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How PolitiFact has used CrowdTangle to investigate “Pants on Fire” misinformation on the web
How PolitiFact has used CrowdTangle to investigate “Pants on Fire” misinformation on the web

The fact-checking site shares 4 key tips that allow you to expertly use CrowdTangle to find and debunk misinfo.

Written by Tess
Updated over a week ago

The team at PolitiFact, a non-profit fact-checking news outlet and Facebook third-party fact-checking partner headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla., has used CrowdTangle for years to dig into claims shared on social media.

“CrowdTangle helps us surface claims that are reaching wide audiences, so we're able to make sure we're analyzing statements and claims that will generate the most interest,” says Aaron Sharockman, PolitiFact’s executive director.

"As you might imagine, there are many, many more claims that PolitiFact is interested in fact-checking than we have time to fact-check,” he adds.

CrowdTangle has helped streamline PolitiFact’s operation. With features that allow them to prioritize which claims should get their attention, PolitiFact’s small but mighty team has been able to uncover trends and debunk major misinformation circulating on the web.

“The idea is that we want to be fact-checking claims that have the most shares — the claims that the most eyeballs saw,” says Josie Hollingsworth, audience engagement editor, and a CrowdTangle power user at PolitiFact. CrowdTangle tracks several engagement metrics on public content; on Facebook this includes reactions, comments and shares. While CrowdTangle doesn’t show private metrics like clicks and reach, the tool can tell journalists which posts are “overperforming” based on engagement.

Josie adds: “This helps not only correct a claim that many people have seen, but it builds stronger reader connections. If a reader is interested in a particular post [from a candidate] it means we need to be checking into it.”

As an example, Reporter Daniel Funke uses alerts and email digests every day to inform his coverage of misinformation. Of late, he was getting alerted to an inordinate amount of "wayfair" keywords connected to his CrowdTangle lists of notorious misinformers. With CrowdTangle’s new search feature, Funke searched for "wayfair" with a combination of Boolean search terms in order to hone down his reporting of a child trafficking conspiracy theory, which he debunked here.

How does PolitiFact recommend using CrowdTangle? Keep it simple with these 4 tips:

  1. Use Lists and Notifications to surface highly engaging claims. “Put the time in early to refine your lists so they can serve as a “finger on the pulse” of your beat,” Josie says.

  2. Use Chrome Extension to track domains known for sharing misinformation and disinformation. “Come across a dubious news site? Check to see who is sharing its links! It could help reveal networks of misinformers,” Josie says.

  3. Use CrowdTangle’s data in stories to add context about social media community engagement on claims. “It’s powerful for readers to see just how much influence a piece of misinformation has on social networks,” Josie says. “They can see that harmful information has been shared tens of thousands of times, and it gives weight to a fact-check or article.”

  4. Use CrowdTangle Search, and filter for Meme Search, to look for possible misinformation within text on images. “When researching a conspiracy theory or hoax, the meme search surfaces relevant text in memes and viral images,” Josie says. “This helps gather all types of posts about the hoax for reporting down the road.”

PolitiFact’s workflow in action

PolitiFact has set up dashboard Lists of Facebook pages for domains they are aware of that consistently share content that needs to be fact-checked.

For this workflow to run efficiently, Josie says they use the Overperforming filter to identify posts from Pages in the list that are performing above average on Facebook and then do a cross-check with the Chrome Extension to see where the content is being shared publicly, and begin mapping out a social network.

From the perspective of a newsroom strapped for resources, this is huge: This process provides the PolitiFact team with qualitative and quantitative information that informs their decision about whether to allocate a reporter to vet the content for potential misinformation.

Josie says these tactics allow for a better response time to information spreading on internet platforms and helps PolitiFact target the online debates they need to factcheck to have the most impact informing social media audiences.

An example of the Chrome Extension in action for PolitiFact came during the news cycle around John McCain’s death and his overall legacy. A social media rumor falsely claimed that John McCain was Pardoned for Treason and it had resurfaced on Facebook. PolitiFact used CrowdTangle to dig in more and check on the overall spread of the misinformation. They saw in the Chrome Extension that the story had gained significant engagement.

“This was a fully fledged story on how McCain was pardoned for treason in Vietnam and it was completely false — he was absolutely not charged with treason at all,” Josie says.

“We could see — using CrowdTangle’s chrome extension — that it had been shared 3,000 times, which means many more people had seen it. This was a pretty serious piece of disinformation in the public eye related to current events. So, we wrote a straightforward fact-check, Sen. John McCain Did Not Commit Treason in Vietnam – Pants on Fire.”

Using data to flesh out stories

Another way the PolitiFact team uses CrowdTangle is as a source in stories. Using CrowdTangle’s engagement data, the team at PolitiFact adds context around the claims shared on social media that they fact-check.

For example, in their coverage on the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo Mission, PolitiFact did a piece on current moon landing conspiracy theories that exist online. The story references CrowdTangle as one of the reporting tools they used, “Using CrowdTangle, an audience analytics tool, and reverse image searches, PolitiFact tracked down where Facebook users have shared the moon landing hoaxes we’ve debunked in the past. Examples include that a Chinese rover found no evidence of the American moon landing (Pants on Fire!) and that Aldrin encountered alien life (also Pants on Fire!).”

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