts and opinion have become jumbled, when “fake news” can mean a vicious hoax or simply a politician displeased by a particular story, it’s hard to cut through the static. So it’s good to know that one guy and his colleagues in a Paris newsroom have been working overtime to offer help — as members of an eight-year-old team that’s become the gold standard for fact-checking at newspapers around the world.
Samuel Laurent, a former political journalist from Grenoble, joined Les Décodeurs, a blog connected to the French daily newspaper Le Monde, in 2010, about a year after it began. At the time it was a two- or three-post-a-week operation devoted to classic fact-checking with a focus on politics. But as France wrangled over gay marriage in 2013 — a battle that spewed fake, homophobic stories — the paper expanded its use of data journalism and explanatory journalism in an attempt to make sense of spurious information being spread throughout the country.
“Classically, you say, ‘Journalists don’t talk about rumors because it will just spread them more,’” Laurent explains, “but we think this is wrong. On the internet today, we don’t have the monopoly on information and news, so if you don’t talk about a rumor, the rumor keeps spreading. It’s a trap.” Similarly, journalists who ignore conspiracy theories tend to invite criticism from the fringes that the mainstream media is trying to cover something up, or is afraid to talk about it. For Laurent, the solution was obvious: Talk about it, and give people better information.
Is it even possible for media outlets to educate readers after they’ve lost faith in those media outlets as unbiased sources?
In 2014, he proposed an idea to Le Monde: Combine fact-checking, data and long explanatory pieces into one online section, keeping the name Les Décodeurs. They said yes and gave him a team of seven, since expanded to 12, which has exposed hoaxes like fake photos of a deserted Paris and phony messages from the city government following the 2015 Paris attacks, and false charges about candidates’ pasts and policy positions during the recent French presidential and legislative elections. For the team’s efforts, the new and improved Décodeurs was nominated this year for a Data Journalism Award by the Global Editors Network.
As it’s amped up — and become better acquainted with the enemy — Les Décodeurs has created a series of technological tools aimed at helping readers be more informed. While Le Monde’s print readers have always been a pretty educated group, Laurent says, explanatory stories can be invaluable for the larger, more disparate audience the paper finds on the web. Thus a big part of their job is creating le bon outil au bon moment — the right tool at the right moment. In addition to a search engine of their past debunkings, the online toolkit includes a browser extension that tells you when you’re visiting a website prone to spreading hoaxes or misinformation, help for teachers looking to integrate fact-checking practices in the classroom, a Facebook bot to verify social media posts and, launching shortly, pop-ups that follow you across the internet, alerting you if a subject you’ve pulled up has been fact-checked by Les Décodeurs or a partner site.
France’s battle against fake news is helped, Laurent says, by the lack of deeply partisan mainstream media sources, which in the U.S. and U.K. have demonstrated their power to spread false information and racist hysteria. While France does have a militant right-wing blog scene, aka la fachosphère, with similar activism on the far left, actual media outlets remain fairly centrist. Still, there are times when the extremes collide. “[President Emmanuel] Macron was the first victim of fake news because he was hated by the right wing and hated by the left wing,” Laurent says. Supporters of right-wing candidates François Fillon and Marine Le Pen shared anti-Macron hoaxes — but so did supporters of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Meanwhile, Laurent points out, it’s not uncommon for respected news outlets to inundate readers with clickbait articles and native advertising, which “isn’t helping to win trust back.” Neither is the attempt by some prominent papers to hire dissenting voices, like climate change skeptics, not normally heard in their pages. “You can also hire Nazis if you want balance,” Laurent says. “In my opinion, doing this is giving up on journalism.”
“[Les Décodeurs] is definitely among the leaders in fact-checking around the world,” says Lucas Graves, author of Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism. While U.S. news outlets have relied on fact-checking for a long time, it’s mostly been overseen by independent services, like PolitiFact. Le Monde was among the first well-established global news organizations to bring the operation in-house and to do it consistently.
To be sure, there’s a question whether it’s even possible for media outlets to educate readers after they’ve lost faith in those media outlets as unbiased sources. A Boston University study published in June found that fact-checkers “were not influential in determining the agenda of news media overall, and their influence appears to be declining.”
Nevertheless, data journalism projects like Les Décodeurs are making a difference, as other newspapers double down on fact-checking with footnoted speeches and entertaining fact-checking videos. Le Monde, along with dozens of other French and international news sites, has partnered with Google News on a fact-checking database called CrossCheck that may reduce the manpower needed for hoax-busting. But, says Graves, “None of them think there’s a silver bullet that’s going to make it easy for fact-checkers to prevent politicians from lying.”
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