Key survey findings:
- 9 out 10 fact-checking organisations that participated in the survey experienced smear campaigns and online abuse from politicians, government officials, media pundits and public figures. More than half have experienced it repeatedly.
- An alarmingly high number – 7 out of 10 – of respondents that experienced online harassment were subjected to campaigns which include prolonged and/or coordinated behavior like stalking, smear campaigns, hate speech, “doxing” or gender-based violence, among others.
- The frequency of harassment increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Election periods also serve as catalysts for disinformation campaigns against fact-checkers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also had a similar effect.
- Most harassment happens online, predominantly on social networks. The second most frequent channel of harassment is online portals and websites.
- Fact-checkers tend not to report these attacks to the authorities due to a lack of confidence that their claims will be investigated.
Nearly all fact-checking organisations in Europe have endured harassment and smear campaigns by political actors and public figures targeting their credibility. And at least half of them are continuously targeted in attacks on social media, online news outlets and websites.
These are just some of the troubling trends identified by Faktograf. The survey is the first to look into the impact of targeted disinformation, online violence and smear campaigns against those who are at the forefront of fighting disinformation: Fact-checkers.
The survey was conducted between December 2022 and January 2023, and aimed at collecting information on both online attacks – including verbal attacks, doxing, sexual and/or gender based attacks, smear and hacking attempts, among others – and offline attacks, including physical attacks, arbitrary lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits.
A total of 41 out of the 68 verified signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) Code of Principles in Europe – including all members of the SEE Check network – took part in the survey. The research period coincided with the creation of the European Fact-Checking Standards Network almost all survey participants were a part of that process. Most of them are relatively young organisations, established between the years of 2016 and 2019, with an average of 10 employees, a slight majority (57 percent) of whom are women.
Increasingly suffocating environment for fact-checkers
90 percent of the 41 fact-checking outlets that participated in the survey reported having experienced some type of harassment, with more than half saying they had been repeatedly targeted, ranging from “a few times altogether” to “a few times per year”.
More than three-quarters – 36 out of 41 – of the fact-checking organisations surveyed have experienced harassment online, frequently facing verbal attacks . An alarmingly high number – 7 out of 10 – of the respondents that experienced online harassment were subjected to campaigns which include prolonged and/or coordinated behavior like stalking, smear campaigns, hate speech, “doxing” or gender-based violence, among others.
Fact-checking outlets also reported that harassment also often takes place via online news portals and direct written communication such as emails.
A large number of the respondents – 32 out of the 41 – are a part of Meta’s Third Party Fact-Checking Program, which enables them to rate fact-checked content on Facebook and Instagram. Notably, half of them have reported that attacks had increased “substantially” after they joined a fact-checking partnership with Meta or other platforms. However, overall, respondents said that it was unclear whether this increase was due to participation in the programme or to becoming more publicly prominent, or to wider circumstances taking place at the same time like democratic backsliding in their countries (with attacks in some cases coming from political parties in power).
According to the survey, the Covid-19 pandemic, election periods – where more than 50 percent of the fact-checking organisations reporting experiencing harassment – or the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine are some of the trigger factors that have influenced the frequency of attacks
Profiling the perpetrators
The survey also draws an interesting portrayal of the most common perpetrators of these attacks. 85 percent of the fact-checking outlets that participated in the survey reported attacks from public figures who are not directly involved in politics but are engaged in political and social issues, such as media pundits, analysts, activists or leaders of groups or movements.
However, at least 32 of the 41 fact-checking organisations in the survey – 8 out of 10 – confirmed that they had been targeted by politicians directly. This is not confined to political parties in power: half of the survey respondents said that they had been targeted by MPs or representatives of parties not seated in parliament.
More than a third of the respondents have experienced attacks from actors coming from both the government and opposition parties.
Institutional support or lack of thereof
The survey shows a concerning trend: Fact-checkers tend not to report the harassment to the authorities because they don’t think their case will be investigated.
In this vein, about a half of the respondents expressed low confidence that such a report would have any consequences – i.e. that the police would react to the report – while some felt that the police itself is not credible enough, or that reporting harassment would make things worse.
Asked about the experience they had when they did report violent or other threats, just one out of the 23 respondents that answered this question said that reporting leads to consequences for the perpetrators, indicating that small fines are occasionally imposed.
Most of the answers indicate that the police either openly say that they can’t do anything, or say that they will investigate with little or no follow up.
“Faktograf has faced its fair share of harassment in the last few years – different kinds and types – ranging from anonymous threats of violence and death threats to SLAPP lawsuits”, Ana Brakus, Faktograf’s Executive Director, said. “With this research we wanted to better understand what the wider fact-checking community faces, as well as how politically exposed persons use and fuel harassment that we are faced with. Sadly, it has become obvious that our experiences at Faktograf are not unique, and that harassment is a common occurrence in the fact-checking community”.
“This survey is important because it puts numbers to a trend that we have observed in the last few years in which fact-checkers and journalists face intimidation and smear campaigns by political actors who should be upholding democratic principles in Europe”, Javier Luque, Head of Digital Communications at IPI, said.
“At the same time, authorities are unable or unwilling to tackle this issue. All these factors combined create an environment in which harassers with a political or economic agenda feel empowered to attack and discredit independent news sources. Authorities in Europe must allocate resources to monitor these trends, investigate the cases and hold accountable the perpetrators of this type of attacks and expose those who inspire or trigger them in order to end this vicious cycle”, Luque concluded.
“The results are worrisome, but not surprising. Especially when we consider the fact that in the broader sense media freedoms are lowering and the attacks on journalists in general are increasing”, Brakus said. “We hope this research will lead to a systemic response to a systemic issue and are grateful to all who participated”, she concluded.
These are the preliminary results observed in the research conducted by Faktograf. The final results and a full report will be published in May and presented at the IPI 2023 World Congress in Vienna.
The survey, “Harassment of fact-checking media outlets in Europe”, was conducted by Tijana Cvjetićanin and carried out as part of the Decoding the Disinformation Playbook of Populism in Europe project. This project is led by the International Press Institute (IPI) and run in partnership with Faktograf and the German daily Taz, and funded by the European Media and Information Fund managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
Ana Brakus, Executive Director, Faktograf: email@example.com
Javier Luque Martínez, Head of Digital Communications, IPI: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is a part of the project Decoding the disinformation playbook of populism in Europe, which is supported by the European Media and Information Fund, managed by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
The sole responsibility for any content supported by the European Media and Information Fund lies with the author(s) and it may not necessarily reflect the positions of the EMIF and the Fund Partners, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the European University Institute.