In a digitized public sphere full of mis- and disinformation, establishing a fact-checking or verification team has become mandatory for many news organizations and human rights defenders. From Stockholm to Rome and from Lisbon to Bucharest, investigative journalists and open source intelligence (OSINT) experts sit in front of their computers many hours a week to dissect false claims or manipulated photos and videos; content that is churned out on more or less unregulated social media platforms. Often underfunded and stressed out, these verification workers do important groundwork for a functioning democratic media landscape – a job that would benefit from more recognition, exposure, and networking. In the scope of Project EDMO (= European Digital Media Observatory), we have set out to make a small contribution towards that goal – by thoroughly mapping the fact-checking and verification scene in the EU (and possibly beyond).

EDMO is an ambitious large-scale project (technically: an EU-funded service contract) that brings together fact-checkers, media and information literacy (MIL) experts, researchers, educators and representatives of media organisations. It wants to “deploy a platform to support the work of a multidisciplinary community” that is “united in the fight against disinformation”.

DW’s Main Task

DW Innovation plays a small, but rather interesting role as a subcontractor to full consortium member ATC: We have been tasked to research and document fact-checking/verification activities that take place in the 27 member states of the EU (and in the UK) and produce visible outcomes. The latter aspect is important, as documenting all investigative work would be an impossible task: All journalists need to double-check the pieces of information they have been handed,  this is a part of their job. They become interesting to us when their verification work is published on a designated website, e.g. in the form of a blog post, podcast, or video.

The First “Map”

Once completed, a first iteration of our research documentation (on the EDMO website and elsewhere) will hopefully include:

  • a (responsive, interactive, zoomable, shareable) map that features the full names and locations of all relevant organizations
  • a (responsive, searchable, sortable, shareable) table with extended information (e.g. type of organization, primary language, year of foundation etc.)
  • at least one more (responsive, shareable) visualization that provides further insights (e.g. a timeline documenting the launch of fact-checking organisations in the EU)

Later on, we will try and add more features, e.g. an editorial section that describes an organization’s work in more detail.

A small section of the interactive EDMO map of fact checking organizations (prototype)

Technical Tools

As for the technical side, we have decided to use the following formats and web tools

  • collaborative, “living” spreadsheets that can be turned into .CSV files
  • a web-based data visualisation tool that can turn long rows of names and numbers and locations into more accessible, compelling forms of information
  • embeddable and shareable maps and charts, i.e.: data visualisations that can easily be published and circulated via code snippets
  • .CSV files as a fallback option – in case the EDMO consortium wants to change tools at some point
EDMO uses online spreadsheets as the basis for maps and other visualizations

Challenges

While most of the research has been going smoothly so far, there have also been a couple of challenges: The first one concerned the dataviz tools and technical workflows. We could easily solve it by consulting tutorials and friendly tech support people. The second one is harder to overcome: In some cases, the organizations we are interested in are rather intransparent, i.e.: It is hard to find out who exactly is responsible for a fact-checking site, where it is produced, or how it is funded.

In order to tackle this, we have devised two tactics: 

  • Digging deeper on social media to find a contact (e.g. LinkedIn is very helpful here)
  • Sending a (web-based) questionnaire to generic “info@”-addresses and asking admins to forward it on to the right people

So far, this is working pretty well. Our lists and tables are steadily filling up with more information.

Other Responsibilities

Apart from creating a “map” – i.e. an actual geovisualization, a table, a set of charts, and an editorial section – DW will also contribute to EDMO in other ways.

For example, DW Innovation will support ATC in creating an EDMO search tool that is able to tap into a database of fact-checks and media literacy material via APIs. The vision is to provide users with an easy-to-use interface that allows for quick queries on complex subjects – and returns nothing but double-checked, verified, structured information.
Furthermore, Jochen Spangenberg, Deputy Head of DW Innovation (and someone who has been working in the field of verification for almost a decade), serves as a member of EDMO’s advisory board.

What Next?

The consortium will get together for another coordination meeting in February. After that, the technical rollout will begin. Hopefully, we will be able to showcase a first iteration of our “map” come spring 2021.


(Alexander Plaum)