THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing on COVID-19 Fact Checking: What Journalists Need to Know, in partnership with the Poynter Institute. My name is Jen McAndrew and I am today’s moderator.
This briefing will provide up-to-date information about fact-checking resources available to journalists to counter COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation and an overview of counter-misinformation efforts around the world. It will also focus on how journalists can utilize the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance in their reporting. This database, one of the largest in the world, is led by the International Fact-Checking Network and the Poynter Institute and fact checks misinformation in 70 countries and more than 40 languages.
Our briefer today is Baybars Orsek, director of international programming at the Poynter Institute and director of the International Fact-Checking Network. Before coming to Poynter, Orsek founded Turkey’s first and only political fact-checking project as the founding chairman of Turkey’s leading media nonprofit. We greatly appreciate Mr. Orsek for sharing his expertise today and the Poynter Institute for supporting the work of foreign correspondents and press freedom.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. Today’s briefer is an independent expert. Views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government. Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views. Our briefer will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions.
And with that, I will pass it over to our briefer, Mr. Orsek. Over to you.
MR ORSEK: Thank you so much, Jen, and hello, everyone. Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening. It is a truly pleasure for me to be here with you today, and I’ll do my best to provide you with the work that we do here at the Poynter Institute, International Fact-Checking Network, and the fact-checking organizations around the world who have been combating against COVID-19 misinformation since the beginning of the pandemic. So I’ll be sharing my screen and we’ll be doing my presentation for 20 to 25 minutes, and then I look forward to having this interactive conversation with you and will be more than happy to – I’ll do my best to answer your questions.
So here, I hope you are now able to see my screen, and on the screen you should be able to see me speaking in front of an audience back in 2019 during our last Global Fact Conference that we were able to do in person in Cape Town in South Africa.
So I’m born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey. I’m the founder of Turkey’s first fact-checking organization, Dogruluk Payi, which translates into English as “Share of Truth,” very hard to pronounce in English, and just a testament of one of the challenges that we have among fact checkers, first of all, how to translate fact checking into our languages. So hopefully our global approach to help fact checkers around the world to tackle so many problems has been useful to them, and I will be walking you through how we try to do that. I moved to Florida in the U.S. in 2019 as the director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute and its international program.
So when we talk about fact checking, obviously I don’t need to remind you that we are talking a little bit different than editorial fact checking. So obviously, fact checking being a part of journalism, fact checking has been a big part of journalism from the beginning, right? All of our editors, our reporters, our staff writers are expected to abide by rules around accuracy and factual information, and this always has been a big part of good journalism.
But when we talk about fact checking today, we usually refer to a new niche within journalism. Some call it as political fact checking; you might hear also a lot of reference to verification, debunking, fake news busting, all different types of labels to define this new, growing profession within fact checking – within journalism. As of September 2021, Duke reports that – part of the Duke University in North Carolina found out that there are 349 fact checking projects in 84 different countries. The number of the fact-checking organizations in the world was 205 only two years ago, so that shows the significant growth rate that we have within the fact-checking world.
And in order to address that need to support for the world’s fact-checking organizations, the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute was launched in late 2015. And immediately after its launch, it introduced code of principles in 2016, which was signed up by 35 organizations from 27 different countries. And Facebook, now known as Meta, announced that they will rely on IFCN’s code of principles for their third-party fact-checking program in December 2016.
Since then, our system have evolved into different type of – different type of review system where we now rely on independent and external assessors to review the adherence to the code, and that started in January 2017. Now we work with 180 experts all around the world to help us to assess the compliance of fact-checking organizations into our criteria. In January 2019, our network reached to 60 organizations from 40 different countries, and as of today we have 110 organizations from 54 different countries. So out of those 349 organizations around the world, 110 of them are part of our network, and I’ll walk through how we define those organizations.
That system is administered by our set of criteria, which we call our code of principles. Code of principles is a set of commitments that we expect the fact checkers to abide by, and they are as follows:
A commitment to nonpartisanship and fairness. We expect the fact-checking organizations to be nonpartisan and fair.
We expect them to have a commitment to standards and transparency of sources, which means their work needs to be replicated by the readers through the sources that they have in their fact checks and the standards that they have in their methodology. A commitment to transparency of funding an organization is a must within our network to make sure that the readers can hold the account – can hold the organizations in the account by being able to see who funds the organization and what type of an organizational structure that they have. Very important, the commitment to standards and transparency methodology allows the factcheckers to communicate their work with the public and build trust with their audiences, especially in an age of mis- and disinformation.
Last but not least, our commitment to an open and honest corrections policy makes the fact-checking organizations a leading figure in building trust with their audiences, because at the end of the day, when fact checkers make a mistake, they should be the first one to correct that and they should be able to communicate that corrections policy openly and honestly with their audiences.
So if you’re interested, you will be more than able to have access to more information on the code of principles, but I just want to save more time for the misinformation on COVID-19 during this brief, but more than happy to answer if you have any questions about that process.
The organization that we have in our network come from a set of different continents, regions, and countries, and they represent the best of the fact-checking organizations as far as their commitments to transparency and accountability. So within the network, in 2020, March 2020, we have initiated the coronavirus fact check – facts alliance – the coronavirus fact-checking alliance, which means the largest collaboration effort in the world for media organizations and fact checkers in general to come together and fight against the COVID-19 misinformation. And that basically happened when we were getting the first set of signals from our fact-checking organizations in different parts of the world to let us know that they see a lot of mis- and disinformation on COVID-19. And that allowed us to reach out the world’s fact checkers and form the largest fact-checking alliance.
Right now in our database, which is publicly available at Poynter.org, there are 16,000 – more than 16,000 fact checks, and those fact checks come from more than 86 countries and they cover more than 40 languages to help the public, the researchers, the decision-makers, the concerned citizens, and, more practically, other fact checkers to see what is being viral and what is in circulation in different countries and how they – the fact checkers themselves should be prepared for a new – for the next wave of misinformation. The database is updated daily. The participating members use simple tools to collaborate on the massive crowdsourcing project. They use a shared spreadsheet and instant messaging apps to collaborate on what they are going to fact check on that particular time of the day and whether they need support and help from other fact checkers. So the database is available in English and in Spanish and in Portuguese, and we have regional initiatives to help translate the content into different languages as well.
Here, you see a screenshot from our database, and it shows the volume of different types of fact checks that our fact-checking organizations contribute to database. You see that there are a lot of fact checks on the spread of the disease, the videos circulated on the internet, the vaccines – not surprisingly – the lockdowns, the government guidances. And that database allows us to also, in real time, monitor what is being viral and what is in circulation on COVID-19 misinformation. And I’ll be providing a bit more context on different types of misinformation on COVID-19, but for those who are interested in – especially in your own countries what is being in circulation, you will hopefully find the database useful, because the database is populated by the fact checks that are sent to us from the fact-checking organizations that are in our network. And they come from more than 85 different countries.
So one of the topics that I was asked to touch on today was the vaccine hesitancy and what does it have to do with our information quality. So it’s been long argued that vaccine hesitancy is a result of an information problem. And I think it is useful to just briefly touch on different types of bad information. If you want to group mis- and disinformation, I think the best way to do that is just to call them bad information, and contrary to the bad information, we always as fact checkers are trying to promote authoritative and credible information through our partnership with tech companies, with media outlets, with the public institutions all around the world. But it’s useful to just see what are those two different types of bad information.
So misinformation for a very long time was the prominent name that we were using to define bad information. It is actually false information shared by people who do not intend to mislead others. So that could be one of the ways that we can define misinformation, while disinformation is deliberately created and disseminated with malicious intent.
Obviously, those two labels are probably going to require more context and nuanced discussion on the different types of the bad information, and we often hear malinformation, or different types of information types to define the information disorder that we are – we have right now.
Both types, obviously, can affect vaccine confidence and vaccination rates, and we see a lot of evidence to support that. Misinformation and disinformation that has circulated about COVID-19 has focused on vaccine development safety and effectiveness, as well as COVID-19 denials. So this is one of the things that we actually as fact checkers try to advocate before tech companies, before the platforms, before media outlets, whether they are the traditional or new media outlets, to help them to understand the risks associated with the mis- and disinformation that can have on people’s lives.
Obviously, you need a fertile ground to grow any type of product, and vaccine hesitancy unfortunately has been one of those products that benefitted a lot from the fertile grounds that we have in our information system.
So I just want to take a minute here to say that vaccine hesitancy is not just an online problem. There are a lot of reasons and tools that we can trace it back and find some explanation for people to suspect to be not that receptive to vaccines. And I guess one of them is the distrust that people may have against big pharma, global corporations, and institutions that are on the front end of this campaign to make vaccines available to the world. And that distrust has obviously local connotations, so this is not a global – this is a problem that has global consequences but also local groups. So the fact-checking organizations that are in our network have been trying to provide more context and input to their public discourse to help them to navigate, help people to navigate their distrust against whatever it is – the big pharma, or the global corporations, or the institutions – and focus on the credible and authoritative information about the safety of vaccines.
Also we have obviously a problem with the communication when it comes to conflicting statements, lack of coordination, and politicization of public figures, as we have seen all around the world when it comes to tackling the misinformation on COVID-19. This is one of the things that health organizations have been trying to partner and fact-checking organizations obviously have been trying to work with each other to address this issue to make sure that the communication is not necessarily unified or standardized, but it is – it relies on certain principles on transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, in the past and our current day we have seen and currently are seeing as well that there are certain actors all around the world on the political level to use the COVID-19 as a tool to either mobilize their constituencies or generate allegiance within the society, whether to stay in power or leverage more power either before the elections or throughout their campaigns.
Last but not least, the influence, the powerful influence and struggle for influence has been a big part of making our information system as a fertile ground for vaccine hesitancy. There are a number of vaccine producers, and some of them are private companies, some of them are state entities; therefore it was inevitable to have a struggle for influence for vaccines since they have become an expert item for influence and profit.
So those fertile grounds for the reasons to have that sort of like a fertile ground for vaccine hesitancy cannot be dealt only through online means. Therefore in the past we have been trying to partner with organizations on the ground that have local reach to identify those reasons, identify those issues, and tackle that in partnership with multiple stakeholders.
So there are a number of different types of COVID-19 misconceptions. This work has been done by factcheck.org, a fact-checking organization that’s part of the International Fact-Checking Network and also part of the University of Pennsylvania, the Annenberg Policy Center, after a year-and-a-half-long data and fact check compiling, and just serves now as one of the frameworks that fact-checking organizations can use to identify different types of COVID-19 misconceptions. So obviously this is not the only categorization, but I find it very useful to understand what types of falsehoods that we see about COVID-19.
So one of them is obviously, not surprisingly, the distortion of science. So since this is – COVID-19 and the misinformation around COVID-19 is highly in a domain – expertise-required field, the bulk of the conversation around COVID-19 is supposed to take on a scientific level. So what we see is that a lot of efforts to distort the science, whether to discredit the academic work, the research that is done on COVID-19 leads to different types of misinformation. So those misconceptions about science needs to be tackled by organizations that have the credibility and the transparency to communicate their scientific work with the public.
From day one – I just remember those days back in 2020, March 2020. The majority of the fact checks that we were – or the majority of falsehoods that we were seeing and the fact checks that were being done on those falsehoods were about the origins of the COVID-19, whether that – the disease was generated in a lab in Wuhan or turned out after – or evolved after some experiments. It’s still being debated, it is still being weaponized as a tool to legitimize the threats, the risks associated with COVID-19 and the provided measures to prevent ourselves.
So the COVID – the origins of COVID-19 has been probably the most prominent type of COVID-19 misconception that fact checkers as well today are still trying to address with their fact checks.
Transmission obviously has also been a very popular misconception for fact checkers, whether it is airborne or whether it can transmit from the surface. It is – has been a big part of the work that we see and within the fact-checking work, and that is still actually very visible especially when it comes to the vaccinated peoples, whether they are transmitting the disease or not; it’s still being used as a tool to generate misinformation and disinformation on the topic.
The existence and virulence of SARS-CoV-2 is where you see a lot of efforts with misinformation to delegitimize the risks of COVID-19 and whether that is the same virus, that debate also generates a lot of distrust on the scientific work, on the information work that has been done on the COVID-19 and its risks.
The diagnosis and tracing. This is probably still one of the areas that we still try to tackle, not only as fact checkers but also the public institutes, the health institutions – how to diagnose the disease, how to trace it. There are also a lot of cases where you see that the diagnosis is discredited in certain settings to just undermine the efforts that health organizations and health professionals do to diagnose the disease, and the trust in testing and the testing capabilities is generating a lot of debate on the political level which in turn generates a lot of distrust against the scientific work that is done about COVID-19.
Prevention. So for a really long time, different types of misinformation was prevalent on the social media on the effectiveness of social distancing, face coverings, and in so many different parts of the world that has become also one of the biggest symbols of the COVID-19 denials. And in my home country just a few days ago, I’ve seen video footage on the social media which was verified by the fact checkers in the country that shows a group of COVID-19 deniers actually attack a store clerk in Istanbul because she asked the protesters to wear a mask within the store because it was – it’s a government decision to have people wear masks in stores in Turkey still, enforced by the government, and the deniers actually tried to symbol – well, they did symbolize mask-wearing as a way to protest, but actually one of the things that really can harm people in real life. One of the things that we really try to promote within the fact-checking world is to prioritize things that can cause real-life harm for the people, and misinformation about the prevention measures COVID-19 is actually one of the top COVID-19 misconceptions that generate that real-life harm to people.
So preventatives and treatment, not surprisingly this is still a big deal, really closely associated with vaccine safety. The misinformation about certain different drug types which are not endorsed or approved by certain – or by respected local and national entities are used as a tool to undermine the impact, the effectiveness of vaccines, by promoting certain preventative and treatment measures is generating a lot of mis- and disinformation, which in turn generates real-life harm to people.
And vaccination – so the world has reached a certain point where billions of people have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, but I have seen within the work that we have done within the fact-checking world that the vaccines constitute the bulk of fact checks that fact checkers do right now. So the data that we have shows that the fact checks now that the fact-checking organizations do usually focus on the vaccines.
There are less and less fact checks that are needed on the origins of the disease, the transmission of the disease. And just growingly we see more and more fact checks that are done on vaccines, which actually shows that there is a lot of, I will say, struggle for power on the vaccine space. And we as the fact-checking organizations still try to address those types of misinformation, disinformation.
And the data that we have shows how similar actually those falsehoods are that you see in different parts of the world and the main themes of those falsehoods are actually to promote one vaccine over another or undermine one vaccine just because, like, that’s either not deemed as credible or maybe friendly, given their relationship with their – or their origins vis-à-vis the country that you see those falsehoods.
So I’d like to stop here and see if I can also answer your questions, since I just realized that I did my 25 minutes of brief, and hopefully this will give you a basis for understanding what the fact-checking world around the – the fact-checking companies around the world tries best to prevent people suffering from COVID-19 related misinformation.
I just want to wrap up with this. In the first couple of the months of the pandemic our assessment of the information problem around COVID-19 was that it was misleading, it was usually an attempt to undermine the importance of the pandemic. But right now it is alarming to see that the motivation that we see behind the COVID-19 misinformation, disinformation is to generate real-life harm and undermine the work that are done by credible organizations around the world. So hopefully we will do more work on this front with the support that we have from the broader journalistic community as well. Thank you so much, Jen and everyone.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that comprehensive overview. We will now begin the Q&A portion for today’s briefing. If you would like to ask a question, you can please raise your hand using the raise hand button, or you can submit it in the chat box.
Before we go to live questions, we did have an advance question submitted from Yan Jin in China, and I will paraphrase that question: As at-home antigen tests become more widely used, can you address misinformation about these tests? How can journalists ensure accurate reporting about the count of infection with the increase in at-home testing?
MR ORSEK: Thank you so much for the question. First of all, as someone who has been also trying to deal with this pandemic, I also – I think I’m also able to answer this question as a citizen as well, like as just someone who is also concerned about the disease for himself and his family. I ordered four in-home tests just this week, and I’m hoping to have them like in the next couple of days to see if we can have a better way of identifying whether there is anyone within the family that has the disease.
So I think the home tests will be a huge boost to the society in general to be able to identify whether they are infected or not, but that can also come with a cost, right? I mean, convenience always comes with a cost. And that cost in this case will be the credibility of the results. So for a very long time – and I had to take like probably a countless number of tests in the last two years, and they were certified by professionals, qualified professionals, either a health organization or you’re going to a clinic or you were doing the test in a testing facility. That was deemed as more credible than probably the home test will be deemed as credible right now. So I expect a lot of misconceptions about the integrity of the home tests, and that should be actually addressed by the governments in general to be able to provide a better way of authenticating those test results.
So it was a tradeoff to, I guess, for a lot of decision-makers in the world, to promote the integrity of test results or the timely – the rapidness of the test results. So there’s going to be probably a transition period as far as the public being more comfortable with the results of the home tests, and that can only be addressed by making the process transparent, providing clear guidance on how to document those cases, and whether there can be ways to streamline that process where people can take the home tests but then certify the results using tools that are certified by organizations that are credible and qualified.
But I guess eventually, we all will be in a position to use those tests and then make the readings with our own research at home, and that will be probably the way that we will go through this pandemic. Because more testing generates more measures, and those measures will be probably matched by a better comment on our understanding of the spread of the disease. But right now, I already can see that the home tests are going to be politicized, actually, the way that they – different types of home testing features and different types of disease have been in the past, but I think this is one of the tradeoffs that we have to make and make the process smooth and transparent as much as possible as time pass.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now take a question from Alex Raufoglu, Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan. Alex, can you unmute yourself?
QUESTION: Yes, Jen, thank you so very much, and Dr. Orsek, I really appreciate your work that you have put together. Thank you for briefing us today.
I understand that most information – misinformation and disinformation that has circulated about COVID-19 vaccines have focused on vaccine development, safety, and effectiveness, et cetera. But when you sort out and analyze those 16,000 fact checks, are you able to detect their sources and possible bad actors behind those false narratives, whether they are just concerned individuals or state actors? I’m asking this because if we can quickly not only detect and also publicly call out and attribute possible state propaganda, we may be better able to fight the pandemic, right?
And separately, if I may, any particular country or any regions that, in your opinion, are of – particular vulnerable for vaccine – overall COVID disinformation? Thank you so much again.
MR ORSEK: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. If you don’t mind, I’ll start from the second question just because I think it can be also a segue to my answer to your first question. So what we have seen in the last two years was that misinformation from the top has a much more visible – well, it’s stronger. When misinformation comes from the top, it can be amplified through the gatekeepers that, like, operate in the country, whether it’s the media, it’s the political groups, political parties.
So just to give you a couple of examples, we have seen a lot of leaders in different parts of the world who have actually politicized COVID-19 by being a public denier. Some of those political actors you are very familiar with are still in power, some are not, but at the end of the day, their attitudes in undermining the risks of COVID-19 generated preventable losses to the people in those countries.
I don’t think – whether it’s a right thing for me to say that, but I mean, in the last year or so, we have worked with a number of different fact checkers in different parts of the world – in LATAM, in the North America, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, in Africa, which we have seen that leaders did a lot of damage in hurting the trust in the public discourse about the prevention measures of – against COVID-19 and how that impacts the people. Because when misinformation comes from the top, it is very – it spreads very easily because when it just comes together with the support that those political actors have and it becomes an identity, therefore, people are more subject and vulnerable to the misinformation, because then they can associate that type of attitude against the risks of COVID-19 with their political identities and political beliefs.
To your first question, when we were analyzing the data, obviously we did not analyze the data by ourselves because we are not qualified to do so. So we work with researchers, academics all around the world to identify the groups of the COVID-19. So, so far, using our database, a number of studies have been published on peer-reviewed journals. We work with the University of Washington. We work with University of Sao Paulo. We work with the university – sorry to you, I forgot about a university in Indonesia – to identify the roots of the COVID-19 disinformation.
And in so many different ways, we – the researchers have found out that our database, while it’s definitely not the only way to identify the source of misinformation, but it’s at least a large sample to start from somewhere, shows that, first of all, misinformation travels across borders. So it doesn’t necessarily limit itself into one country. So the misinformation that you see in Spain – in Italy in spring 2020, it was all there in Spain just a few months ago with the same themes, same motives, and same structure, basically.
So some of that misinformation comes from the top, as I said, and it is pretty easily to identify when that’s the case, because you can easily associate the type of misinformation to the discourse that’s used in the top. The challenging part in identifying the risk of misinformation is when it is genuinely originated by, like, users on the internet that are kind of, like, making this as a way to generate profit. Because at the end of the day, the tools that they can use to hide themselves, tools that they can use to attribute the misinformation to others, is a challenging path for fact checkers.
At that point, we need more collaboration and transparency and openness from the tech companies and platforms to help us understand what makes misinforming posts, misleading posts viral, and how we can trace it back to its root. So that becomes a challenge when the tech companies are not that comfortable or willing to share their data and work with researchers to help them to understand the use of the misinformation. So it’s easier when it comes from the top. It’s more damaging, it’s more challenging it’s more risky, but it’s easier to identify. And it’s harder to identify when it comes from the bottom and the tech companies are not willing to collaborate.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to Kanwal Abidi from AZB Pakistan. Kanwal, please unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: We can hear you. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay, hi. Hello, everyone. Thanks for doing this call. I think this is a very important topic, and this one briefing won’t be enough. I think we’ll need another briefing with you, sir. So with that, I have four questions, and with the permission of you all.
And one is the most basic question: Does COVID live on air or does it breathe on the surface? My first question. My second question is on the origins of COVID-19. You talked – sir, you talked about the Wuhan lab. As I’m from Pakistan, and Pakistan and China share a lot of good, good friendship, so if I outright say this virus originated from Wuhan lab, maybe I lose the job. But just to be off the record, I would like you to quote me some evidence that – how did – you said it originated and it came from Wuhan lab. And so can you just throw some light on it?
And my third question is: Do you think COVID will ever end? And my last but not the least, do you think wearing masks really stopped the virus? Because when we wear masks, there is no oxygen transaction; we tend to take our carbon dioxide back. So do you think that is detrimental to health? Thank you.
MR ORSEK: Well, thank you so much. I mean, I’m flattered to be on the other side of such expert questions, like questions that require expertise to take. I mean, I probably contradict myself if I just, like, be sharing my, like – or maybe providing, like, hot takes on your questions. So I believe in principle, like, the questions that you asked needs to be addressed, like, answered by people that have, like, more credibility. Because I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, but I will just, like, try to explain what how we try to tackle those, like, questions, if you don’t mind.
So obviously, our goal as fact checkers is not to censor or block any narrative or any point of discussion. I mean, our goal is to work with experts, quote them, and through our methodology, find ways to help people to understand the issue that we are tackling with – and in this case, that’s COVID, the COVID-19 – and have them the opportunity to be better informed, right? So what we try to do instead of, like, providing definitive answers to such questions, we try to make the topic discussed based on facts.
So one challenge that we have, obviously, right now, is that the facts are, first of all, they’re politicized. And since this is a topic that requires scientific research, science obviously builds on its existing work, and it just – it was, right? So our understanding of the disease probably have changed, if not totally at least slightly, over the last two years. But I strongly believe that, first of all, the preventive measures that we are talking about are very important for people to protect not only themselves but others from the disease. So I strongly encourage wearing masks in indoor places per the guidelines provided by various national authorities.
And when it comes to like whether I see an end light in the – at the end of this tunnel, I sure do. The humankind have obviously progressed a lot lately, and even – it is fascinating even at this point in the history to be able to have reliable vaccines in such quantities and volumes during the pandemic so the people can have a chance to fight against the virus.
So I’m very optimistic about the future, but I mean, I think we all need to be taking our responsibility in helping people to navigate in such a turmoil in this age of information. This is not the first pandemic, but this is the first pandemic in the world that came together with an infodemic. So I am really invested in finding ways to help the fact-checking organizations to find tools to fight with the infodemic while supporting the scientific work all around the world to work against, fight against the virus on the scientific level.
So if you don’t mind, I would like to just like leave the scientific part to the scientists but just make sure that what we do is to provide additional context and factual information to people who are trying to navigate during this pandemic, because otherwise it’s really dark out there. I mean, the information quality that we have not only in the online space but in the offline space as well requires a lot of added context, and that’s what we are trying to accomplish as a fact-checking community.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to Sandra Muller from Audiovisuel Lettre, France. Sandra, if you can unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Yes. Hello, Harry (ph). Hello, everyone. It’s really interesting. I just have two short question. The first one is I’m on – I saw your website. I’m just checking some fact about my country, France, and it’s really interesting. The only things is I wanted to know if you think you’re going to launch an application version, because it doesn’t work so well on my iPhone and I spend so many time on my iPhone, so I need to go on this – on my computer, on my laptop.
And the second question is I think it’s not a real diplomatic question, sorry for that, but I’m just a journalist. What is – do you – did you see a country which spread more fake information than the other ones? So do you – when you make the count, is there a country where there is a lot of fake news more than in another one? And if you can tell me about France maybe, because French people are like really – they got vaccinated like exactly the same rate in America, but just they are louder; maybe we can say that. Thank you.
MR ORSEK: Well, thank you. Thank you so much. So one of the studies that were done using our database found out that Brazil was one of the – like the leading countries as far as like the prevalence of false information. That doesn’t say that Brazil had the most misinformation, but at least that study found that the fact checkers in our – in our network were able to identify more falsehoods in Brazil than the others were able to do in their countries. So it is at least for us a way to see how misinformation populates in a country. But again, I mean, further research obviously is required on that question to figure out which country or which setting. And to be honest with you, I don’t think it’s only – it is not that easy for us to identify the misinformation by country because I think it’s now more international, global. So I will say like (mostly) the motives for different types of misinformation is probably going to be our key focus in the future to identify. Because what you see, let’s say, in the U.S., you can easily see that anytime in the next day or so in a different country or vice versa.
So it’s not that easy to put the false information within a border, within a country right now, but I know for a fact that, like, fact checkers in Brazil and India, for example, are trying to deal with a lot of misinformation as well. That – one of the findings of that study was that the level of internet penetration also has a lot to do with that sort of, like, virality of misinformation.
And media literacy obviously is the key to tackle that in the mid and long run, because fact checking is a way to counter misinformation, but it helps through media literacy means – it helps people to be better at identifying misinformation. So one of the things that we try to do is not only publish fact checks but to help people to be better fact checkers by themselves. It’s a bit counterintuitive, because at the end of the day our goal seems like we are not going to be needed because if everyone becomes a fact checker by themselves, there shouldn’t be a need for fact checkers. But our goal is actually to help the people be better protected against fact check – against the misinformation.
So the database – you are right, it’s not very friendly, it’s not very mobile-friendly. But the reason is that – I mean, the visualization that we use on the website is kind of a bit data-consuming, so that doesn’t work like the way that it does on the desktop. But what we do have is a chat bot on WhatsApp. So we have a chat bot on WhatsApp that anyone in the world can use, and I will be more than happy to share the link in chat in a minute. So if you are a WhatsApp user, you can log in and it will detect your number that is associated with your WhatsApp, so it will show you the latest fact checks from your country.
So in France we have four or – I mean, I believe four different fact check – I mean, don’t quote me on that. I don’t want to be fact checked if – if I say, like, if something particular about the number of fact checkers in France. But I – like, we have a number of fact-checking organizations that are very active and they publish a lot of fact checks. I’m not, like, at this moment on top of my head, not ready to answer a country-specific question for France, but I know for a fact that French fact checkers are one of the very active fact checkers in the world. AFP, which is actually a global fact-checking operation, is also very active as far as tackling misinformation, so I’m really happy to be able to work with a community in France of fact checkers to do fact-checking work. So —
QUESTION: Yes, because they are working that with Google. There are partnerships that just —
MR ORSEK: Yes.
QUESTION: — have been signed like a few weeks ago, yeah, with a bigger company. Okay, thank you.
MODERATOR: We are coming to the end of our time, but I did receive a follow-up from Kanwal Abidi and Pakistan to her question. Mr. Orsek, if you could just share any fact-checking resources for journalists who are reporting on the origins of COVID-19.
MR ORSEK: So actually, we have a country-specific course for Pakistan. If you are interested, I would be more than happy to follow up and providing you access to that course. We have developed a fact-checking training for fact checkers in Pakistan. We work with Center for Excellence in Journalism in Pakistan, and we were very happy to be able to do that work together. So I hope you will find that training useful. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to have access. So to – and that course touches on that particular topic, like how to identify things to fact check and whether it is the origins of the disease or the transmission, so there are so many useful examples out there.
I am a strong advocate of relying on authoritative information and doing my best to identify what is authoritative information and what is credible and what’s not. So on that front, I believe what we see right now is a work in progress by the scientific community to help come up with a definitive answer on the origins of the disease. So there are qualified and brilliant minds working on this topic. The more we can contribute to that discourse as fact checkers, I think we can be in a position to communicate those findings to the public, because obviously there is a need for more trust. I’m not saying that the trust has been breached, but obviously it is fragile, so we fact checkers needs to help them to communicate their work, not by just amplifying their work by their face value, but holding them accountable and making sure that their transparency can help them to generate that trust with the public.
So that’s why we do a lot of fact checks on the public figures. That’s why we do a lot of fact checks on the people that communicate the developments on the COVID-19, on the scientific research, or the different types. So I hope that was, like, a satisfied question, but I did want to be able to make sure that I don’t – necessarily making a definitive statement on any part of the topic because I think that expertise needs to be credited and taken into account.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have now come to the end of our time, so with that, we will conclude today’s briefing. As a reminder to all of our journalists, the transcript will be posted on our website and shared later today. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State and Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank you, Mr. Orsek, for giving your time today to brief the foreign press. Thank you and good morning.
MR ORSEK: Thank you so much.