What is fact-checking?
Fact-checking literally means "verification of facts". It is the basis of a journalist's work, which he or she must systematically perform before publishing. It is actually a derivative of an old American practice. As early as the 1920s, fact-checkers were employed by certain magazines in the United States, such as Time, which was quickly followed by The New Yorker before spreading to the rest of the press across the Atlantic. At the time, their role was to verify the information before the publication of the newspaper, to guarantee the accuracy of the contents: to check the names, dates, figures, and facts in all the articles. A verification procedure is now normally part of the journalists' job or the editorial secretaries for certain elements.
But in recent years, this notion has evolved. It is no longer only a question of checking data beforehand and, above all, afterward. Fact-checking has, in a way, mutated at the beginning of the 21st century with the rise of digital technology, the generalization of the instantaneousness of information, and the multiplication of fake news. The term now refers to the practice of verifying statements made by politicians, corporate communications, or elements of public debate. This exercise can be applied as well to a statement, figures, photos, videos, or texts, as to contents published by the media or any websites and relayed more and more rapidly on all the social networks available to us.
Thus, faced with the phenomenal quantity of publications disseminated every day, it is impossible for the media to "fact-check" all this data. This verification work has thus become random and punctual. Either because the topic is on the front page of all newspapers, or because listeners, readers, and viewers ask for it on specific facts, or because investigative journalists have serious doubts about the veracity of the facts stated, or on the contrary, to put across an idea corresponding to a certain editorial line. This work has, on the other hand, become systematic at certain moments of the democratic life of the states and notably during electoral campaigns. It is moreover during these periods that the first French media started to create cells of journalists specialized in fact-checking. Objective: to enlighten the public debate by verifying and correcting misleading or confusing assertions and to give citizens the keys to reading the programs of the different candidates. All of this is done in the light of well-identified, quoted sources that are as objective as possible so as not to distort this work of fighting disinformation. Numerous fact-checking columns were notably broadcast during the 2022 presidential elections, such as after the debate between the two rounds in the "real and fake" section of France info.
In France, the media monitoring site "Arrêt sur Images" was one of the pioneers of the genre. Others quickly followed suit, such as the newspapers Libération and Le Monde, with respectively the columns "Désintox" (which became CheckNews) and the blog "Les Décodeurs" launched at the end of the 2000s, but also the Vérificateurs on LCI with whom Buster.Ai collaborated. The two big names of the French daily press wanted to offer spaces entirely dedicated to the practice. It is the 2012 presidential election that marked the quasi-generalization of these sections in the hexagon, whether in the written press, on the radio, and television.
All types of subjects can be scrutinized. For example, on October 14, "Les Décodeurs" was interested in the energy savings demanded by the public authorities. The site refuted fake news saying that Switzerland promises 200 euros to those who will denounce neighbors who heat their homes too much and another about French operators who would have planned to cut the internet or hot water to their subscribers this winter without warning them. On November 19, Libération devoted its fact-checking column to the record excess mortality in Iceland last summer. A surprising fact, without any logical explanation. It was in fact an error in the publication of the Eurostat data. This error has since been corrected by the European agency in charge of statistical information at the community level.
What is its place today in the media?
If fact-checking is, in the beginning, a practice inherent to journalism, the treatment in its current form has become an obviousness for the major media, even a necessity, for several reasons. First, the exponential development of the Internet allows access to hundreds of millions of data and offers the possibility to everyone to find all the information he wants on any subject. Information that can, again, be published by anyone without it being possible to identify its origin or reliability.
But it is their massive diffusion today that raises difficulties in the fight against disinformation. It is the emergence and development of content-sharing platforms such as social networks, whether we are talking about Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter, that have accentuated the phenomenon of fake news. According to a 2018 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Cambridge), fake news spreads six times faster than real news. For the study, the largest ever conducted on the subject, researchers analyzed 126,000 pieces of information circulating on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, spread by more than 3 million people. They distinguished between true and false information, thanks to six organizations specialized in fact-checking. According to them, while real information is rarely spread to more than 1,000 people, some "fake news" reaches up to 100,000 users and is retweeted more. The scientists' conclusion is clear: "Lies spread significantly further, faster, deeper, and wider than the truth in all categories of information". This finding is even more pronounced for information in the field of politics, much more than lies about terrorism, health, natural disasters, or urban legends. Data push the media to debunk this false information.
Because beyond the mission of transmitting news, the press also has a very important role in the fight against disinformation. What could be more natural to promote their content than to demonstrate the quality of their research and verification work? It is also a question of restoring trust with readers, listeners, and television viewers, which has been largely eroded in recent years. According to a June 2022 survey conducted by the YouGov Institute and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, only 29% of French people say they can believe the news most of the time. La Croix's 2022 Media Barometer, a reference on media credibility since 1987, gave slightly different figures in January, but indicated the same trend of distrust. According to the survey, only 44% of respondents believe "that the media provide reliable and verified information". Faced with this mistrust, fact-checking seems to be a good way for media titles to improve their image and regularly fight against fake news.
Fact-checking, at the service of critical thinking?
Fact-checking finally links several of the missions that the media are charged with: informing, giving keys to understanding, or popularizing while leaving it up to each person to form his or her own opinion. If the raw information processed by a media is never totally objective, it is also dependent on its editorial line. This is where fact-checking comes into play. Since it relies on verified and reliable sources, the idea for the media is not to transmit an opinion, but simply to put forward the elements available to shed light on the subject at hand. It is undoubtedly the journalistic exercise that comes closest to neutrality, if it is done seriously and with quality data, to flush out disinformation and leave room for critical thinking. It is also an essential tool for a peaceful public debate, but also for the business world. The proliferation of fake news is costly. A study by the University of Baltimore estimated that misinformation caused 39 billion dollars of damage to the American financial markets in one year and 79 billion dollars worldwide (see the impact of misinformation on the financial world).
The principle of fact-checking has its limits. The media that practices it must itself be qualified as serious. How can we be sure that it is not the one spreading false information? This question refers once again to the critical sense and the confidence of the citizens towards the classic media and to the necessity for these to diffuse the sources used to debunk. Sometimes judged for their pretentiousness, the media are not exempt from criticism in this exercise. The methods used and the editorial choices are regularly questioned: why this sentence, why the statements of this personality rather than another, why are we not talking about this theme, but only about that one?
Moreover, the elements of the language analyzed are occasionally truncated. For example, this is what is often blamed on politicians who speak about unemployment figures, not specifying that they are only quoting the figures for one category of jobseekers and not for all of them. The reality is therefore often more nuanced. Not everything is black and white, true, or false.
Faced with so much information to verify daily, but also with the structural and cyclical crisis that the press is going through today, it seems that it will be more and more difficult for it to devote sufficient staff to the very time-consuming fact-checking. This verification exercise is therefore likely to change a lot in the years to come. The multiplication of misinformation and its distribution channels cannot be countered by only a few fact-checking cells that have neither enough time nor enough weapons to face it.
Is Buster.Ai the future of fact-checking?
The method of verifying information will therefore continue to change in the future by moving towards technology. And fact-checking is part of Buster.Ai's DNA. The way its tool works is simple and intuitive. Starting from a statement you write in natural language on the platform, the artificial intelligence developed by the company searches for all relevant sources related to the topic. Thousands of international sources from news agencies, media, encyclopedias, scientific documents, statistical or government data are scanned in just a few seconds. Buster.Ai offers a set of sources related to the proposed statement. Thanks to the almost instantaneous concentration of all this data in one place, all you must do is consult the passages of the referenced pages, confirming or refuting your proposition. It's up to you to judge whether the facts are true or not.
Thanks to artificial intelligence, the company's mission is to accompany the media, but also companies, to detect misinformation and avoid its harmful impacts. Thanks to the machine, humans now have access to millions of sources to verify statements. Sources that would have been impossible to consult in such a precise and fast way to analyze the massive flow of data available on the Net. As the company's CEO Julien Mardas explained in January 2022 on the set of BFM Business: "Replacing humans is illusory and not a good thing. The tool does not seek to replace him, but to accompany him in his decision-making in the face of the mountain of information that rises before him. As the company director specified, we find the perfect marriage between a "social and technological dimension" at the service of human free will and the fight against disinformation and "misinformation".
Sources of the article:
"Fact-checking or the reinvention of a verification practice":
"Fact-checking: a response to the crisis of information and democracy":
"CheckNews" Libération :
"Vrai ou Fake" by France info for the 2022 presidential runoff debate:
"Les décodeurs" from Le Monde newspaper:
"Les vérificateurs" of LCI:
June 2022 YouGov and Reuters Institute poll for the study of journalism:
La Croix 2022 Media Barometer:
"Deciphering information and developing a critical sense":
"Do fake news threaten public debate":