Fact-checking information is a relatively new field that has gained importance with the explosion of the digital realm, and its many useful yet problematic tools of communications specially the mushrooming social media platforms that led many to become the author and distributor of information that often is inaccurate or misleading.
In its effort to help journalists working in the Arabic speaking world with the knowledge and tools of vetting content that could be fake, misleading, or harmful to society, Arij’s 15th annual forum has dedicated several sessions that focus on fact-checking and its necessity to have a more accurate information ecosystem. In one of those sessions, veteran Washington Post journalist and fact-checker Glenn Kessler shared with Arij’s conference participants few tips that guide his work to authenticate allegations made by high ranking officials or mere information that circulate and receive a lot of attention on the clickbait scale to the point that he developed a grading method based on the cartoon figure “Pinocchio” for the most outrageous fallacies uttered by officials everywhere in the world.
In his panel Mr Kessler gave two examples related to inaccurate and misleading information. One was the claims made by incoming Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that the Palestinian Authority has been paying $350 million of its budget annually, towards supporting so-called “Palestinian terrorists”. Upon checking and researching the matter, the claim was not totally wrong since Israel often relates to any Palestinian fighter as a militant or a “terrorist”, but the figures Mr Kessler checked led him to deduce that Netanyahu’s claim was over inflated. In his searches that have extended to channels he used in the past when he was a diplomatic correspondent, led him to contact the US state department, the Israeli foreign office and the Palestinian National Authority and the PLO. As a result Kessler gave Netanyahu “2 Pinocchio’s” for lying, as the Palestinian government usually keep paying the salaries and allowances of its security officials even those serving sentences in Israeli jails, and Kessler has managed to find sources that confirmed that the figure is anything between 60 and 100 million and not the over inflated figures used by Netanyahu.
Another fact Kessler had to check were claims made by Iran’s foreign minister Jawad Zarif saying that Israel has developed more than 400 nuclear bombs. After extensive search and investigation related to the Israeli nuclear program, Kessler concluded that Mr Zarif has over exaggerated the number that stood at 100 nuclear bombs and not 400 as claimed by ex-minister Zarif.
Kessler, could not point to a tool or specific method for selecting facts to check, stating that you don’t dispute issues like the “sky is blue”, but you monitor and cross check information produced by officials or malicious actors that aim to disrupt or misinform.
Mr Kessler in his talk compared fact-checking to a constant education process, and like any content with clear impact on decision making or society should be fact checked. He also praised the work of Arab Fact Checkers admitting the disadvantageous ecosystem they work in, which lacks basic access to information and open sources, compared to the privileged position western fact-checkers enjoy as a result of regulation guaranteeing openness, transparency and access to information enshrined by the law.