Thread 2: ‘Does it really need to be fact-checked?’

Our followers directed various criticisms on our article published on November 7, 2018 about the claim that the wife of President Erdoğan, Emine Erdoğan made a wrong move in a chess game. It was claimed in the photo shared on social media that Emine Erdoğan made a wrong move while playing chess, and the related photo was shared a thousand times on the news sites and social media.

The users stated that such claim does not need to be analyzed, and re-addressed a question which has been asked frequently to teyit.org: “Does it really need to be fact-checked?”

We focused on this question and discussed why our readers had such a question in their minds, together with the question that what kind of a transparency model we should adopt to clear the air for our readers.

The following comments you will read directly reflect the flow of a discussion initiated on the Slack channel of teyit.org. To make our editorial processes transparent, we will publish our discussions on the decision we took, in this format without making any correction (other than spelling errors).

You can find the first “Thread” content  here:

For your interest: Thread 1: Why did we verify reports on Ara Güler’s death?

Burak [Engagement Editor]: Hi everyone. One of the most frequently-asked questions in some of our published analyzes is “Did it need to be fact-checked?” As the team, we often address this question. What are our opinions about this subject? Does society believe in the same things and think that the same things are fake? Who receives fake news? Should a person say “Did it need to be fact-checked?” for a claim just like another person who questions the fact-checking need of that claim?

Atakan [Founder]: I understand that our user’s question “Does it need to be fact-checked?” means “I did not believe in it at all and I think that nobody believes.” It is pretty difficult to estimate who believes or does not believe in a claim shared on internet. Therefore we decide on what to be confirmed on the basis of “virality” which is arguably the most objective evaluation criterion. It may be more helpful to explain this: “You and the echo-chamber you are in may not believe in this information. Whatever satisfies you! However, it does not mean that everybody else does not believe as well.”

Screen images of the discussion of teyit members on Slack channel 

Burak: I agree with Atakan in this respect. As I mentioned referring to the tweet of Serdar Başeğmez from Yalansavar team which is a platform formed by the enthusiasts of critical thinking and science, “Does it need to be fact-checked?” question generates separate echo-chambers based on what needs to be confirmed and what does not. Should a person who does not believe in astrology ask “Is this content necessary?” about a critical review about astrology? Should a follower of teyit.org determine his/her “bias” towards a claim, considering the number of people who believe in the claim? We published an article about a research on our page. It was suggested in this research that there is a rumor in which everybody may believe, and the possibility to believe in such rumor does not depend on educational background, gender or residential area.

Mert Can [Writer]: I find the tendency of people to prioritize particular subjects quite normal. Nevertheless, such lists of prioritization get more and more solidified when people are confined to certain social environments and avoid contacting different people from other social groups. In this process, those individuals become more conservative with regard to their opinions. Of course, I do not mean a sort of political transformation by saying “becoming conservative.” It means showing resistance to change in the existing intellectual patterns over time and ignoring external influences…Ultimately, this behavior makes us interpret the world only from our bounded perspective. More dangerously, it blunts our critical thinking ability. At this point, comments such as “Did it need to be fact-checked?” come into play.

As we approach a claim, we predicate the claim on objective criteria such as its prevalence and try to eliminate our potential “biases.” In this regard, I do not think that the problem originates from our team. On the other side, such questions may be asked with reference to the perception that we have common biases. Therefore, we may have to reflect our criteria and methodology used to choose a case more transparently so as to overcome that kind of approach of our follower.

Gülin [Editor-in-Chief]: As Mert Can state, we should give the clearest answer to the question “Which factor determines our decision to review the analyses?” The influence of echo-chambers is still ambiguous, as discussed. Do individuals ask the so-called question referring to the information cluster to which they are subject in this discussion or do they lose confidence because of not seeing what they want to see? It is inevitable for Teyit to endeavor to create more reliable status if people follow and trust those who think like them. Although all of us have tendencies and interests, we do not choose or publish the analyses in consideration of them.

We should show our followers that we are not occupied with only “those”. We try to express in every interview that preparing an analysis may take days and even weeks, and we may not come up with a result every time. Many factors which we cannot control (insufficiency, indifference, and unavailability of resources etc.) play role in this situation.

Another matter which makes me think in relation to the reactions of our followers is whether they realize our effort to spread different ways of thinking in our analyses or not. In my opinion, we sometimes have trouble explaining this aspect. For example, social media and news agencies touched on the claim that Emine Erdoğan made a wrong move in a chess game through opinion columns, tweets and so on. However, when it comes to verifying this, everyone mentioned its futility. Actually, we decided to verify this claim based on the prevalence of the suspicious content as we act for any false information.

The “instant” picture which you saw during the writing process of an analysis may not reflect the whole picture. In the case of Emine Erdoğan, we primarily told this point. Later, we showed the possibility to demonstrate something else, using different tools and methods. For instance, chess simulation of Ali Osman was didactic and fun. It indicated that verification tools may emerge out of even our daily entertainment. Another point to be emphasized is that any false information which a group/person finds “unimportant” contains polarizing elements. Perhaps, we cannot notice the “critical” matters debated on social media. Nevertheless, we receive over 20 messages from various echo-chambers, so I think that we do not miss too many points. I suggest that we can clarify the difference between a news site and a fact-checker.

Oktay [Digital Content Strategist]: According to me, we cannot exactly show our users how exhaustive preparing an analysis is. They see only the analyses published. Somehow, we need to inform them about the analyses which could not be completed despite our utmost efforts. For example, seven contents are being analyzed on “Editor’s Table” page now. Only some of them will be concluded and many users will be aware of mere those concluded. If so, it may be useful to share the information on “Editor’s Desk” weekly from our social media accounts as follows: “We analyzed x claims this week. We concluded y of them while z of them remained inconclusive due to those reasons.”

I think that the logic behind the question “Does it need to be fact-checked?” is “It does not matter whether it is true or false.” In the case of Emine Erdoğan, this question refers to “So what if Emine Erdoğan made a wrong or right move in a chess game?” Many social media accounts and news sites pit one against another to say “Wife of the President does not know to play chess” looking at her photo taken in the chess game. “The other side” acts in the same way, using the names of the opposition side. As Teyit, we try to reveal what both sides did, on the basis of false information. Of course, our work is significant, but a majority who do not already believe in actions of “both sides” for years may ask us “Why are you occupied with such things?” when they see our verification.  

Ali Osman [Editor]: From my standpoint, a limited number of people might object to the saying that “The world has become a global village.” Even though we share numerous things in our world, it does not mean that the whole world does the same things at the same time. Many people think that January 1 is the first day of the year. However, January 1 is not the first day of the year from the perspective of Mayas, Jews, Arabs, Chinese, and several other communities. Even if we live on the same earth and are illuminated and warmed by the same sun, north in the South Hemisphere is actually south. That is to say, everyone around us does not have the same perspective. This point is valid for the internet environment as well. As you mentioned above, every time, we strive to explain the factors that direct us to conduct an analysis, and causes of the analysis. Furthermore, to avert the question “Why was it made?” Burak adds several images to articles in order to create virality effect.  

For instance, in the past, approximately 105,000 people shared a photo claiming that 5 liters of oil do not weight 5 kg. Teyit.org needed to publish an analysis on this photo, and provided the following basic information taught at high school: density values of water and oil differ. 105,000 is a figure which exceeds the population of numerous provinces and districts today. Current population of Yozgat city center and the whole Bayburt province are approximately 100,000 and 80,000, respectively. Assume that residents of both provinces believe in the claim in this photo. At this point, the essential question should be “Why do so many people believe in that false information and have lack of knowledge at high school level?” rather than “Why do you need to verify this information? Because everyone knows that the density of oil is different from that of water.”

I also agree with Gülin in respect to the analysis on the wrong move of Emine Erdoğan in chess. We would not prepare an analysis on this subject unless there are some reasons. The relevant photo which was mentioned by columnists and shared on social media thousand times was sent to us as a notice. Additionally, several news sites tweeted, using this photo in a teasing way. Whereas the claimers made precise comments about the photo with no evidence, we published an analysis based on solid evidence and noticed that the move of Emine Erdoğan was correct. We might have reached the opposite result. Namely, she would make a wrong move. In this case, we would definitely publish this as well and mention her wrong move in our tweet. Thus, our tweet would receive thousands of mild reactions such as “look at this, she does not know to play chess” instead of “Why did you confirm this?” Lastly, teyit.org which explained the truth on the basis of solid evidence drew reactions while the claimers put Erdoğan on the spot using a questionable photo. Let’s remember the famous anecdote of Nasreddin Hodja, “Has the thief no crime?”

Alican [Writer]:  This topic is being discussed in our office almost every day, so we have already similar thoughts. However, I would like to touch on a few points. I sometimes think that the group of people who shares suspicious posts is not the same group of people who follow us curiously. As a matter of fact, our aim is to spread critical thinking and to bring these two different masses together. Unfortunately, receiving comments such as “Did it need to be fact-checked?” makes me think that we have a long way to go. Because the person asking such necessity may not be familiar with emotions and ideas of the members of the echo chambers who assert claims on social media even if that person speaks the same language and has the same history. At this point, critical thinking triggers “curiosity” factor and makes an individual wonder what’s going around. In fact, all of the analyses ultimately teach people a lot of things about life even though the necessity of the analyses is questioned.

Another dimension of this question may be related to political distrust. The street interview about us demonstrated that our citizens do not believe in the objectivity and neutrality of media institutions and organizations. An analysis about a subject which is different from the political view of a person may be evaluated by that person as “makers of the analysis serve to x person, so they are occupied with such unnecessary things not to get reaction.” As a reflection of grudge and anger spreading the whole society, the opposition will say “This is unnecessary. You deal with needless things” since they think that we do not criticize the government. In my opinion, this is pretty usual. We should tell our followers who regard themselves as opposing party that we are different from a news site. Such negativities will be eliminated if we succeed in spreading critical thinking and we can tell the intention of teyit.org better.

Sinan [Writer]: Sometimes, I was thinking in the same way when I was a reader, so I can personally understand those who question the need for a verification. This may be grounded on two different perspectives mentioned by Atakan and Oktay: “Is there anyone believing in such things?” and “It does not matter whether it is true or false.”   

According to me, the first perspective is refuted by figures. False and fishy news is occasionally shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Such news which can access different echo chambers when confirmed are valuable with their potential for teaching critical reading to people regardless of their “importance”. In short, the more people are reached the more likely it becomes to obtain positive outcomes with respect to media literacy.

It can be roughly estimated that 90 percent of the owners of the second perspective moan about non-political content. In such a polarized country, expectations from an institution like teyit.org whose neutrality and “umpiring” ability are acknowledged by a large number of people are unfortunately limited with the subjective thoughts of the communities. They think that teyit lies when teyit draws a conclusion in favor of their counterparty. I consider that the answer given to the first perspective at this point meets this aspect partially; becoming viral is significant as an objective criteria. Namely, it is “necessary” if it can reach many people. Furthermore, we may have to highlight more clearly that teyit.org is a fact-checking platform and differs from the traditional media tools. teyit.org resembles neither Birgün nor Sabah. In addition to its different objective, it does not have the same social and financial opportunities as those platforms. teyit.org does not employ journalists. It has limited staff. It is not a crime scene investigation as well. Such opportunities may come to the fore in a country with inaccessible sources and inadequate information. Sometimes, I could not verify the notices which touched on internal politics and hurdled the obstacle of “Was it necessary?” due to the deficiencies I mentioned above. Perhaps, we need to underline the difference of teyit.org from other media tools and limits of fact-checking.

Selin [Project Assistant]: I would like to think from the perspective of readers like Sinan. According to me, the reader wants to benefit from the information provided in his/her life. He/she asks how such information changed my life. All of us are familiar with the question asked to teachers: “How will this information be useful in real life?” I consider that there is a problem with our relationship with knowledge. Definitely, it results from the matters in our education system to some extent. But this topic requires a more comprehensive and longer discussion.    

On the other hand, the results of several researches prove that Turkish people distrust media regardless of their political views, because they say they are exposed to fake news the most. Therefore, readers think in such an environment of distrust and fallacy that there may be much more important and worth-analyzing claims, and they may expostulate on us, questioning the necessity of our analysis. Of course, virality and echo chamber are substantial elements. Virality seems like the most powerful and perhaps the single objective criterion in our hand. Nevertheless, virality is not always a magic wand. Does sharing of several claims for many times despite their apparent fallacy show the belief of public in them or do people share them to ridicule and have fun? Such action leads to the spread of a fake content irrespective of its impetus. For this reason, I understand the sensitivity at this point and justify you. On the other side, teyit should observe every echo-chamber in order to be more objective. Otherwise, the claim of a definite group is ignored while the claim of another group is verified. In this case, fact-checking would be replaced by propaganda. Therefore, I think that our work is critical to reflect the “dialogues within each chamber.”

Consequently, we should emphasize that teyit aims to give a critical perspective to readers by using real photos or videos to convince them as well as searching for the truth or fallacy of a claim. People may say “What is this BS?” when they first see some of the claims. But if you approach a video or a photo which is apparently true or false from a different viewpoint, the claim becomes indistinct and unimportant in the eyes of the reader or you offer an utterly different perspective even though the claim is not shared in chamber of the reader. Thus, the perspective takes precedence over the truth or fallacy of the claim. Hence we should always seek different perspectives in our verification methods and continue to make each chamber collide with another one until no chamber is left.  

Gülin: After reading the comments of everyone, I think that our first step should be to share the reasons (e.g. insufficient evidence) for failing to write or complete several analyses. We can do this at certain intervals and determine its details. But first of all, we can prepare an article about a couple of claims which were noticed to us the most frequently. I had written an article before:

For your interest: Why didn’t we publish these analyses?

Different cases may be addressed in a single article. This is significant with respect to transparency as well. Thus, we can see the issues that a teyit member confronts most frequently. What about you? 

Sinan: It’s a good idea.

Alican: It sounds good for me as well. Furthermore, the monthly / bi-monthly/periodical articles about “what we couldn’t do” can be more informative than a usual analysis. Readers are informed about the presence of inaccessible and unreliable sources as well as the reliable ones.

Şükrü Oktay: I agree with you. It will be better to do this weekly. We can prepare one-paragraph text for each uncompleted case.    

Burak: Considering the criticisms brought to us, and our opinions within team, I see that we have not completely reflected the background of our work process on our platform. People think that we do not investigate the actual claims. Some of the readers do not see or do not want to see the truth due to their political bias. We can change the view of this audience., I think we should tell more precisely that teyit is not a news site and it focuses on fact-checking which is one of the fundamental principles of journalism. It is unlikely to verify some of the claims because of insufficient evidence, insufficient open source data or inaccessibility of evidence. Besides several claims do not contain verifiable propositions, so they cannot be verified. Sometimes, we cannot publish a claim from which we get no result even if it takes days. Readers may think that we do not strive enough. For this reason, sharing our findings about the claims we analyzed with the users at certain intervals will make our platform more transparent as well as eliminating the doubts of readers about teyit.  

CONSEQUENTLY, as teyit.org, we understood that we have not sufficiently informed our readers about the difficulties we faced during fact-checking process of a claim. We decided to open our backroom to them by periodically sharing the findings which were analyzed, but could not be published due to several reasons. Lastly, we met on a common ground that we should find better ways to show various verification methods which we use while writing an analysis.