Fact checking and fighting false information: AFP on the front-line
AFP is fighting back against the proliferation of false information online with ambitious projects focusing on fact-checking and detecting fake content.
AFP is continuing to deepen its 'culture of checking.' At a time when social media's influence over information is driving a growing number of media companies to create internetmonitoring tools, the Agency is making factchecking a priority for the whole newsroom. What's at stake? It is about fighting against fake news, debunking rumours and false information on the web with all the power of a global news agency with a public interest mission.
In the wake of Trump and Brexit, this battle came back into sharp focus during the French presidential election. AFP and more than 30 media partners joined up for the CrossCheck project -- conceived and developed by First Draft and Google News Lab -- that brings together media and technology players to fight against fake news online. The project aimed to pool our verification skills to debunk false information about the election and publish articles re-establishing the facts. "This was a first for the Agency, which was tasked with leading the collaborative platform and editing the articles," says Grégoire Lemarchand, Deputy Editor-In-Chief and Head of Social Networks.
Using questions from web users, CrossCheck verified the main dubious content circulating online during the campaign. To qualify for publication, each post had to be cleared by at least two organisations and AFP had the 'final edit.' The result? "67 articles published. Zero errors," says Grégoire Lemarchand. "This ranged from the anecdotal to the fake news that reached everyone about Emmanuel Macron's supposed offshore account in the Bahamas."
Speeding up our skills
As it turned out, this project sped up skills across the whole Agency. "For complex topics, we turned to our network. Occasionally we needed a level of expertise that not all journalists have," says Grégoire Lemarchand. CrossCheck also debunked viral images like the video of a man portrayed as a migrant molesting a nurse. After checking with the Moscow bureau, it turned out to be a drunk Russian filmed a month earlier in Novgorod. "The vast majority of 'fakes' are images taken out of context," says Denis Teyssou, head of AFP's Medialab. Another example: "A video that did the rounds after Macron visited the Whirlpool factory (in Amiens on April 26, 2017) gave the impression that he washed his hands after meeting the workers. CrossCheck established that those images came from a meeting with fishermen during which he had handled eels (May 27, 2016 near Montpellier)..."
This collaborative journalistic effort won several prizes, including the "Planned News/Events, small newsrooms" at the Online News Association in Washington on December 7, 2017. "It was an ambitious idea and now CrossCheck is cited everywhere as an example," says Sophie Nicholson, an English-speaking journalist in the Social Media Department. She says that the number of invitations AFP receives for conferences or international meetings "prove that we are seen as one of the leading media players when it comes to fact-checking."
True or false
Buoyed by this experience, AFP launched Factuel, a fact-checking blog run by former politics reporter Guillaume Daudin. Born from an initiative bringing together five other Frenchlanguage media, this new project was made possible by a partnership with Facebook. "The social network gives us access to a platform to which they upload on a daily basis all the posts their users have flagged as dubious. Then it is up to us to take them and say if they are true or false," explains Grégoire Lemarchand.
He says the blog has the advantage of offering up a wider range of sources that are spreading misinformation. "They often push out the same stories on controversial topics like migrants, secularism or climate," he said. "Monitoring them enables us to be more reactive and prevent people from taking the bait." Furthermore, when Factuel publishes its blog postings, it never posts the original link to avoid giving it publicity.
This verification work goes hand-in-hand with checking User Generated Content, content posted on social media by witnesses to an event. "There are a lot of fakes there as well," says Sophie Nicholson. "It is a race to secure them but we have to verify the accounts and the images posted by applying our journalistic rules. Techniques to falsify images are becoming increasingly sophisticated and even hardened professionals can have the wool pulled over their eyes," she warns, adding that we need to constantly develop new tools.
Plug-in and expert groups
In this area, AFP is also on the front line via the European project InVID (In Video Veritas), for which Denis Teyssou is the head of innovation. "At the beginning, we were trying to find ways to help media check where images had come from and make sure they had not been tampered with," says the head of Medialab. "With the wave of fake news at the end of 2016, we found ourselves in sync with operations like CrossCheck, to which we had also contributed. That's when we developed a plug-in, an extension to the Chrome and Firefox browsers with a toolbox to check content." (invid-project.eu/verify).
One of the main functions of the plug-in is the ability to search for similar content. "We compare photos and 'fragment' videos into key images, which allows journalists to run them through several search engines, Google mainly, but also Russia's Yandex, China's Baidu and also Canada's Tineye." An example: images published on Facebook purporting to show an attack on a mosque in Sinai in 2016 actually came from a video of an attack in Saudi Arabia from… 2015. "Only Yandex found it," said Denis Teyssou.
In addition to developing this tool -- already used by the international service of Germany's Deutsche Welle, a partner in the project, as well as the BBC, France Télévisions, France 24, the New York Times, TV Novosti as well as Amnesty International and the UN High Commission for Human Rights -- AFP is also getting involved at the institutional level. It is the only French media in a high-level expert group created by the European Commission on the problem of online fake news. This group should publish its recommendations in the first quarter of 2018.