Why fact-checking news reports is important

Viralgranskaren (‘The Viral Monitor’) is a standing column of the Swedish branch of the international freesheet newspaper Metro (that is also originally from Sweden). They specialise in finding out whether viral videos and stories are actually true, and encourage people to fact-check before sharing something on social media.

On 18 November 2016, they created both a Swedish and an English version of a video explaining why fact-checking news reports is important.

The example they give is of a story that went viral in late October 2016. It was based on a real news article from Sveriges Television (SVT). However, xenophobic conspiracy right-wing websites, blogs, shock-logs etc., especially outside Sweden (e.g. Infowars), seized upon the article – that didn’t even mention Islam, Muslims or refugees – to claim that decorative Christmas lights were ‘banned to avoid offending Muslim migrants’.The STV editors of the original article added a note (also in English) debunking the myth:

NOTE: This article has unfortunately appeared on websites outside Sweden where it has been placed in a totally incorrect context. The decision to not allow Christmas decorative lights on poles belonging to the National Roads Authorities, is a question of technical and legal issues, and has nothing to do with religion or immigration.
There will still be a lots [sic] of Christmas lights in the main parts of Swedish cities. The lights are not banned in any way.

But journalists adding a refutation is merely part of tackling the problem of fake news, which is so common on social media like Facebook these days. The main responsibility for countering false reports is upon readers who need to assess whether what they’re reading is actually true. To share it uncritically before verifying its authenticity should become taboo, since it not only creates and perpetuates misinformation, but can actually have pretty nasty consequences.

The Viralgranskaren team: ‘Before YOU share’.

When conspiracy theories spread like wildfire and they target a particular group of people (in this case Muslims, but it could be anyone), this creates/increases bigotry. One day perhaps even a huge crowd of misinformed angry people might turn into a lynch mob, making innocent victims (which is not unheard of outside of Europe).  The same goes for other weird stories, like when someone who is not a qualified dietitian makes an odd claim about eating clay against ‘negative radiation’, and this claim is actually believed by thousands of people sharing it everywhere, some of those people might harm themselves.

So it’s a collective responsibility for all of us to be skeptical, and fact-check dubious news before sharing it online. Or, even better, when you’ve found it’s false, write a (kind and diplomatic) refutation to whoever shared it, and share the link yourself along with your refutation. Viralgranskaren is giving us the right example of how to turn unskeptical scare sharing into comfortably drinking your tea after fact-checking.