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Why fact-checkers matter in elections

On October 16, 2020, Meedan organized an event to discuss election reporting and integrity in the backdrop of upcoming elections in the United States on November 3 and in Myanmar on November 8, 2020. Journalists from these countries face  enormous challenges of reporting amidst multiple crises of COVID-19 pandemic, internet shutdown, misuse of popular social media platforms, historic wildfires and vaccines in development. 

Though not under the same circumstances, elections in other countries in 2018 and 2019 saw journalists and fact-checkers report amid massive social and political change. To learn from the experiences of journalists who have covered elections recently, we were joined by 

  • Ellen T.Tordesillas, Trustee and writer at VERA Files, a group that undertakes in-depth reporting on current issues.and is a third-party fact-checker for Facebook in the Philippines
  • Jency Jacob, Managing Editor of BOOM, India’s premier fact-checking digital initiative
  • Summer Chen, Chief Editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC). TFC has been leading the battle against misinformation related to COVID-19 and the presidential elections in Taiwan.
  • Sean Ndlovu, co-founder and innovation and research manager at [CITE], a Zimbabwean community space and incubator for innovators, technologists and journalists. 

The session was moderated by Monika Bauerlein, Mother Jones’ chief executive officer. The session was organized by Shalini Joshi, Megan Marrelli and Nat Gyenes.

Here are some insights from the discussion: 

Misinformation and disinformation campaigns are attacks on democracy. 

Election misinformation poses serious threats to the integrity of elections and legitimacy of institutions in countries. Unproven claims on electronic voting machines being tampered in India, false claims of polling booths shut down in Zimbabwe and wrong claims of election fraud in Taiwan - election integrity has come under threat repeatedly in the past few years. 

“During this year’s Taiwan election, their biggest challenge was misinformation about election fraud, especially through LINE, raising doubt in voting systems.” - Summer Chen

Multiple crises amid elections made combating election misinformation more challenging.

Fact-checkers were prepared to combat election misinformation, but did not anticipate the scale of which it struck due to the multiple crises that emerged. If in India it was a terrorist attack, in Taiwan it was the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We were always working towards the 2019 general elections in India. But none of us bargained for what was going to happen in the months prior to the election. The Pulwama terrorist attack that killed over 40 paramilitary personnel and a near war situation between India and Pakistan completely changed the tone of the election.” - Jency Jacob

Misinformation comes from multiple sources and often in orchestrated manners.

As more and more people become part of the digital world, elections are not determined solely by ground politics. Social media wings of political parties engage in virtual battles to swing votes and conduct smear campaigns with the aid of faceless users running Twitter profiles and Facebook pages.  Countries also face orchestrated misinformation attacks which can be traced to external actors attempting to destabilize governments and elections. 

Elections are trying times for fact-checkers, but commitment and the impact of their work keep them going. 

“Through the challenge of disinformation, we’re positive, because audiences have noticed it is an issue. They care.” - Summer Chen

“The fact that there’s so much to do is what keeps us going.” - Ellen Tordesillas

“We need collaboration, collaboration and collaboration to address election disinformation.” - Sean Ndlovu

“Before 2017, no fact-checkers existed in India. If you would Google a rumor, you would generally not have any reporting on it. Now, we have more than 15 fact-checking organizations across the country. An ecosystem of fact-checkers increases the potential for users to encounter quality information & fact-checks.” - Jency Jacob

● Related

The Checklist–read misinformation news from around the world

The Weekly Roundup

—open-source investigations, industry resources and event information