Telum Talks To... Peter Bodkin, Editor at AAP FactCheck
You were a panellist at the recent Media Literacy Research Symposium. Media literacy and fake news has been a hot topic since the Donald Trump era - in a post-Trump world, how is media literacy and fake news best described?
Trump made liberal use of the term "fake news" to describe the work of news outlets he disagreed with, but in its truest sense, fake news is a label for misleading information being presented as credible news.
In this context, media literacy is just a general way of describing a person’s ability to think critically about the content they consume. For example, if people are routinely asking questions like, “Where did this information come from?”, “What is the intention of the person sharing it”, and “What are other sources saying?”, they are probably very media literate.
Have you noticed differences in media literacy depending on a person's age or demographic?
AAP commissioned some research into media literacy resources at the end of last year. It found there was lots of material designed for children and youths, but there was a big gap when it came to adults. Since then, a major media literacy survey found most adults had low confidence in their media literacy. In general, it found older Australians, those with lower levels of education and from low-income households, were all far more likely to report low media literacy abilities. Worryingly, that survey found less than four in 10 people were confident they could check if the information they found online was true.
One of AAP’s objectives as a not-for-profit media business is to help improve media literacy levels. We are currently working to create some resources highlighting simple fact-checking steps that will help people decide if content is credible or not.
What are the key challenges in promoting media literacy across the general population?
Finding ways to engage with a fragmented audience is a big challenge. We know that when targeting specific communities, it’s important to make sure they are part of the process and that we’re not just pushing resources at them. Overcoming a lack of trust in news media may also be a challenge for some people, although AAP is known for its unbiased, independent reporting, so we are well-placed as an organisation to promote media literacy.
As a fact-checker of stories and key opinion leaders, do you see the fake news situation improving or getting worse?
Fake news and misinformation will probably always be issues, but social media and the internet have allowed misinformation to spread much more quickly, and between otherwise disparate groups, than would have been possible in the past.
I think there is also a powerful “emboldening” effect when it comes to misinformation; if a politician or a public figure is rewarded for making false claims - by becoming more popular or garnering a bigger social media following, for example - more people are likely to try to follow in their footsteps.
Where do you see the most fake news originating from?
Broadly, I’d say it comes from three categories of source. There are the misinformation super-spreaders, who could be politicians or other influential figures with large followings or platforms. Every time they share a piece of misinformation it’s likely to get picked up and repeated, and that misinformation may then morph into memes and other forms of content that make it even easier to share online.
Then there are dedicated fake news or junk news websites that share misinformation either to further an agenda or for financial reasons, by monetising the traffic they attract.
The third category is misinformation from an unknown source, which usually has no attribution, and is nearly impossible to trace to its creator. In many ways, that’s the most dangerous, because without knowing the original source of the information, it’s difficult for people to work out its credibility or any potential motivations the creator may have.
Are there any key indicators that news audiences should be aware of when assessing if a piece of news is not factual?
There are some simple warning signs that are easy to pick up for some content, like an article being riddled with spelling mistakes or containing opinions that have been presented unattributed, as facts. But it’s important to remember that misinformation is often cleverly crafted to appear authentic or to provoke an emotional response, rather than a rational, critical one.
That’s why people should try to investigate where their news comes from, and if it is a credible outlet. That can be tricky because a lot of dubious news sources have real-sounding names. If you do a search for the source’s name and largely draw a blank, except for a few social media accounts, or if their website is full of moon-landing conspiracy theories, that’s obviously an indicator that their content shouldn’t be taken seriously.
From there, it’s important to look into what evidence there is to support what you’re seeing, and what other sources are saying. If there’s nothing to back up a piece of news except for some anonymous claims online, for example, then there’s a good chance it’s not factual.
What role does AAP FactCheck play in the Australian news landscape?
AAP FactCheck is one of only two international fact checking-network signatories based in Australia. We fact-check claims by public figures and on social media with the aim of informing people as well as limiting the spread of misinformation.
Part of our role is to bring greater accountability to public debate, which is why we have spent a lot of time and energy fact-checking election campaigns. We believe that ensuring people have access to credible, reliable information is important for a healthy democracy.
Can you talk us through a typical fact-check process?
The first step is to identify something we should fact-check, which we do by monitoring social media and traditional news media for claims that are interesting, newsworthy or potentially harmful if left unchallenged. Often that process starts with a bit of gut instinct - does a statement seem like it’s probably false? From there, we work out if it would be possible to fact-check, and how we would go about it if we did.
The next step is finding good sources to use as part of the fact-check; we draw on primary sources wherever possible, as well as consulting with people who are experts in their fields. Some fact checks will draw more heavily on technology, like when we debunk that an image being shared on social media shows what people claim it does.
After a fact-check has been written up by a journalist, it’s reviewed by at least two editors who agree on a verdict before it’s published.
Do you have a favourite “fake news” story that you’ve discredited?
A lot of our best and most important work over the past year and more has been debunking coronavirus misinformation. For example, we worked on repeated false suggestions that PCR tests for COVID-19 were wildly inaccurate and therefore the official reports of case numbers weren’t to be trusted.
Outside of that material, one of my favourite recent fact-checks was on the claim being circulated in the wake of the Cartier-related Christine Holgate controversy that Scott Morrison had been seen wearing a AU$30,000 Rolex. We discredited the suggestion using a combination of image analysis and expert commentary, but I think it’s a great example of how we can also apply our work to less-serious misinformation that’s still newsworthy and gets people interested in the fact-checking process.