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Grégoire Lemarchand

Grégoire Lemarchand

Deputy to the Editor-in-Chief, Head of social media and fact-checking

Sophie Nicholson

Sophie Nicholson

Deputy to the Head of social media and fact-checking

Fact-checking: a growing activity for AFP, a recognised expert

Launched in 2017, the Factuel blog, which checks and debunks fake news, expanded considerably in 2018. Now available in four languages and fed by a specialised team of around 20 journalists worldwide, it has enabled AFP to become an essential reference point in terms of fact-checking.

Factuel (French), AFP Fact Check (English), Factual (Spanish), Checamos (Portuguese): AFP now provides a fact-checking service in four languages. Factuel was launched in November 2017, with three more languages added in June 2018. At the end of the year, AFP had nearly 20 journalists, factcheckers and editors working to fight false information. As of December 31, 2018, we had published nearly 1,000 freely accessible articles.

The fact-checking staff are spread across 14 AFP offices and on five continents: in North America (Montreal), Latin America (Mexico, Bogota, Rio), Africa (Dakar, Lagos, Libreville, Johannesburg, Nairobi), Europe (Paris) and Asia (Islamabad, New Delhi, Jakarta and Manila). Day-to-day, their work is supervised by specialised journalists in the regional chief editors' offices in Washington, Montevideo, Paris and Hong Kong. Like any AFP production, fact-checking is subject to strict editorial rules: nothing is published without being re-read and edited by experienced journalists. In addition, the content conforms to the code drawn up by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), an independent institution that has become the standard.

High stakes

Given the global explosion infalse information online - whether created to harm a country, community or minority, or to earn money with 'clickbait' - AFP's factcheckers are fighting on an extremely wide front. But they do not shy away from anything: we deal with disinformation, rumours or hoaxes -- sophisticated or not -- that circulate widely and which can have a concrete impact on public opinion or people's daily lives. We also look into photos or videos that have been shared out of context or manipulated, as well as comments of dubious veracity from public figures. Each time, the stakes are high: are we in a position to check the facts and leave absolutely no shred of doubt? Are we balanced in our choices? Do we not risk giving greater publicity to a piece of false information that has not been widely shared?

When we have identified a piece of misinformation or disinformation, our factcheckers endeavour to explain as much as possible in their articles. Everything includes the maximum possible number of images, screenshots or links so that the reader understands all the steps in the process that allowed us to conclude the information is false. There is no longer any place for "circumstantial evidence" or anonymous sources: everything is clearly explained, identified and sourced. Finally, as we are dealing with an audience that is sometimes very distrustful of the media, it is very important not to make judgements, take sides or introduce an ironic tone: the tone remains factual and neutral.

In France, AFP's fact-checking work came to particular prominence in November and December, when the "yellow vest" protests were at their height. There was a huge amount of incorrect information circulating, in an atmosphere that was very distrustful of traditional media, who were accused of following orders from the powers-that-be. AFP Fact Check debunked many stories - for example, one claiming photojournalists had set up their photos or another quibbling over mysterious cars without number plates. This won us a significant increase in exposure among both professionals and the wider public. Since then, AFP Fact Check receives questions every day from internet users via social media, asking us if such and such information is true.

 

On a day-to-day basis, the Agency's factcheckers, continually trained in verification techniques and in using open-source investigative tools have another precious resource: the AFP network with more than 1,500 journalists worldwide who are experts in a subject, a region or a language and who have crucial sources on the ground. Chief editors have also been on several training missions with various factcheckers, so that they are all at the same high level in terms of skills.

Finally, amid occasional doubts over whether fact-checking is useful (Is it effective? Does it reach the people who are being duped and sharing false information?), AFP's participation in Facebook's TPFC ("Third Party Fact-checking Tool") programme has enabled us to have a direct influence on the dissemination of false information on the world's biggest social media network and its two million active users.

Objective: reduce visibility

AFP, alongside other media such as AP in the United States or Le Monde in France, has taken part in this programme since 2017. In concrete terms, if a publication (text, photo or video) is found to be false:

  • Users are less likely to see it because it loses much of its visibility in the news feed;
     
  • If the publication appears in the feed, the user sees, just below it, the fact-checking article offered as a "related article" offering a different point of view; 
     
  • The author of the publication receives a notification (and has the option to correct it to avoid being affected by the loss in visibility); 
     
  • If a page repeatedly shares false information, Facebook reduces its global visibility, which in turn affects its ability to monetise the page.

AFP of course retains complete independence over what topics to cover or not and the Agency's journalists are monitoring disinformation well beyond Facebook (Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp…).

By expanding its network of specialist journalists -- who exchange information between themselves on a day-to-day basis and so improve their skills -- by taking part in Facebook's TPFC, by continuing to develop the InVID plugin thanks to Medialab and by giving fact-checking a prominent place on social media, AFP has become a global standard in the fight against misinformation online.

During the "yellow vest" crisis, there were several media articles in France (France TV, Le Figaro, L’Express, Konbini…) and abroad (Gizmodo, Euronews, huffingtonpost.es…) and AFP Fact Check journalists have been invited to take part in several roundtable debates and conferences.

And in 2019, the Agency's fact-checking network should continue to expand to new countries and new languages, such as Arabic.