Mis- and disinformation have become pressing issues for society, touching on various problem areas such as public health or climate change while undermining social peace and democratic principles. They are not only part of the power struggle between democratic and authoritarian countries but also unfold strong polarizing effects in open societies, raising fundamental questions about the limits of free (public) speech (Mathiesen 2019). Content regulation therefore (re-)emerged as an increasingly salient and contested issue in debates about the unity and fragmentation of the Internet. As corresponding legislations vary greatly between geographic regions and nation states, these debates concern not only the permitted content but also suitable approaches to effectively implement such rules (Pillalamarri and Stanley 2021).
Although by no means a new phenomenon, mis- and disinformation has undoubtedly gained new and unique qualities with the increasing prevalence of the Internet and social media in terms of its scale and diffusion. Moreover, the traditional gatekeepers of public information – for better or worse – have lost their leverage, providing a growing variety of actors with greater freedoms to communicate with audiences directly. This capability is fundamentally structured by both the logics of globally operating tech companies and the local conditions of the social settings in which the communication takes effect. Accordingly, the assessment of harmful content also requires local knowledge, while its moderation relies on platforms and, at least to some extent, the framework of regulators and their encouragement (Held and Dreyer 2021). Mis- and disinformation produce multi-level phenomena that require equally multi-facetted approaches to address them sustainably. The situation calls for the involvement of various stakeholders, drawing attention to the issue of diversity and its effective implementation in the context of online content regulation.
In this end, the transnational community of fact-checkers fulfils an essential function in coordinating efforts in the fight against dis- and misinformation. The community comprises a remarkably well-equipped network of over 400 initiatives in more than 100 countries. Originally concerned with the methodic verification of political statements, fact-checking today means much more: The practice of fact-checking has evolved into a comprehensive framework for diagnosing and conceptualizing the mis- and disinformation phenomenon and developing methods of resolution. It has broadened its scope covering almost any form of public information, developing media literacy curricula, and exploring technological as well as governance solutions. What's more, fact-checking initiatives worldwide increasingly cooperate to tackle mis- and disinformation on a global scale, as most visible in the recent #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, which was nominated for the Peace Nobel Prize in 2021.
This advancement relies on the community's ability to organize in a way that brings to bear the varied capabilities of their locally embedded members while also gaining collective agency on the transnational level. In principle, the community is open to all new organizations concerned with fact-checking and reliable public information and thereby appreciates and accommodates diversity. After all, it is the different experiences and skills of fact-checking organizations that provide for a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon in question and innovative solutions (Wenger, McDermott and Snyder 2002). Bringing these diverse perspectives together, however, requires organization, especially if one seeks to work strategically for a shared advantage. The consolidation of a collective voice and capacity to act together requires the establishment of representative authority and internal control that – in turn – can lead to internal stratification and external boundary drawing (Gulati, Puranam and Tushman 2012). Fact-checkers accordingly face conflicting demands of diversity and unity, which they need to carefully balance to remain an appealing home for a diverse community that is nevertheless able to operate as a cohesive player within transnational institutional contexts.
The development of the fact-checking community reflects these contradicting forces. Originating as a journalistic/academic undertaking in the US around early 2000, the practice of fact-checking was almost immediately taken up by various societal stakeholders worldwide who adopted it to their national political environments (Graves 2016; Lauer 2021). The diversity of fact-checking organizations has accordingly been a characteristic of the community from the outset, as was evident at the first meeting of some 30 fact-checkers in London in 2014: discussions focused primarily on common techniques and challenges at a practical level, with conversations inevitably turning towards the more fundamental differences that organizations exhibit due to their individual roots (i.e., journalists, academics, activists) and respective social environment (i.e., media professionalism, political parallelism, societal polarization, etc.). The primary thread was on familiarizing one another with different approaches rather than establishing a single correct correction of fact-checking. However, standards and community membership soon became topics, marking a turning point in the community's trajectory (Graves and Lauer 2020).
Upon the return to London in 2015, an already significantly larger group of 45 fact-checking organizations agreed on the set-up of a dedicated community body: the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). It introduced itself as ‘a loose forum that brings together fact-checkers worldwide’ to promote best practices, innovations, and collaboration. To this end, the IFCN has established several communication channels (i.e., website, mailing lists, etc.), has offered training resources, and — most crucially — has taken over the organization of the annual meetings renamed Global Fact. Since then, these events have become extensive conferences that provide fact-checking initiatives with plenty of opportunities to present themselves, learn from each other, and organize around issues or according to regional affiliation. To this day, the majority of contributions at the conferences stem from fact-checkers, making the meetings a truly community-based endeavour. However, as the number of external speakers and participants increased, some sessions started to take place behind closed doors.
Over the years, fact-checking has become institutionalized as a field within the domain of public information. This trend rests not only on the foundation of the IFCN, but also on a combination of other factors. For one thing, the IFCN obtained a mandate to formalize a set of principles at Global Fact 3 in 2016 that evolved into a signatory status. This certification rests on a voluntary assessment by independent experts, who have been selected by the IFCN and validate the applicant's compliance with the said principles (like open methodology, financial transparency, etc.). First a badge of excellence only, the signatory status soon gained a number of advantages: it is a precondition to become a member of the IFCN advisory board or to vote on its appointment; it grants access to a few yet important exclusive projects and collaborations facilitated by the IFCN; and it increasingly generates new funding sources, including grants distributed by the IFCN and through direct collaboration with external stakeholders. Meanwhile, external interest in fact-checking has also increased significantly in the last few years, especially in the wake of the US election in 2016. It has generated the attention of academics, civil society, Internet platforms, and regulators alike, who found in the IFCN a well-suited point of contact. In fact, the IFCN has tapped into the situation by actively cultivating new opportunities for the community, underpinning its strategic value in establishing fact-checking as a professional authority in the fight against mis- and disinformation.
The relationship between the IFCN and Internet platforms, in particular Meta (previously known as Facebook), is a key example of this development. After an open letter by the IFCN to Mark Zuckerberg in November 2016, the company commissioned IFCN signatories with the identification of misinformation in their respective media/language environment on its various platforms (see Meta's Third-Party Fact-Checking Program). Legally, Meta contracts the fact-checking organizations directly, whereas the IFCN signs responsibility for their quality and independence and mediates in matters of substance. This three-way arrangement offers advantages but carries risks for the fact-checking community: The fact-checking initiatives gain exclusive access to an important broker of public communication and thus scale the outreach of their work, reaching new audiences. Yet, financial dependence on Meta not only complicates the relationship between IFCN and its members but also creates pressures that lead to a mission shift of the entire community. Meta's Third-Party Fact-Checking Program has attracted initiatives with an exclusive focus on debunking social media content, i.e., refuting more or less shallow claims whose spread the platform subsequently reduces by technical means. This trend runs counter to the community's original concern with political statements of identifiable public figures that put great trust in the power of public deliberation.
In the last decade, the community of fact-checkers has gained remarkable weight in the debate about public mis- and disinformation and corresponding governance approaches. Its strength resides in the diversity of its members, who stem from various institutional corners of society and operate in very different media systems. Their skills and knowledge vary accordingly, making them a great resource for grasping this multi-faceted subject area and developing possible solutions. In bringing this potential to bear, the IFCN represents a critical infrastructure since it allows for the community's consolidation on a transnational level and its connection with relevant regional or global players shaping public information. This endeavour requires a certain level of community coherence, yet it must accommodate the variety of members too. One can quite clearly observe this tension: the IFCN strives fairly successfully to allocate attention and resources equally to members from different world regions; in fact, its own advisory board must include at least one representative of each region by design. However, it pursues strategic objectives that have to account for external interests and connect them with the community's internal affairs. Therefore, it actively brings different sentiments in the community together and generally adopts a more moderate attitude than most of its members towards issues and actors, including Internet platforms. This position involves the risk of passing over critical concerns of the community, but it is likewise necessary to convey these very concerns to relevant players in the first place.
An incident at the last Global Fact in 2022 demonstrates this situation impressively: A representative of YouTube joined the conference for a one-on-one interview with the director of the IFCN after the company received a critical open letter from the network earlier this year. The conversation was to the point but friendly, giving the representatives room to explain the company's actions and the reasoning behind them. This tone changed in the following Q&A, where fact-checkers from India, the Philippines, Spain, the UK, and the US complained bitterly about the company's inaction during the pandemic. They provided concrete examples, demanded a dedicated strategy, and even criticized the corporate excuses made by the executive on stage. The reaction was by no means a surprise, and it is hard to imagine that the company's liaison was not expecting it, too. Nevertheless, the company deemed it necessary to accept the invitation of the IFCN, testifying to the significance of the community in this working field. It allows fact-checking organizations from different parts of the world to address such a huge and often inaccessible platform directly — in the present case, with anger, thus setting the stage for the IFCN to mediate between them.
Graves, L. (2016). Deciding What's True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Graves, Lucas and Lauer, Laurens (2020). ‘From Movement to Institution: The "Global Fact" Summit as a Field-Configuring Event’, Sociologica, 14(2): 157–174.
Gulati, Ranjay, Puranam, Phanish and Tushman, Michael (2012). ‘Meta-Organization Design: Rethinking Design in Interorganizational and Community Contexts’. Strategic Management Journal, 33(6): 571–586.
Held, Amélie and Dreyer, Stephan (2021). ‘Competent Third Parties and Content Moderation on Platforms: Potentials of Independent Decision-Making Bodies From A Governance Structure Perspective’, Journal of Information Policy, 11: 266–300.
Lauer, Laurens (2021). Similar Practice, Different Rationale: Political Fact-Checking Around the World, PhD Thesis, Duisburg: University of Duisburg-Essen.
Mathiesen, Kay (2019). Fake News and the Limits of Freedom of Speech, in: Carl Fox and Joe Saunders (eds), Media Ethics, Free Speech, and the Requirements of Democracy, New York, NY: Routledge, 161–179.
Pillalamarri, Akhilesh and Stanley, Cody (2021). Online Content Regulation: An International Comparison, International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB), The George Washington University Law School, available at: https://studentbriefs.law.gwu.edu/ilpb/2021/12/08/online-content-regulation-an-international-comparison/ (accessed 29 October 2022)
Wenger, Etienne, McDermott, Richard and Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
About the Author
Laurens Lauer's research focuses on the changing framework of (semi-)public mass communication and its implications for social discourses and societal orders. This emphasis includes new media phenomena and their embeddedness in diverse societal environments and media systems, actors involved, novel practices, and increasingly transnational exchange relations and cooperations. He has conducted extensive research on (political) fact-checking, covering both fact-checking initiatives in various countries and the community of fact-checkers on a global scale.