Contrary to popular belief, debunking is not merely about dismantling myths; it encompasses two equally important processes. Firstly, it involves rigorously verifying facts, and secondly, effectively disseminating the corrected information.
However, this dual task is far from simple, given the increasing complexity of modern techniques used to create narratives that blend truth with falsehoods, mixing opinions and facts. These sophisticated methods that include a wide range of disinformation through various techniques from the emotional spectrum to deep-fakes, in audiovisual content, and widespread trolling would need a sophisticated response from the society - at various levels, technological, organisational, cultural in order to make a difference. A significant majority of individuals under the age of 35 rely on online platforms such as social media, search engines, and news aggregators to access news and information.
The technological challenges are higher than ever. Based on tailored filters, algorithms contribute to the rapid spread of toxic narratives, potentiating them going viral faster than the debunking articles. This creates a situation where misinformation spreads like a virus while the antidote of debunked facts struggles to catch up. Based on NEWSREEL2 discoveries, this article would analyze a few characteristics of how debunking is organised in practice.
To give at least one example which applies in all disinformation attempts, the essential criterion that distinguishes verification from debunking is the timing of when it is performed: before or after the item in question is published. “Verification is done before publication, mainly for user generated content found online, while fact-checking is done after the publication of claims of public relevance, using expert sources” (Mantzarlis, 2018, apud NEWSREEL2 report) That takes time. Verification occurs before the dissemination of information and involves the thorough process of fact-checking and confirming the accuracy of the content before it is made public.
Debunking means supplementary steps. Scholars use debunking as a synonym for negating (Betsch & Sachse, 2013), contradicting (Heng, 2018) or correcting (Chan et al., 2017), correcting and debiasing (Lewandowsky et al., 2012) in connection with stereotypes, conspiracy theories or with widely held incorrect views (apud NEWSREEL2 report).
Debunking takes place after the publication of certain information and aims to reinstate the truth of an already published and, at times, widely distributed item, regardless of whether it is in a visual, audio, or text format. The primary goal of debunking is to rectify inaccuracies and falsehoods, reestablishing the accuracy of the facts for the public's awareness.
Why is debunking necessary
Do societies realise its importance? If not society as a whole, journalists and fact-checkers certainly do realise. Debunking “is crucial”. “Democracy in general is in danger”, believes Fernando Esteves, Polígrafo, the Portuguese fact-checking website. As part of the Newsreel2 project, senior journalists and editors from five countries (Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Portugal and Romania) were interviewed on the specifics of the debunking activities in their countries, risks associated with the process, training and education programmes related to the field. Journalists play a crucial role in understanding the dynamics of their societies and can provide a clue about the debunking need and on how it is perceived by the audiences.
The second category of questions, in our research, were focused on actors: who shall do the debunking? What actors are or shall be involved: shall it be media, the state, the NGOs. Everybody?
Marie Richter, managing editor, NewsGuard (Germany), said for NEWSREEL2: “Newsrooms are quite involved in fact-checking and with every crisis that happens I think the media in Germany are becoming more and more aware of its importance”. In Hungary: the news-portal Atlatszo has initiated a disinformation series: it collects and debunks the most popular fake news weekly, in Hungarian, and monthly, in English by using a traffic light system to rate news and public declarations as true or false. The second more noticeable fact-checking effort is a column of Observador.
Very few newsrooms in Romania publish debunking materials, and when they do, they prefer to address political statements. The NGOs are significantly more involved in the process, especially in fact-checking, and Funky Citizens is a part of the international consortium fact-checking the social networks. Funky Citizens makes debunking efforts and publishes the debunked content on its website. Misreport, a newsletter edited by a team of journalists focuses also on debunking and fact-checking. “The need for stable and reliable debunking initiatives is very high [in Romania]”, said Codruța Simina in an interview for NEWSREEL2.
In the Czech Republic, Aktualne.cz, focusing on Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns in the Czech Republic, won a Journalism Award (Open Society Foundation) for online journalism. In Germany, newsrooms are quite involved in fact-checking; debunking efforts are more widely spread with Correctiv, a NGO, and NewsGuard, a company which uses a business-to-business model, and the fact-checking departments in the public service media newsrooms, including the DPA, and commercial newsrooms.
The semi-structured interviews revealed that the amount of debunking efforts seems to be closely connected to the development level of the national media system. The questions addressed in the interviews were meant to identify the actors involved in debunking. Media: ismainstream media involved in debunking or rather smaller independent newsrooms? NGOs: are there NGOs dedicated to the debunking field or is it a part of their other activities? Academic: are their programmes related to the field? What about the research programmes?
All the interviewees mentioned the lack of specific training in debunking, which has become a self-taught skill, based on the general training for journalistic activities, paired with: special training to identify facts that can be verified (Marie Richter); a “need to understand the world they live in” for students (Fernando Esteves); an on-the-job development of skills; in the future, technology and artificial intelligence (AI) would help journalists in the process of debunking, as AI runs faster and technology is now used to create false news (for example, in deep fake videos).
The lack of dedicated teams for fact-checking and debunking became a key topic of discussion in Bucharest, when the Digital News Report in Romania, in June 2023, editors in external affairs from major newsrooms pointed to the lack of debunking teams in mainstream Romanian media.
Various actors to join forces
There are joint initiatives from the AI field to train the models “for good”; an example is the recently launched project AI4Trust, where a consortium of universities , fact-checkers, media organisations and research centres are working interdisciplinarily to develop AI tools for fact-checkers and journalists. Such projects aim at improving the interaction between human and artificial intelligence to combat disinformation, trying to provide automated tools for debunking, while human intelligence will have the last word. When facing so many challenges in the disinformation field, journalists shall not be left alone.
This article was written by Manuela Preoteasa (University of Bucharest).