Credit: Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash

With the presidential election in the United States fast approaching, journalists need to better understand the information environments in which they work, according to Full Fact editor Tom Phillips.

One of the ways to avoid amplifying misinformation is writing clear headlines and start any report with the truth, he said.

We can learn some good lessons from the 2019 UK general elections. Remember the furore that emerged after the Yorkshire Evening Post revealed that a child with suspected pneumonia was forced to sleep on the floor of a hospital. Instead of verifying the story, many journalists were reporting on the rumours that the picture was staged, thus contributing to the spread of the hoax.

This tweet by The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson was later deleted.

Phillips also criticised senior political journalists who reported on Twitter that an aide to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock was punched by a Labour activist before that information had been verified. Although those who reported this false story later apologised, basic rules around handling unverified reports, like questioning where the information came from; what is missing; and if it plays on people’s emotions or prejudices, would have helped.

"It was passing on unverified information from a partisan source," he said.

"These are the kind of things that everybody has to think about in the information age and it would be nice if our senior colleagues in the media could also live up to the same standards that we’re asking the public to live up to when they share stuff on Facebook."

However, Phillips added that better understanding of misinformation must go hand in hand with electoral law reform suited for the digital environment and that keeps up with advancements in technology.

"This is an important measure; multiple bodies have been saying for years that our electoral laws are outdated. 

"We absolutely cannot go into another election with laws that were written before the digital age."

Simple steps, like applying existing rules for print material that require the name and address of the person responsible, would make a big difference in making sure digital political advertising is held to the same level of accountability.

Whilst some of the social media giants have made moves to curtail the spread of misinformation in political advertising, Phillips said that American tech companies should not be the ones determining how British democracy works.

"These things should happen through an open, transparent, democratic process. We should decide what the rules are, not outsource it to California."

As political campaigning was scrutinised during the election, initiatives such as party leaflets designed to imitate a local newspapers came under heavy criticism.

"It may not itself be false but it's definitely a devious campaign technique that has the potential to reduce the trust that voters have in politicians."

During the 2019 UK general election, Full Fact did over 110 fact checks across a range of platforms, including key claims from the main parties and answering questions from the public. However, Phillips acknowledged that with the amount of information that circulates online, it is not possible to fact-check everything.

"You’ve got to focus on the big issues, the things that are repeated frequently. That’s where some of our technology helps us because we're able to identify repeated instances of the same claim coming up again and again."

That technology includes automated tools which detect repeated claims in the live TV debates and, for the first time for the team, the use of artificial intelligence to scan and categorise promises and statements in the parties' manifestos, speeding up the process of verification.

'It’s not a solution to the problems that we face in and of itself, but it acts as a bit of a force multiplier for the expertise of our human fact-checkers to focus better on what they do best."

Despite the challenges posed by misinformation, Phillips encouraged journalists not to give up too easily and said that the truth does still matter to people.

"All the research we’re aware of shows that fact-checking and giving good information does have an impact. You’re never going to convince everybody but it does change people’s minds."

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