How fact-checkers cut through the spin

Fact-checking has become vital in today’s messy world of fake news and misinformation. We talk to proponents of the trade in the UK and US about how they are navigating our changing times

Illustration by Ollie Hoff

During the UK election hubbub of 2019, among the leader spats and passionate canvassing, there was one story which reminded us of how dangerously easy it is to misinform and mislead the public. In late November, during the ITV Leaders’ Debate, the Conservative Party temporarily changed the name of its campaign headquarters press office Twitter account from ‘CCHQPress’ to ‘factcheckUK’.

The account’s avatar, which originally contained the party’s logo, was changed to a white tick against a purple background, and the account proceeded to tweet pro-Tory statements prefixed with the word ‘FACT’ under the guise of an official fact-checking body. It was all changed back after the debate, but the Conservative Party was heavily criticised for the stunt, as many claimed it was created to intentionally mislead the public. Even Twitter issued an official statement warning the party it would take “decisive corrective action” if it was attempted again.

The stunt played into the rise of a new breed of unlikely heroes in our age of fake news: the fact-checkers. More and more of the public are turning to them for the truth, and this in part was why the Conservative Party’s attempt to masquerade as an official place for facts was so loudly chastised.

At a time of fake news and deliberately fraudulent stories being promoted, fact-checking is part of an effort to keep public journalistic dialogue grounded in accuracy

Of course, fact-checking is nothing new – it’s existed since the early 1900s, when Time magazine and the New Yorker were among the first publications to employ people in the role. Yet the job, which requires a detailed, unbiased, curious mind, along with an ability to interpret figures and jargon and find balance in a story, has taken on a new urgency in our turbulent times.

So how does fact-checking work?

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes