WASHINGTON: From India and South Korea to Croatia and North Macedonia, fact-checking organisations battling an ever-rising tide of misinformation in a major election year are buffeted by legal threats, harassment and funding shortfalls.

Fact-checkers, largely under-resourced and increasingly under attack, have their work cut out this year as dozens of countries hold elections, a period when falsehoods typically explode.

Debunking fake political claims and hoaxes that threaten election integrity, likened by some researchers as a seemingly endless game of whack-a-mole, comes with a litany of challenges that are piling pressure on fact-checkers in a crucial year.

The most significant is raising funds to sustain operations, according to a new survey by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) of 137 organisations across 69 countries.

The Seoul National University (SNU) FactCheck Center, South Korea’s only local debunking platform, faces possible shutdown after its biggest donor — the search engine company Naver — pulled financial support last year.

Naver declined to comment on the reason, but the outfit’s director Chong Eun-ryung believes “political pressure” from the ruling People Power Party was the “biggest factor.” SNU FactCheck Center has been accused of bias by ruling party lawmakers, a charge it rejects.

The development follows the closure of another outfit, Fact-check Net, last year after the government cut off its funding.

‘Information warfare’

“Fact-checkers are facing growing amounts of misinformation with limited resources for reporting and publishing,” Angie Drobnic Holan, director of IFCN, said.

“There are also campaigns of online and legal harassment against fact-checkers from those who prefer more cutthroat information warfare, without checks based on evidence and logic.” The IFCN survey said about 72 per cent of organisations faced harassment, while many also reported physical and legal threats.

Croatian fact-checking website Faktograf.hr has been forced to invest in security measures after its staff received death threats and female reporters faced sexist insults, executive director Ana Brakus said.

A text message received by one staff member warned that his fingers would be “cut off.” “We had to find ways to deal with that kind of stress” without affecting the fact-checking mission, Brakus said, adding the organisation offered mental health support to its staff.

In India, home to the largest number of certified fact-checkers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi — tipped to win a third consecutive term in upcoming parliamentary elections — has been accused of stifling independent media.

Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of Alt News and a frequent target of government rebuke, continues to face legal threats after being briefly jailed in 2022 over accusations that he insulted a Hindi god in a tweet four years earlier.

During a fundraising drive on X, formerly Twitter, Zubair wrote Indian media organizations were being “forced to censor themselves” and in some cases, “becoming government mouthpieces.”

‘Existential threats’

With their shoestring budgets, many fact-checkers must turn to external funding support to defend themselves against the “existential threats” that lawsuits — often frivolous — present, the IFCN report said. In some cases, fact-checkers are themselves targeted by disinformation.

Truthmeter, the fact-checking service of the North Macedonia-based Metamorphosis Foun­dation, faced a sweeping smear campaign

earlier this year after its fact-checks of Facebook posts prompted accusations that it was censoring content.

The campaign, the group said in a note to readers, escalated into insults, slander and “badly disguised calls for violence” against its staff.

“We are fully aware that such disinformation campaigns, full of attacks, manipulations, threats and hate speech will continue, especially in

the pre-election period,” it said, as North Macedonia gears up for the presidential race later this month.

Content moderation on social media has become a hot-button issue even in advanced economies such as the United States — which faces elections in November — with many users equating fact-checking with censorship.

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2024

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