Misinformation wars: who fact-checks the fact-checkers?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


There’s no doubt that the growth of social media, online self-publishing online and, now, AI, has resulted in many untruths circulating in the public square. It can be hard to tell what is true or false, when nonsense and unfounded assertions can be spread on the internet without challenge – sometimes by tinfoil-conspiratorial proponents and bad faith actors, sometimes by well-meaning if naïve individuals.

In response, an international industry of official fact-checkers and mainstream media dis-and-misinformation organisations has been born. But do the public need protection from untruths? And how do we respond to misinformation being weaponised as a way of to justify discrediting and censoring dissenting views?

Earlier this year, US  Judge Doughty said the evidence presented in the case of Missouri vs Biden showed that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the US government ‘seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian “Ministry of Truth”’. Why? US officials had worked with Silicon Valley leaders to suppress reports of the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origin – which is now considered the most likely explanation by many countries’ state agencies. Similarly, the Twitter files exposed that the reporting around Hunter Biden’s laptop, which was initially dismissed and suppressed as a Russian disinformation operation, was in fact true, and has since been verified by mainstream outlets. With all this in mind, it becomes difficult to differentiate between what is labelled disinformation, and what are simply inconvenient truths.

Meanwhile, some argue the fact-checkers are themselves not immune from spreading misinformation. In her recent podcast series Marianna in Conspiracyland, Marianna Spring, the BBC’s ‘disinformation and social-media correspondent’, used a BBC commissioned survey to suggest that a quarter of British people believe ‘Covid was a hoax’. Spring argued that huge numbers had attended conspiratorial demos and were reading obscure conspiratorial newspapers. The survey has since been discredited, as ‘100 per cent false’. Even though the i paper’s Stuart Ritchie put the figures down to a mix of tiny sample sizes and woolly worded questions, and an academic institution conceded the figure were misleading, and that the figures were uncritically pushed by the BBC and the Guardian as fact.

Who fact-checks the fact-checkers? Should a society that respects free speech need to prove that all ideas are true before they are aired? Or does encouraging ill-informed debate risk distorting and damaging the public square? Should we tolerate the threat of ‘disinformation’ to avoid censorship of dissent? Or is there something we can do to promote truth and freedom?

Liam Deacon
communications and campaigns consultant, Pagefield Communications; former journalist; former head of press, Brexit Party

Andrew Lowenthal
writer and researcher; director, liber-net; co-founder and former executive director, EngageMedia

Florence Read
UnHerd producer; presenter, UnHerd TV

Tessa Clarke
journalist; author; documentary reporter; deputy director, Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF)