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NICK HARDINGES

It was our job to get ahead of the claims, so to speak, because they might not have had loads of shares, but you can guarantee if the one right person shares it and it just blows up and becomes this whole new conspiracy theory.

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MATT ASHBURN

Welcome to NeedleStack, the podcast for professional online research. I'm your host, Matt Ashburn, and that is a fact that cannot be debunked.

JEFF PHILLIPS

And I'm Jeff Phillips, tech industry veteran and curious to a fault. Today we're continuing our series, our super interesting series, by the way, on fact checking and debunking. With another great guest today, we have Nick Hardings. Nick is a fact checker based in London with Reuters and he's a former digital news editor. So welcome to the show, Nick.

NICK HARDINGES

Hello, everyone. Thank you for having me.

JEFF PHILLIPS

Love your work that we've seen online. Why don't we kind of start at the beginning here? Tell us a little bit about your role at Reuters and how you ended up on the fact checking team.

NICK HARDINGES

Yeah, brilliant. Thank you. So my role at Reuters is to basically source claims, source misinformation and write articles that can correct that misinformation. How I got on to the team is, well, I was previously working, as you said, as a digital news editor, working at the Cold Face, addressing breaking news and getting through a lot of stories, not necessarily in a lot of detail, but getting through lots of stories in a day. You could get through, like ten stories in a day. But when I left that job, this opportunity opened itself up to me and it offered what was basically the opposite of what I was doing in that former job. So it was offering me a chance to go dig deep when it comes to writing stories, to uncover truth, leave no stone unturned. And every rose eye journalist comes out of university wanting to write things that aid truth and information and kind of further those causes. And so that's exactly why this job just felt like something I had to take up and have absolutely loved doing it since I could be spending now two, three weeks on stories rather than 2 hours or less than 2 hours. So, having the opportunity to really dig deep into claims and correct things that need correcting and sometimes quite dangerous information, it was just an opportunity I simply couldn't turn down.

MATT ASHBURN

So, Nick, I'm wondering, how do you decide whether or not to fact check a specific claim or story that might be out there? Are there specific criteria or thresholds that you evaluate?

NICK HARDINGES

Yeah, of course, there's a few different things that we do that we need to look at for establishing whether or not we're going to address a claim. One of the first things is how harmful that claim might be. We've seen with covert miss and disinformation some really quite harmful claims that are circulated on social media. So if we see something that we think is going to put people off a certain course of action or potentially lead people down a certain course of action as well, that piques our interest and we look at that and think, okay, that needs addressing because that could genuinely be very harmful to members of the public. It's not being too hyperbolic, but it could be a case of life or death sometimes with some of the information that people absorb. And so we need to ensure that the truth is out there and that falsehood are addressed. So that's one of the things that we look at. Another thing could be how widely a story has been shared on social media. So if we're seeing something that's got thousands of shares on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it's something that's going to need addressing, especially if it's wrong, because - to borrow an old saying - a like can make its way around the world before the troop has even put its boots on. We need to make sure, if something has already got out there and is gripping people and striking fear into people in some cases, we need to be the people who step in and kind of calm that down, address that, get the truth out there. And with a company like the size of Reuters as well, what we say brings quite a lot of heft to a story. And so people respect what we have to say and so it's really important that we get our side and the truth out there for that reason. A couple of other criteria that we use, we address claims that are topical as well. So we've seen of the Ukraine Russia conflict, lows claim servicing and back in February for us that day, February the was really busy because we just saw all sorts of videos servicing on social media. Some of them would be from video games, some of them would be from separate former conflicts. And so we had to, it was our job to get ahead of the claims, so to speak, because they might not have had loads of shares, but you can guarantee if the one right person shares it and it just blows up and becomes this whole new conspiracy theory. If we haven't addressed it ourselves, there's a danger of that happening. So if something's topical, that's another reason why we would address it. And then also, lastly, the status of the person sharing that misinformation names. But there are certain people that we follow on a daily basis who we know to be spreaders of misinform or just kind of misleading stories, headlines, et cetera. And so if we see that person coming up with a new theory, new claim, it's important for us also to get on that again early before it gets out of hand. It starts spreading to all corners of the internet because as I said, once these things reach those corners, it's quite hard to put a lid on it. But being a company like Reuters, I think we're one of the best placed organizations to be able to put a lid on those claims.

JEFF PHILLIPS

That makes a lot of sense. And there's almost, I mean, all four of those points, Nick, and including there's almost like a first mover advantage there that's going to take hold and people kind of immediately make a decision, but all four of those, that makes a lot of sense to me. I think we've mentioned to you we have a lot of practitioners that listen in on our podcast. You think you could maybe walk us through how you fax check something from start to finish? Or maybe is there an example of something you've worked on in the past that could kind of tell our listeners how did it start and how did it finish from a fact checkers perspective?

NICK HARDINGES

Yeah, of course. So we can have really short claims that we address, or as I said beforehand, we can have things that we're working on for two or three weeks, I think. I won't take two or three weeks to tell the story, but there's one that I'm particularly proud of and it got a lot of focus on it and I'm just really glad that we addressed this. So, back in December last year, there was a list going round of 108 FIFA footballers who had supposedly well, it was purportedly 108 FIFA footballers who had died. And this proved there was a link between the COVID-19 vaccines and athlete deaths. Now, I started seeing that claim servicing on social media and so I brought it up in a morning meeting that we have and explained why I think it was something that was important for us to get on top of. And the people in my team agreed because it was at a time when we were seeing some famous collapses on sports fields. I know Christian Ericsson collapsing during the Euros last year certainly got a lot of people worried. And there were some other incidents that we were seeing, another one being another footballer or soccer player called Sergio Aguero who was clutching his chest on the pitch one day, and we've seen fans collapsing in these stands as well. So it was something that was topical and it was something that needed to be addressed. So we started seeing this claim being - the engagement was through the roof. There's thousands of people discussing it, believing it and spreading it. And so, yeah, it's got all the hallmarks for something that we would need to address. So I started investigating and what I found was that this list didn't relate specifically to just FIFA registered footballers. There was factual inaccuracies in the list. It was all over the place where it originated. It surfaced in a Hebrew language article online and so it was all written in Hebrew. And the claim was 108 professional footballer, athletes, coaches, I think college and youth sports players had died since December 2020. And it was very heavily implying that this was to do with the COVID-19 vaccines. So what I did was I translated the list and checked all 108 people who are on that list. What I found was that it included people from all sorts of sports, whether it be archery to weight lifting, football to rugby, and there were all sorts of levels as well. There were some professionals in there, complete amateurs. There was remember there was a teacher, I think a golf caddy, and maybe even just a doctor.

JEFF PHILLIPS

You're looking up all 108 names?

NICK HARDINGES

Yeah, every single one. There was a spreadsheet that I created, I had written proof, I'd gone through every single story and checked what happened to them. And so some of these people just had no connection, a real connection to established professional sports. So immediately you're skeptical about that. And then I started looking for news reports about these deaths. Some were caused by heart issues, some had no cause established. The reports just didn't offer anything. So to jump to a conclusion early was just wrong. Other causes were prior COVID infections. One person had a traumatic brain injury. I think there are a couple of suspected suicides. One even took place before the pandemic had begun. So this wasn't a comprehensive list of 108 fee for registered footballers, but that's the phrasing that's being spread in misinformation circles. 108 fee for footballers died in six months. So what I did is I spoke with the MHRA, the medicine healthcare products regulatory agency. I probably got that wrong, but we'll call it the MHRA in the UK. I spoke with FIFA, lots of governing body, sporting governing bodies from around the world, world athletics included in that, a few national governing bodies, the Rugby Football League here in the UK, the National Rugby League down in Australia. And I spoke to a charity in the UK called Cardiac Risk in the Young and some expert cardiologists on top of that. And they all confirmed that they had seen no links between - not to put words in all of their mouths, but the long story short is that we found that there was no established link, or they hadn't seen reports linking deaths, players collapsing, et cetera, to COVID vaccines. And so in the end, after going through this list with a fine-toothed comb, speaking to these experts who offer, who told me that there were just no papers that would prove this, no established reputable papers that would back that claim up, we were able to write a fact check on it. And so the fact check, it got written and edited and whatever, as any news article would do. And when it got published, it featured really prominently on Twitter. And this is the bit I'm just super proud of. And the work that we've put in just it all kind of paid off in this one moment. I just happened to be going to a football match myself that evening that it got published and it ended up on Twitter, and I was going to watch West Ham United play at their home stadium, and there are dozens of queues that you can join to go into the stadium, right? And I ended up in one behind these two guys who were just talking about people collapsing of football matches and players collapsing of football matches, and one of them was just like, "Yeah, I've heard there's been hundreds of people dying in the footballing world." And his mate said to him, "No, no, no, have you not seen, they've kind of corrected that? There's been some fact check about it, and there's no established link between the two." And it was just one of those moments where you're like, wow, I could have stood anywhere, and I've stood here and I've heard them talking directly about an article that I wrote, and it hadn't been written by anyone else at that point, and therefore it was my work that they would have seen. So I did interrupt them and ask them where had they seen it, they confirmed where they'd seen it. And it just, it filled me with a real sense of pride because it was just that moment where you see the real world impact of the work that we're doing, and I think that's really important for people to remember because there is a real world impact. These stories that we write - sorry, not stories, these articles that we write can change people's mindsets or can confirm to people what the truth and what misinformation looks like.

MATT ASHBURN

So, Nick, you're part of a larger team that is dedicated to nothing but fact checking, and that's really important work that you guys are doing. But I'm wondering, as consumers of media, as consumers of information, are there any tips that we should be aware of? Are there tips that you would give to average people out there to discern whether or not something may or may not be misinformation or something that requires fact checking?

NICK HARDINGES

Yes. I'd recommend people just have a healthy skepticism of stuff that they're seeing online. You don't want to be skeptical about absolutely everything you see because that can lead you down some rabbit holes, which leads to misinformation. But so long as if you see a headline of video and image that just seems too good to be true, or if it feels like it's been posted to drum up an emotional response, just double check that Google is a couple of clicks away. And if there's an event going on in the world and you see some video supposedly from that event, you can go online and check to see whether that be the situation you're seeing in that video matches up to what the news reports are saying. Because quite often what people say is that the news is covering these things up. But actually, if these situations, these fantastical situations that are misinformation were happening, news outlets would be all over those stories, the news outlets would be covering these stories. So if you see something that's too good to be true, that isn't being covered by the mainstream media, then there's probably a good chance that it's not something relevant to that event. I also recommend if you see some grainy footage in a video that's another one, or grainy image in a world where we've got camera phones that have got just the highest quality pictures on them, then double check that as well, because quite often these grainy images can they're grainy because the person sharing them wants there to be a bit of doubt. And the more granular an image, the more difficult it is for us fact checkers to track as well. So be skeptical about things like that too. Crazy headlines that you see from newspapers, from news outlets, whatever, you can search those easily on Twitter, Facebook, Google. And so if you're seeing a headline that seems just to be drumming up a fear about, be it vaccines, be it the conflict in Ukraine with Russia, be it about immigration, whatever, just think about why that headline has been created that way, and then go and check that headline actually exists. That's one way that the everyday user can prevent themselves from falling for or sharing, misinformation themselves.

JEFF PHILLIPS

That makes a lot of sense to have a healthy sense of criticism.

MATT ASHBURN

And Nick, all of that is really good information and things to keep in mind. The other thing I would probably add to that is that it's incredibly important that as consumers of media, that we maintain an awareness of what triggers us individually, right? So for example, if you're reading an article, if you're reading something in the newspaper or online or something that shared on social media and it elicits a strong response, a strong emotional response from you, that might be something that could trigger in you some additional critical thinking there to further evaluate that information. What is the motivation of the author of this information? Are there certain phrases that are in there that are designed to evoke some kind of response from me and to either sow division or perhaps just to make it more salacious than the information really is?

JEFF PHILLIPS

I think even when we were talking beforehand, you also mentioned it's not a bad idea to follow and read both sides of any argument and try to see where it's likely to think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

NICK HARDINGES

Right, exactly. As you say, follow people with differing opinions because as you say, quite often the truth will fall somewhere in between those areas. And if it doesn't fall in between those areas, I can guarantee you that journalists will be seeking that story out. And quite often we deal with people who are on the fringe of, say, medicine and science. There's usually a good reason for them being considered fringe. Yes, do your own research with the news, but there are reasons why there are established and trusted outlets like ourselves covering stories.

MATT ASHBURN

So, Nick, as we start to wrap up today, is there anything else that you'd like to share with the listeners and the viewers that are out there?

NICK HARDINGES

Yeah, there are a couple of things I would say to anyone who has an interest in fact checking, actually. If it's something that you want to give a go, I completely encourage it. The skills that you learn in fact checking can be used in all sorts of walks of life, and you really do get just a fascinating experience of what the Internet can offer as well. If you did follow as many misinformation accounts as possible, maybe on a separate social media to your usual, but personal social media, because you don't necessarily want to blend the too much and follow fact checking organization, because we're doing important work and we do our best to leave no stone unturned. And we're very, very proud of that integrity and that honesty and accuracy that we offer. And I can only speak for myself here, but working in fact checking has completely changed kind of my approach to journalism and it's made me mature as a journalist. So if you have any opportunity to give it a go, whether it's on an amateur level or working in a company like Reuters, then I can only encourage you to do it because it's been a game changer for me as a journalist, and the skills I've learned in this will just they'll see me through the end of my career, which hopefully will be long and prosperous.

MATT ASHBURN

Thanks very much to our special guest, Nick Hardinges. Thank you so much, Nick, for being with us today. If you at home liked what you heard, you can subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. You can also watch episodes and obtain other information on our website at authentic8.com/needlestack. That's authentic with the number eight dot com slash needlestack. Also, be sure to follow us if you're on Twitter @needlestackpod. We'll be back next week with an interview with David Agronovich of Meta, and he'll be discussing disinformation, misinformation and efforts to disrupt these threats that are out there. You don't want to miss it, and so we'll see you then.

Nick Hardinges from the Reuters fact-checking team joins the podcast to walk us through how to go about debunking information online, from deciding what’s worth covering to why grainy images should make you skeptical. Ultimately, fact-checking takes time, persistence and a healthy dose of intrigue.

Key takeaways

  • Know these telltale signs of doctored content
  • Check your sources
  • Do some digging on what you see

About Nick

Nick Hardinges is a former digital news editor and current fact-checker for Reuters, whose job is to find harmful, widely circulating and topical misinformation, and then address those claims in articles directly responding to the claims being made. Nick’s main focus is on setting the record straight on social media but to sometimes address claims from elsewhere, such as outright lies in politics, or damaging conclusions reached in unscientific ‘research’ papers.<

Where to find Nick

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