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As I See It: The value of fact-checking to remove toxic material online and alert readers

Illustrations of some of the ratings placed on the Mainichi Shimbun's fact check articles are shown here. (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun began a new series called "Fact check" in 2019, which has been led by my department, the Integrated Digital News Center. What differentiates this new style of article from other existing stories is that it scrutinizes information already made public to see if it is true.

    Since September 2020, the articles have incorporated a ratings system indicating how accurate the information is as per international standards, and its scores include "incorrect," "inaccurate," and "misleading" among them.

    Various matters in all fields are subject to fact-checking; from statements by individuals who have a great influence on society to tweets by anonymous users. Recent articles in the strand to have appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun's print edition and online are: "Fact check: Suga understated virus infections caused by Japan's 'Go To' travel scheme," published Sept. 24 on the Japanese news site (with the English translated version published the following day), "Uproar as Fuji TV airs false comment over former Japan science council members' pension," on Oct. 7 on the Japanese site, with the English version released the following day and "Fact check: Tweet falsely claims that Japan science council was behind plastic bag fees," on Oct. 14 on the Japanese site, with the translated version released two days later.

    The ratings are on a seven-level scale: "accurate," "mostly accurate," "misleading," "inaccurate," "unsubstantiated," "incorrect," and "false." There are two additional categories, "rating on hold," and "ineligible for check." These classifications derive from guidelines issued by FactCheck Initiative, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization that endorses fact-checking. The ratings are part of attempts to convey fact check results in a more understandable and impartial way, and are decided after thorough discussion between reporters and desk editors.

    Many expert fact-checking bodies have also been set up worldwide. According to a Duke University survey, there were 304 fact check-related news outlets and organizations in 84 countries as of October, for which general principles have also been established. The International Fact-Checking Network implemented a code of principles that pledges commitment to nonpartisanship and fairness; transparency of funding, organization, sources, and methodology; and open and honest corrections policies. It requires clear indication of sources, so that readers can also verify ratings given to the information, and we also include links to public documents used in the reporting of our articles.

    Why did we decide such reporting is necessary? It's come about because the volume of information circulating among the public has increased drastically. Now anyone, so long as they have a smartphone, can send out information. While the internet presents new possibilities, it has also caused a societal overflow of information both reliable and poor.

    Within the category of poor quality information, there is also 'toxic' material. An endless amount of this content exists, and it includes hate speech with obvious discriminatory intentions, conspiracy theories setting people up as villains without evidence, and false medical information or rumors during times of disaster. These kinds of misinformation can at times generate violence and put lives in danger.

    False information that ultrafast 5G mobile network services led the spread of the new coronavirus circulated mainly in Europe, and it was reported that at least 20 mobile phone base stations were set alight in the U.K. In Japan, too, baseless information spread claiming health care services at certain hospitals were collapsing; it led to disruption in hospital operations as inquiries came in ceaselessly.

    Elections are the most fertile ground for baseless rumors and false information. U.S. President Donald Trump asserted his victory in the November presidential election, such as when he claimed "we already have won" while ballots were still being counted. Fact check organizations have determined these statements to be baseless.

    Meanwhile in Japan, a huge number of rumors were disseminated during the 2018 Okinawa gubernatorial race, including false claims that now retired singer Namie Amuro was supporting a specific candidate. Following this, Okinawa's two dailies -- the Ryuku Shimpo and Okinawa Times -- conducted fact checks on the gubernatorial election for the first time.

    The point of fact-checking is to remove toxic material from the vortex of information we face, and raise awareness among the public.

    Masato Kajimoto, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre and an expert on fact-checking trends, believes that fact checks achieved a certain level of success during the Indonesian presidential election in April 2019, and the Taiwanese presidential election in January 2020. Kajimoto says there is research on these elections showing that there was less confusion spread among voters compared to earlier major elections, as multiple news outlets cooperated in fact checks.

    However, challenges still remain. Kajimoto pointed out, "Many fact checks take the form of pursuing information that has already spread, so it does not prevent false information from traveling."

    Despite this, Kajimoto views fact-checking as a worthwhile endeavor, and continues to engage in efforts including establishing a fact check website led by students. He said, "I think that the ability to pick out and verify information is indispensable when engaging with the news."

    Every person is susceptible to confirmation bias, a psychological tendency to collect information that confirms what one already believes. Many experts point out that this is behind the spread of false rumors. However good it might sound, however tiny the lie, falsehoods must not be tolerated. I'd like to continue fact-checking, in part as a way to keep myself vigilant.

    (Japanese original by Satoshi Kusakabe, Integrated Digital News Center)

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