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We need spin-checking in addition to fact-checking

Electoral manipulations. A society divided between the West and Russia. People rooting for a strong leader because “only a firm hand can lead us out of the crisis.” The rule of spin. Institutions and politicians gaslighting citizens and spreading misinformation. All of that is the current picture of spinocracy in Serbia.

These multifaceted manipulations sometimes come from bad actors on social media. But more often, they’re from government authorities and the pro-regime media. As fact-checkers, we’re coming up with a new response: We call it spin-checking. It means that we go beyond whether an individual fact is true or not, so that our reporting highlights patterns in public deception, deconstructs propaganda, points out emotionally charged language, and offers a more robust look at political manipulation techniques.

This election year puts politics into focus for most of the planet and could be a great opportunity to return the debate on accountability for spreading manipulation to its rightful place. What role do politicians, as elected representatives, have in the polluted information ecosystem, and how does the media hold them accountable? Journalists currently face so many challenges — fears of artificial intelligence manipulations, inauthentic behavior on platforms and foreign influence, along with having to learn how to use new digital forensic tools and constant time pressure — that we might sometimes forget who the actual decision-makers are.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a professor of journalism and political communication at Oxford University, recently noted in the Financial Times that misinformation coming from politicians is more likely to have a significant impact than online sources. Similarly, political scientist Daniel Treisman has documented in his book “Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century,” that dictators often abuse institutions and mainstream media to maintain their rule. “Spin dictators are often satisfied with spreading doubt instead of establishing a single truth,” Treisman says, noting that they manipulate the media and marginalize opposition and critics, all while preserving a democratic facade.

Fact-checkers in Serbia are increasingly constrained by new limits on media freedom, the targeting of journalists with threats and harassment, and even a culture of impunity for violence. Politicians’ views are presented as facts, and deeply entrenched narratives portray a distorted picture of reality. History is being rewritten through official channels, and a cult of personality is being built.

All this doesn’t mean that we have given up on the fight against disinformation and for democracy. These obstacles have inspired us to find a new way to deconstruct lies and abuses of power, in addition to fact-checking, prebunking, and media literacy explainers. We are going beyond fact-checking into deconstructing narratives and the language itself. Spin-checking allows us to go further.

This new approach has proved to be extremely beneficial, especially during the election monitoring campaign. Our experience is that spin-checking has brought us increased engagement with our audience, as well as a larger number of followers on various social media channels. Through live coverage of important political speeches and live fact-checking on our social media, we spontaneously started to do more spin-checking and, along with fact-checking, deconstructed the entire spin mechanism through our teamwork.

It is important to emphasize that spin-checking is not a replacement for fact-checking, but its enhancement. Fact-checking, with its approach and analysis of manipulations, is followed by spotting patterns in public deception, analyzing propaganda techniques misused by politicians, exposing the role of media in creating spin, recognizing emotionally charged language, analyzing phrases for targeting designated enemies in avoiding answers, researching ways of creating crises in headline news, and monitoring the appearances of the most important political actors.

The concern that spin-checking is more subjective than checking facts could be raised, but the response to that fear is, as you can imagine – more facts.

Spin can seemingly be elusive, and for some of it, historical distance is certainly needed. However, when the default by which the public operates is actually confusing citizens and producing fog, fact-checkers must step out of their comfort zone.

The mechanism of spin requires us never to stop, even if the statements of politicians are accurate, but to analyze their context, the way they are spread, and what is behind them. The goal has always been the same in our almost 15 years of existence — defending the public interest and calling for accountability for publicly spoken words.

*** This commentary was published on Poynter in commemoration of International Fact-Checking Day 2024, held April 2 each year to recognize the work of fact-checkers worldwide.