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˽ Though fact-checking services play an important role countering online disinformation, little is known about whether users actually trust or distrust them. ˽ The data we collected from social media discussions—on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums, and discussion threads in online newspapers—reflects users’ opinions about fact-checking services. ˽ To strengthen trust, fact-checking services should strive to increase transparency in their processes, as well as in their organizations, and funding sources
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This is the authors' version of a paper published in Communications of the ACM. The reference for the final version is
as follows: Brandtzaeg, P. B., & Følstad, A. (2017). Trust and distrust in online fact-checking services.
Communications of the ACM, 60(9), 65-71. doi: 10.1145/3122803.
Trust and Distrust in Online Fact-Checking
Services
By Petter Bae Brandtzaeg and Asbjørn Følstad
While the Internet has the potential to give people ready access to relevant and factual information,
social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have made filtering and assessing online content
increasingly difficult due to its rapid flow and enormous volume. In fact, 49% of social media users
in the U.S. in 2012 received false breaking news through social media.[8] Likewise, a survey by
Silverman[11] suggested that in 2015 false rumors and misinformation disseminated further and
faster than ever before due to social media. Political analysts continue to discuss the growing
misinformation and fake news in social media and its effect on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Such misinformation challenges the credibility of the Internet as a venue for public information and
debate. In response over the past five years, a proliferation of outlets has provided fact checking and
debunking of online content. Fact-checking services, say Kriplean et al.,[6] provide “… evaluation
of verifiable claims made in public statements through investigation of primary and secondary
sources.” An international census from 2017 counted 114 active fact-checking services, a 19%
increase from the previous year.[12] To benefit from this trend, Google News in 2016 let news
providers tag news articles or their content with fact-checking information “… to help readers find
fact checking in large news stories.”[3] Any organization may use the fact-checking tag, if it is non-
partisan, transparent, and targets a range of claims within an area of interest and not just one single
person or entity.
However, research in fact checking has scarcely paid attention to the general public’s view of fact-
checking services, focusing instead on how people’s beliefs and attitudes change in response to
facts that contradict their own pre-existing opinions. This research suggests fact checking in general
may be unsuccessful at reducing misperceptions, especially among the people most prone to believe
them.[9] People often ignore facts that contradict their current beliefs,[2,13] particularly in politics
and controversial social issues.[9] Consequently, the more political or controversial issues a fact-
checking service covers, the more it needs to build a reputation for usefulness and trustworthiness.
Research suggests the trustworthiness of fact-checking services depends on their origin and
ownership, which may affect integrity perceptions[10] and the transparency of their fact-checking
process.[4] Despite these observations, we are unaware of any research that has examined users
perceptions of fact-checking services. Addressing the gap in current knowledge, we investigated
this research question: How do social media users perceive the trustworthiness and usefulness of
fact-checking services?
Fact-checking services differ in terms of their organizational aim and funding,[10] as well as their
areas of concern,[11] that in turn may affect their trustworthiness. As outlined in Figure 1, the
universe of fact-checking services can be divided into three general categories based on their areas
of concern: political and public statements in general, corresponding to the fact checking of
politicians, as discussed by Nyhan and Reifler;[9] online rumors and hoaxes, reflecting the need for
debunking services, as discussed by Silverman;[11] and specific topics or controversies or
particular conflicts or narrowly scoped issues or events (such as the ongoing Ukraine conflict).
In our study, we focused on three services—Snopes, FactCheck.org, and StopFake—all included in
the Duke Reporters’ Lab’s online overview of fact checkers (http://reporterslab.org/fact-checking/).
They represent three categories of fact checkers, from online rumors to politics to a particular topic
of controversy, as in Figure 1, and differences in organization and funding. As a measure of their
popularity, as of June 20, 2017, Snopes had 561,650 likes on Facebook, FactCheck.org 806,814,
and StopFake 52,537.
We study Snopes because of its aim to debunk online rumors, fitting the first category in Figure 1.
This aim is shared by other such services, including HoaxBusters and the Swedish service
Viralgranskaren. Snopes is managed by a small volunteer organization emerging from a single-
person initiative and funded through advertising revenue.
We study FactCheck.org because it monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major figures in
politics. Other similar services include PolitiFact (U.S.) and Full Fact (U.K.) listed in the second
category in Figure 1. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the
Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in U.S. FactCheck.org is
supported by university funding and individual donors and has been a source of inspiration for other
fact-checking projects.
We study StopFake because it addresses a highly specific topic—the ongoing Ukraine conflict. It
thus resembles other highly focused fact-checking initiatives (such as #Refugeecheck, an initiative
to fact check reports on the refugee crises in Europe). StopFake is an initiative by the Kyiv Mohyla
Journalism School in Kiev, Ukraine, and thus a European-based service. Snopes and FactCheck.org
are U.S. based, like more than a third of the fact-checking services identified by Duke Reporters’
Lab.[12]
All three provide their fact checking through their own websites, as well as through Facebook and
Twitter. Figure 2 is an example of a Twitter post with content checked by Snopes.
Analyzing Social Media Conversations
To explore how social media users perceive the trustworthiness and usefulness of fact-checking
services, we applied a research approach designed to take advantage of unstructured social media
conversations (see Figure 3).
While investigations of trust and usefulness often rely on structured data from questionnaire-based
surveys, social media conversations represent a highly relevant data source for our purpose, as they
arguably reflect the raw, authentic perceptions of social media users. Xu et al.[16] claim it is
beneficial to listen to, analyze, and understand citizens’ opinions through social media to improve
societal decision-making processes and solutions. For example, Xu et al.[16] wrote, social media
analytics has been applied to explain, detect, and predict disease outbreaks, election results,
macroeconomic processes (such as crime detection), (… ) and financial markets (such as stock
price).”[16] Social media conversations take place in the everyday context of users likely to be
engaged in fact-checking services. This approach may provide a more unbiased view of people’s
perceptions than, say, a questionnaire-based approach. The benefit of gathering data from users in
their specific social media context does not imply that our data is representative. Our data lacks
important information about user demographics, limiting our ability to claim generality for the
entire user population. Despite this potential drawback, our data does offer new insight into how
social media users view the usefulness and trustworthiness of various categories of fact-checking
services.
For data collection, we used Meltwater Buzz, an established service for social media monitoring.
This service crawled data from social media conversations in blogs, discussion forums, online
newspaper discussion threads, Twitter, and Facebook. Meltwater Buzz is designed to crawl all blogs
(such as https://wordpress.com/), discussion forums (such as https://offtopic.com/), and online
newspapers (such as https://www.washingtonpost.com/) requested by Meltwater customers, thus
representing a convenience sample, albeit large. Meltwater Buzz collects various amounts of data
from each platform; for example, it crawls all posts on Twitter but only the Facebook pages with
3,500 likes or groups of more than 500 members. This limitation in Facebook data partly explains
why the overall number of posts we collected—1,741—was not very great.
To collect opinions about social media user perceptions of Snopes and FactCheck.org, we applied
the search term “[service name] is,” or “Snopes is,” “FactCheck.org is,” and “FactCheck is.” This
term was intended to reflect how people start a sentence when formulating opinions. StopFake is a
relatively less-known service. We thus selected a broader search string—“StopFake”—to be able to
collect enough relevant opinions. The searches returned a data corpus of 1,741 posts going back six
months in time—October 2014 to March 2015—as in Figure 3. By “posts,” we mean written
contributions by individual users. To create a sufficient dataset for analysis, we removed all
duplicates, including a small number of non-relevant posts lacking personal opinions about fact
checkers. This filtering process resulted in a dataset of 595 posts.
We then performed content analysis, coding all posts to identify and investigate patterns within the
data,[1] to reveal the perceptions users express in social media about the three fact-checking
services we investigated. We analyzed their perceptions of the usefulness of fact-checking services
through a usefulness construct similar to the one used by Tsakonas et al.[14] Hence, “usefulness”
concerns the extent the service is perceived as beneficial when doing a specific fact-checking task,
often illustrated by positive recommendations and characterizations (such as that the service is
“good” or “great”). Following Mayer et al.’s theoretical framework,[7] we categorized
trustworthiness according to the perceived ability, benevolence, and integrity of the fact-checking
services. “Ability” concerns the extent the service is perceived as having available the needed skills
and expertise, as well as being reputable and well regarded. “Benevolence” refers to the extent the
service is perceived as intending to do good, beyond what would be expected from an egocentric
motive. “Integrity targets the extent the service is generally viewed as adhering to an acceptable set
of principles, in particular being independent, unbiased, and fair.
Since we found posts typically reflect rather polarized perceptions of the studied fact-checking
services, we also grouped the codes manually according to sentiment, whether positive or negative.
However, some posts describe the services in a plain and objective manner. We thus coded them
using a positive sentiment (see Table 1) because they refer to the service as a source for fact
checking, and users are likely to reference fact-checking sites because they see them as useful.
For reliability, both researchers in this study did the coding. One coded all the posts, and the second
then went through all the assigned codes, a process that was repeated twice. Finally, both
researchers went through all comments for which an alternative code had been suggested to decide
on the final coding, a process that recommended an alternative coding for 153 posts (26%).
A post could include more than one of the analytical themes, so 30% of the posts were thus coded
as addressing two or more themes.
Results
Despite the potential benefits of fact-checking services, Figure 4 shows that the majority of the
posts on the two U.S.-based services expressed negative sentiment, with Snopes at 68% and
FactCheck.org at 58%. Most posts on the Ukraine-based StopFake (78%) reflected positive
sentiment.
The stated reasons for negative sentiment typically concerned one or more of the trustworthiness
themes rather than usefulness. For example, for Snopes and FactCheck.org, the negative posts often
expressed concern over lack in integrity due to perceived bias toward the political left. Negative
sentiment pertaining to the ability and benevolence of the services were also common. The few
critical comments on usefulness were typically aimed at discrediting a service, as by, say,
characterizing it as “satirical” or “a joke.”
Positive posts were more often related to usefulness. For example, the stated reasons for positive
sentiment toward StopFake typically concerned the service’s usefulness in countering pro-Russian
propaganda and trolling and in the information war associated with the ongoing Ukraine conflict.
In line with a general notion of an increasing need to interpret and act on information and
misinformation in social media,[6,11] some users in our study discussed fact-checking sites as
important elements of an information war.
Snopes. The examples in Table 2 reflect how negative sentiment in the posts we analyzed on
Snopes was rooted in issues pertaining to trustworthiness. Integrity issues typically involved a
perceived “left-leaning” political bias in the people behind the service. Pertaining to benevolence,
users in our study said Snopes is part of a larger left-leaning, or liberal,” conspiracy often claimed
to be funded by George Soros, whereas comments on ability typically targeted lack of expertise in
the people running the service. Some negative comments on trustworthiness may be seen as a
rhetorical means of discrediting the service. Posts expressing positive sentiment mainly argued for
the usefulness of the service, claiming that Snopes is a useful resource for checking up on the
veracity of Internet rumors.
FactCheck.org. The patterns in the posts we analyzed for FactCheck.org resemble those for
Snopes. As in Table 3, the most frequently mentioned trustworthiness concerns related to service
integrity; as for Snopes, users said the service was politically biased toward the left. Posts
concerning benevolence and ability were also relatively frequent, reflecting user concern regarding
the service as a contributor to propaganda or doubts about its fact-checking practices.
StopFake. As in Table 4, the results for StopFake show more posts expressing positive sentiment
than we found for Snopes and FactCheck.org. In particular, the posts in the study pointed out that
StopFake helps debunk rumors seen as Russian propaganda in the Ukraine conflict.
Nevertheless, the general pattern in the reasons users gave us for positive and negative sentiment for
Snopes and FactCheck.org also held for StopFake. The positive posts were typically motivated by
usefulness, whereas the negative posts reflected the sentiment that StopFake is politically biased
(“integrity), a “fraud,” a “hoax,” or part of Ukraine propaganda machinery (“benevolence”).
Discussion
We found users in the study with positive perceptions typically extol the usefulness of fact-checking
services, whereas users with negative opinions cited trust issues. This pattern emerged across the
three different services. In the following sections, we discuss how these findings provide new
insight into trustworthiness as a key challenge when countering online rumors and
misinformation[2,9] and why ill-founded beliefs may have such online reach, even though the
beliefs are corrected by such prominent fact checkers as Snopes, FactCheck.org, and StopFake.
Usefulness. Users in our sample with a positive view of the services mainly pointed to their
usefulness. While everyone should exercise caution when comparing the different fact checkers,
topic-specific StopFake is perceived as more useful than Snopes and FactCheck.org. One reason
might be that a service targeting a specific topic faces less criticism because it attracts a particular
audience that seeks facts supporting their own view. For example, StopFake users target anti-
Russian and pro-Ukrainian readers. Another, more general, reason might be positive perceptions are
motivated by user needs pertaining to a perceived high load of misinformation, as in the case of the
Ukraine conflict, where media reports and social media are seen as overflowing with propaganda.
Others highlighted the general ease information may be filtered or separated from misinformation
through sites like Snopes and FactCheck.org, as expressed like this:
“As you pointed out, it doesn’t take that much effort to see if something on the Internet is legit, and
Snopes is a great place to start. So why not take that few seconds of extra effort to do that, rather
than creating and sharing misleading items.
This finding suggests there is an increasing demand for fact-checking services,[6] while at the same
time a substantial proportion of social media users who would benefit from fact-checking services
do not use them sufficiently. Such services should thus be even more active on social media sites
like Facebook and Twitter, as well as in online discussion forums, where easy access to fact
checking is needed.
Trustworthiness. Negative perceptions and opinions about fact-checking services seem to be
motivated by basic distrust rather than by rational argument. For some users in our sample, lack of
trust extends beyond a particular service to encompass the entire social and political system. Users
with negative perceptions thus seem trapped in a perpetual state of informational disbelief.
While one’s initial response to statements reflecting a state of informational disbelief may be to
dismiss them as the uninformed paranoia of a minority of the public, the statements should instead
be viewed as a source of user insight. The reason fact-checking services are often unsuccessful in
reducing ill-founded perceptions[9] and people tend to disregard fact checking that goes against
their pre-existing beliefs[2,13] may be a lack of basic trust rather than a lack of fact-based
arguments provided by the services.
We found such distrust is often highly emotional. In line with Silverman,[11] fact-checking sites
must be able to recognize how debunking and fact checking evoke emotion in their users. Hence,
the services may benefit from rethinking the way they design and present themselves to strengthen
trust among users in a general state of informational disbelief. Moreover, users of online fact-
checking sites need to compensate for the lack of physical evidence online by, say, being
demonstrably independent, impartial, and able to clearly distinguish fact from opinion.
Rogerson[10] wrote that fact-checking sites exhibit varying levels of rigor and effectiveness. The
fact-checking process and even what are considered “facts” may in some cases involve subjective
interpretation, especially when actors with partial ties aim to provide fact-checking services. For
example, in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the organization “Donald J. Trump for President
invited Trump supporters to join a fact-check initiative, similar to the category “topics or
controversies,” urging fact checking” the presidential debates on social media. However, the
initiative was criticized as mainly promoting Trump’s views and candidacy.[5]
Important questions users of fact-checking sites ask include: Who does the fact checking and how
do they do it? What organizations are behind the process? And how does the nature of the
organization influence the results of the fact checking? Fact-checking sites must thus explicate the
nuanced, detailed process leading to the presented result while keeping it simple enough to be
understandable and useful.[11]
Need for transparency. While fact-checker trustworthiness is critical, fact checkers represent but
one set of voices in the information landscape and cannot be expected to be benevolent and
unbiased just by virtue of their checking facts. Rather, fact-checking services, more than other types
of information service must strive for transparency in their working process, as well as in their
origins, organization, and funding sources.
To increase transparency in fact-checking processes, a service might try to take a more horizontal,
collaborative approach than is typically seen in today’s generation of services. Following Hermida’s
recommendation[4] for social media journalists, fact checkers could be set up as platforms for
collaborative verification and fact checking, relying less on centralized expertise. Forming an
interactive relationship with users may also help build trust.[6,7]
Conclusion
We identified a lack of perceived trustworthiness and a state of informational disbelief as potential
obstacles to fact-checking services reaching social media users most critical to such services. Table
5 summarizes our overall findings and discussions, outlining related key challenges and our
recommendations for how to address them.
Given the exploratory nature of the study, we cannot conclude that our findings are valid for all
fact-checking services. In addition, more research is needed to make definite claims on systematic
differences between various forms of fact checkers based on their “areas of concern.Nevertheless,
the consistent pattern in opinions we found across three prominent fact-checking services suggests
challenges and recommendations that can provide useful guidance for future development in this
important area.
Acknowledgments
This work was supported by the European Commission co-funded FP 7 project REVEAL (Project
No. FP7-610928, http://www.revealproject.eu/) but does not necessarily represent the views of the
European Commission. We also thank Marika Lüders of the University of Oslo and three
anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.
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Petter Bae Brandtzaeg (pbb@sintef.no) is a senior research scientist at SINTEF in Oslo, Norway.
Asbjørn Følstad (asf@sintef.no) is a senior research scientist at SINTEF in Oslo, Norway
Fact-checking services areas of concern
Political and public
claims
Specific topics or
controversies
FactCheck.org
PolitiFact
The Washington Post
Fact Checker
CNN Reality Check
Full Fact
StopeFake
Tru thBeTo ld
#RefugeeCheck
Climate Feedback
Brown Moses Blog
(continued as Bellingcat)
Online rumors and
hoaxes
Snopes.com
Hoax-Slayer
ThruthOrFiction.com
HoaxBusters
Viralgranskaren -Metro
Figure 1. Categorization of fact-checking services based on areas of concern.
Figure 2. Example of Snopes debunking a social media rumor on Twitter (March 6, 2016);
https://twitter.com/snopes/status/706545708233396225
Figure 3. Outline of our research approach; posts collected October 2014 to March 2015.
Figure 4. Positive and negative posts related to trustworthiness and usefulness per fact-checking
service (in %); “other” refers to posts not relevant for the researching categories (N = 595 posts).
Theme Sentiment The service described as
Usefulness Positive Useful, serving the purpose of fact-checking.
Negative Not as useful, often in a derogatory manner.
Ability Positive Reputable, expert, or acclaimed.
Negative Lacking in expertise or credibility.
Benevolence Positive Aiming for a greater (social) good.
Negative Suspected of (social) ill-doing (such as through conspiracy, propaganda, or fraud)
Integrity Positive Independent or impartial.
Negative Dependent, partial, or politically biased.
Table 1. Coding scheme we used to analyze the data.
Theme Sentiment Example
Usefulness Positive
(21%)
Snopes is a wonderful Website for verifying things you see online; it is at least a
starting point for research.
Negative
(10%)
Snopes is a joke. Look at its Boston bombing debunking failing to debunking the worst
hoax ever ...
Ability Positive
(6%)
[…] Snopes is a respectable source for debunking wives tails, urban legends, even
medical myths ...
Negative
(24%)
Heh... Snopes is a man and a woman with no investigative background or credentials
who form their opinions solely on internet research; they don’t interview anyone. […]
Benevolence Positive
(0%)
No posts
Negative
(21%)
You are showing your Ignorance by using Snopes … SNOPES is a NWO Disinformation
System designed to fool the Masses ... SORRY. I Believe NOTHING from Snopes.
Snopes is a Disinformation vehicle of the Elitist NWO Globalists. Believe NOTHING
from them... […]
Integrity Positive
(2%)
Snopes is a standard, rather dull fact-checking site, nailing right and left equally. […]
Negative
(44%)
Snopes is a leftist outlet supported with money from George Soros. Whatever Snopes
says I take with a grain of salt ...
Table 2. Snopes and themes we analyzed (n = 385).
Theme Sentiment Example
Usefulness Positive
(25%)
[…] You obviously haven’t listened to what they say. Also, I hate liars. Fact check is a
great tool.
Negative
(3%)
Anyway, "FactCheck" is a joke […]
Ability Positive
(6%)
The media sources I use must pass a high credibility bar. FactCheck.org is just one of
the resources I use to validate what I read....
Negative
(16%)
[…] FactCheck is NOT a confidence builder; see their rider and sources, Huffpo
articles … REALLY?
Benevolence Positive
(0%)
No posts.
Negative
(25%)
FactCheck studies the factual correctness of what major players in U.S. politics say in
TV commercials, debates, talks, interviews, and news presentations, then tries to
present a best possible fictional and propaganda-like version for its target […]
Integrity Positive
(19%)
When you don’t like the message, blame the messenger. FactCheck is non-partisan.
It's just that conservatives either lie or are mistaken more ...
Negative
(39%)
FactCheck is a left-leaning opinion. It doesn’t check facts ...
Table 3. FactCheck.org and themes we analyzed (n = 80).
Theme Sentiment Example
Usefulness Positive
(72%)
Don’t forget a strategic weapon of the Kremlin is the “web of lies” spread by its
propaganda machine; see antidote http://www.stopfake.org/en/news
Negative
(2%)
[…] Stopfake! HaHaHa. You won, I give up. Next time I will quote ‘Saturday Night Live’;
there is more truth:))...
Ability Positive
(2%)
[…] by the way the website StopFake.org is a very objective and accurate source
exposing Russian propaganda and disinformation techniques. […]*
Negative
(2%)
[…] Ha Ha … a flow of lies is constantly sent out from the Kremlin. Really. If so,
StopFake needs updates every hour, but the best way it can do that is to find low-
grade blog content and make it appear as if it was produced by Russian media […]
Benevolence Positive
(4%)
[…] Stopfake is devoted to exposing Russian propaganda against the Ukraine. […]
Negative
(14%)
So now you acknowledge Stopfake is part of Kiev’s propaganda. I guess that answers
my question […]
Integrity Positive
(2%)
[…] by the way the website StopFake.org is
a very objective and accurate source
exposing Russian propaganda and disinformation techniques. […]
Negative
(11%)
[…] Why should I give any credence to StopFake.org? Does it ever criticize the Kiev
regime, in favor of the Donbass position? […]
Table 4. StopFake and themes we analyzed (n = 130); note * also coded as integrity/positive.
Challenges Recommendations
Usefulness
Unrealized potential in
public use of fact-
checking services
Increase presence in social media and
discussion forums
Trustworthiness
Ability Critique of expertise and
reputation
Provide nuanced but simple overview of the
fact-checking process where relevant sources
are included
Benevolence
Suspicion of conspiracy
and
propaganda
Establish open policy on fact checking and
open spaces for collaboration on fact checking
Integrity Perception of bias and
partiality
Ensure transparency on organization and
funding. And demonstrable impartiality in
fact-checking process
Table 5. Challenges and our related recommendations for fact-checking services.
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... Si bien se trata de un fenómeno reciente, es interesante comprobar el enorme interés que entre los investigadores está teniendo el estudio de los efectos de las redes sociales en el ejercicio profesional y en la calidad del periodismo (Cam-pos-Freire, Rúas-Araújo, López-García y Martínez-Fernández, 2016). Existen ya importantes trabajos que analizan su impacto sobre las rutinas profesionales (Hedman, 2015), los nuevos formatos y contenidos (Metag y Rauchfleisch, 2017), las técnicas de verificación de las informaciones (Brandtzaeg y Følstad, 2017), los riesgos de la inmediatez (Bruno, 2011), las posibilidades de interacción con los usuarios (Túñez, 2012) o el uso de estos canales como fuentes informativas (Varona-Aramburu y Sánchez-Muñoz, 2016). ...
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Labeling fact-check articles in Google News
  • R Gingras
Gingras, R. Labeling fact-check articles in Google News. Journalism & News (Oct. 13, 2016);