Fact-checking, engaging communities in debunking scientific hoaxes
In an era when information channels are so diverse and easily accessible, fact-checking has never been more fundamental.
Not only to ensure quality and credibility for the journalist and news outlets but also to promote critical thinking in readers, stimulate constructive debates and address issues subject to bias and social criticism. A task that involves the whole of society, from scientists to communicators to citizens
Fact-checking is a fundamental precondition for journalism, as it is responsible for maintaining and assuring the integrity and credibility of published information. The primary purpose is to verify the accuracy and truthfulness of the contents, ensuring that the news being reported is supported by credible evidence and reliable sources. Still, it also serves as a quality control measure in journalism as it encourages journalists to conduct thorough research and corroborate sources, and it contributes to the transparency of journalistic practices.
However, not all information comes through newspapers or online news outlets. News spreads rapidly through various media and social media, and fact-checking is a critical safeguard against disseminating misinformation, rumours, and fake news. It is common to think that fact-checking is journalists' sole responsibility and prerogative, which is indeed the case since they are the official channel through which information passes, but today this is not enough. In the current information age, fact-checking is also a duty of the reader and, more generally, of those who inform themselves. With the proliferation of online platforms and social media, individuals have easy access to a wide range of news sources, making it crucial for readers to be vigilant and discern between the information they consume. Readers should approach news and published content with a critical mindset, assessing the credibility and reliability of the cited sources and cross-referencing the information they encounter with multiple sources to verify its accuracy, for example. Or, they can contribute to fact-checking by engaging in respectful discussions and conversations about the news. By sharing their perspectives, questions, and claims and providing additional information or sources, they can actively contribute to a collective effort to verify and clarify the accuracy of the information being shared.
Moreover, the infodemic during the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the need to find effective measures to counter misinformation. However, recent studies show that developing critical thinking is neither easy nor fast. It requires a process where people get to understand how the digital information ecosystem works and the mechanisms lying behind the production and distribution of news.
Many non-profit associations or media outlets managed to find a solution by promoting an innovative kind of audience engagement via fact-checking. Maldita.es, for example, is a non-profit organisation whose purpose is to fact-check information circulating on the internet, especially on social media like Facebook and Twitter, messaging apps like WhatsApp and platforms like YouTube. The team behind the project monitors false information through different channels, from social media to web search to scientific consultancy, and most importantly, engages its community in debunking scientific hoaxes. The audience can ask any questions and propose a suspected hoax contacting the team through its website and social media channels. A dedicated WhatsApp number was also created, exponentially increasing the audience's engagement, with hundreds of messages received daily.
Other key figures in the process of producing and verifying scientific information are scientists themselves. Wetenschap.nu is an online platform that decided to engage scientists encouraging them to disseminate their research and also guiding them in producing journalistic information. The whole engagement strategy of Wetenschap.nu revolves around fact-checking: the contents provided by researchers are constantly verified and are meant to help fight misinformation and fake news. But scientists are fundamental not only for combating misinformation but also for fighting stereotypes and promoting an informed debate. For example, some researchers working on transgender treatments were engaged by the Dutch platform to propose a new narrative to the public, covering all the leading scientific aspects of the transgender journey, from the psychological stage to the hormone treatments.
Featured image by Joshua Miranda, Pexels.com