Ten weeks before the presidential elections in France, a unique initiative called CrossCheck brought together several French newsrooms to fight against disinformation. Some months later, France officially declared war on fake news and announced a corresponding bill. This recognition adds a new dimension to the tremendous work done by this platform on the brink of a crucial vote.
On 6 February 2017, a few months before the first round of presidential elections in France, a unique journalism initiative was launched to fight against disinformation. Called CrossCheck and coordinated by First Draft News (https://fr.firstdraftnews.com/), it conducted collaborative verification efforts to help French citizens determine what and whom to trust in social network feeds and news. Its goal: to prevent so-called fake news from exerting a misleading influence.
This term, which burst onto the scene during the American presidential election in autumn 2016, refers to information that is often false because it is misinterpreted, misreported or even voluntarily manipulated and therefore created and intended to mislead. The latter case may be ideologically motivated; thus a presidential election is a favourite battleground.
To hunt down fake news in France, CrossCheck united around 30 local and national newsrooms and enlisted roughly 100 journalists. This collaborative effort, which was live from 27 February to 5 May (two days before the second round of presidential elections), was on a scale never before seen in France or elsewhere.
Journalists used software programs developed to monitor social networks to detect the “virality” of online content — photos, videos, memes, comments and news websites — based on significant numbers of shares, likes and comments. In addition, Internet users were invited to submit questions through a form (https://crosscheck.firstdraftnews.com/france-fr/posez-nous-votre-question/).
The CrossCheck team verified the information conveyed based on its content, including any accompanying images or videos. To do this, it had to answer several questions: is the information confirmed? Is its source reliable? Is the document retouched? Does it concern the event in question? Is it taken out of context?
67 articles published
Using this approach, more than 400 viral posts were identified every day for two months. Information in these posts concerning the presidential election was examined and verified. As soon as they had been validated by newsrooms, CrossCheck published its conclusions on its website (https://crosscheck.firstdraftnews.com/france-fr/), its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/CrossCheckFrance/) and its Twitter account (https://twitter.com/crosscheck), for a total of 67 articles. Newsrooms, headed by Agence France-Presse (AFP), contributed their verification efforts, bringing the total to 276 articles.
An offshore account for Emmanuel Macron (https://crosscheck.firstdraftnews.com/checked-french/macron-compte-offshore/). Arabic language instruction in primary school classes (https://crosscheck.firstdraftnews.com/checked-french/najat-vallaud-belkacem-t-elle-signe-un-accord-pour-permettre-lenseignement-de-larabe-en-primaire/). Voting rights for imprisoned jihadists (https://crosscheck.firstdraftnews.com/checked-french/gouvernement-vote-criminels-djihadistes/). Support for Emmanuel Macron from Al-Qaeda (https://crosscheck.firstdraftnews.com/checked-french/emmanuel-macron-est-il-soutenu-par-al-qaida/). Jean-Luc Mélenchon wearing a €17,750 Rolex watch (https://crosscheck.firstdraftnews.com/checked-french/jean-luc-melenchon-saffiche-t-il-avec-une-rolex/). Fake polls and wholly created reports (https://crosscheck.firstdraftnews.com/checked-french/le-sondage-publie-sur-twitter-par-le-tresorier-du-fn-est-il-fiable/). These are a few of the hundreds of rumours confirmed or denied with supporting evidence.
Certain figures reflect the significance of the impact of this work (https://fr.firstdraftnews.com/crosscheck-recherche-qualitative/). The CrossCheck website has registered 590,443 views and 335,993 visitors, 83,146 of whom are regular visitors. Of these visits, 42% come from links embedded in other websites. The Facebook page, which has 175,000-180,000 subscribers, generated 347,800 interactions in 10 weeks and has generated 1,207,642 video views in total. Posts to partner Facebook pages have gotten 51,865 reactions and 18,669 shares.
On 7 October 2017, CrossCheck received a prestigious Online Journalism Award at the Online News Association Conference in Washington.
Since the election results were announced and Emmanuel Macron became the President of the French Republic, CrossCheck’s work has ceased. The same cannot be said of fake news, which continues to prosper with more and more efficient tools. Today, there are software programs that can not only retouch photos and take videos out of context, but also reconstruct any leader’s voice and lip movement to create a believable filmed speech (https://youtu.be/9Yq67CjDqvw).
How should war be waged against disinformation by these means? Google has expressed its intention to promote “authoritative content.” Facebook has stated that it is fighting against sham accounts. However, does either have the legitimacy or the authority to do so?
While Emmanuel Macron has announced a law against fake news (http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/video/2018/01/03/emmanuel-macron-annonce-une-loi-pour-lutter-contre-les-fake-news_5237300_823448.html), its contents have not yet been specified in a clear and reassuring manner. This does not fail to raise questions and concerns: how will judges deem information false? Will journalists be obliged to disclose their sources to defend themselves? Will this law be effective against manoeuvres undertaken outside of France?
The process of combatting fake news with a law seems quite complex and uncertain. It would likely be more productive to look to pedagogy and invest in an educational programme that endows new generations with sharpened capacities for judgement and free will — drivers of any democracy.
Publishing Director of Rue89 Bordeaux, a CrossCheck partner