Global Cooperation in Defense of the 'Truth'
A Conversation with Dr Lucas Graves
The International Fact-Checking Network is an interesting example of global cooperation amongst private, independent entities, instead of a more institutional or state-led global cooperation. What in particular do you think makes the Network stand out in this context?
The thing that makes fact checking so interesting is that fact checkers are very strongly oriented to their domestic politics- so even though they have common missions, they first emerge from civil societies in their own countries. They end up wanting to communicate, wanting to identify best practices- because they see that the problem they are addressing exists on a global scale and very often, misinformation crosses borders and they benefit from an exchange of ideas. We, Laurens (Laurens Lauer) and I, see this as a kind of transnational institution which is in the process of being developed, in the process of being born, but its origins are rooted in civil societies on the ground. This is a characteristic of other social movements too, where international regimes have had a role to play, but the movement is born out of particular discourses that bubble up out of civil society in a particular country and become common across the communities.
How would you interpret the fact that the network has seen emergence in the Global North? Does that endanger the ‘global’ push within the Network?
I would say two things- first, that it is mostly a question of resources, that have allowed fact checkers in the United States, the UK and France, for example, to really drive the emergence of a self-conscious global movement. But at the same time, we have seen leadership positions occupied by, for instance, Cheqeuado, which is a fact-checking group based in Argentina, or by Africa Check, which is based in Johannesburg, and Pagella Politica in Italy. All of these organizations have assumed leadership positions within the Network, so the agenda is not being set entirely by fact-checkers in the North. Again, the new president of the Network comes out of the Doğruluk Payi, which is a Turkish fact-checker, and the previous president had been linked to Pagella Politica. I think there is a real effort within the network to increasingly be attentive to challenges being faced by the fact-checkers from the Global South and to not letting the agenda be dictated by the assumptions and priorities of fact-checkers in the countries with higher resources.
Is there a set of common principles for organizations to be able to join the Network?
The question of common principles is a very interesting as there has been increasing pressure within this group, especially as they partner with platform companies and international institutions, to establish basic standards as a form of quality control, and to have guidelines for deciding who is not a legitimate fact-checker, who is not invited to be a part of this community.
It is difficult to come up with a set of principles that can be applied in the same way in different political contexts, but they have identified a common and basic set of core principles that might be interpreted slightly differently in different contexts. Of course, it is always problematic to say what the ‘truth’ is, and how we assess facts depends greatly on the context, but the notion of being committed to truth, even when the answer might be difficult for you, or might make someone angry with you, is a core guiding principle for these groups. They are trying to strike a balance between agreeing on approaches that will promote quality and trust and be faithful to a common idea and mission of fact-checking, and on the other hand also being sensitive to differences in context.
Are there significant differences in how they operate on the ground in this regard?
At the level of individual practices, you see really important differences. Some organizations find it challenging to be transparent about all their sources of funding, because that might put them in danger. In other countries, fact-checkers will sometimes call the source of the information that they are checking- so if it’s a political claim, they will call the politician and ask for an explanation of the claim. So the fact-checkers cannot always establish common practices, but they can identify a core set of orienting principles.
Political Institutions and Governments in many parts of the world have begun taking interest in the Network. What safeguards has the Network taken regarding financing from such institutions, to maintain its independence?
The European Union has definitely taken interest, and has sought to partner with the fact-checking organizations. Interestingly, the fact-checkers themselves have been resistant to that. In this, one can see a difference within the community: fact-checkers in Eastern Europe, for instance, would be really happy to receive additional funding from the EU because they need it. In many cases they are already vilified by political opponents as being funded by outside influences, like the Open Society Foundation or even the National Endowment for Democracy, which, people allege, is just the CIA giving money. So in a sense they have nothing to lose by accepting EU money, but on the other hand, many fact checkers in France and the UK, countries in mostly northern Europe, are very opposed to being allied in any clear way to an EU effort, because within their domestic political sphere, EU membership is often controversial, so this would be seen as a sort of partisan taint or a corrupting influence in their countries. So, it is always a challenge for them- because any source of funding comes with a potential of a political taint. But in general, the safeguard that they take is to not accept support from openly political organization.
The Network, then, prioritizes an image of being non-partisan. In this, are there comparative differences between fact-checkers from different regions?
The context of the domestic politics within which fact-checkers operate changes greatly from country to country. So, while they all seek, to a great extent, to be non-aligned, it would be difficult to compare the context of a fact checker in Serbia with one from the United States of America. The American fact-checkers, and the ones from the UK for example, state on their homepages very clearly that they disclose all sources, that they don’t accept funding from political parties or political sources, and that they are committed to fact-checking participants from across the spectrum. This is very different from fact-checkers who are confronting mainly disinformation campaigns being led by oligarchs in their own countries or even in their neighbouring countries. In Ukraine, for example, you have a fact-checker called StopFake - their mission is to combat Russian propaganda. This is how they explain their mission. To fact-checkers in the West, this can sounds like a partisan mission, but in the context of the information environment that they work in, they would argue that they do not have the luxury of being apolitical in the way that another fact-checker might in an environment where there are competing, equally legitimate political parties. The simple answer to the question is: they all take measures to show that they are not aligned, whatever it means in the context of their own political spheres.
So, to tie it back up to global cooperation, would you say that fact-checkers are cooperating internationally in order to strengthen each other independently, creating a common safety-net?
That would be a good way to put it. The paradigm of global cooperation research applies to understanding this field. It’s a particularly clear example- an emergent network that crosses borders and is strongly oriented towards helping the members navigate the challenges they face in their respective environments. The questions that are at the top of the agenda in these Fact-Checking Summits (the 6th of which is this summer) are: how do we help each of these organizations to become sustainable? How can you find funding? How can you deal with political critics? What are the best sources for verifying facts in environments where you can’t find good information? They solicit challenges from attendees and their members, and they try to address those challenges. It is very much a mutual support network.
Interview by Mouli Banerjee