Mevan Babakar at NiemanLab: “We foolishly thought that harnessing the crowd was going to require fewer human resources, when in fact it required, at least at the micro level, more.”….There’s no end to the need for fact-checking, but fact-checking teams are usually small and struggle to keep up with the demand. In recent months, organizations like WikiTribune have suggested crowdsourcing as an attractive, low-cost way that fact-checking could scale.
As the head of automated fact-checking at the U.K.’s independent fact-checking organization Full Fact, I’ve had a lot of time to think about these suggestions, and I don’t believe that crowdsourcing can solve the fact-checking bottleneck. It might even make it worse. But — as two notable attempts, TruthSquad and FactcheckEU, have shown — even if crowdsourcing can’t help scale the core business of fact checking, it could help streamline activities that take place around it.
Think of crowdsourced fact-checking as including three components: speed (how quickly the task can be done), complexity (how difficult the task is to perform; how much oversight it needs), and coverage (the number of topics or areas that can be covered). You can optimize for (at most) two of these at a time; the third has to be sacrificed.
High-profile examples of crowdsourcing like Wikipedia, Quora, and Stack Overflow harness and gather collective knowledge, and have proven that large crowds can be used in meaningful ways for complex tasks across many topics. But the tradeoff is speed.
Projects like Gender Balance (which asks users to identify the gender of politicians) and Democracy Club Candidates (which crowdsources information about election candidates) have shown that small crowds can have a big effect when it comes to simple tasks, done quickly. But the tradeoff is broad coverage.
At Full Fact, during the 2015 U.K. general election, we had 120 volunteers aid our media monitoring operation. They looked through the entire media output every day and extracted the claims being made. The tradeoff here was that the task wasn’t very complex (it didn’t need oversight, and we only had to do a few spot checks).