READERS PLEASE NOTE: This article was published
FactsCan, a new website dedicated to fact-checking claims made by Canadian politicians, has raised nearly twice its fundraising goal in less than two weeks.
The site was founded by Dana Wagner, a researcher at Ryerson, and two colleagues, Jacob Schroeder and Tyler Sommers. Their plan is to have it fully functional for the federal election later this year.
“We’re using this election as kind of the kickoff and our reason-for-being right now, but our hope is to continue beyond that,” Wagner said.
Canadian media outlets often hire a temporary fact-checker for election periods. Wagner says that she and her colleagues decided it would be more useful to have a permanent service.
They follow in the footsteps of international fact-checking sites, like the Pulitzer-winning American site PolitiFact, as well as the Italian Pagella Politica and the European FactCheckEU.
Unlike PolitiFact, which is run by the Tampa Bay Times, FactsCan is independent and crowd-funded.
The Indiegogo campaign was launched Feb. 10, with an initial goal of $5,000. They made that goal in two days. They also made their next goal of $8,000, which allows them to buy insurance in case they get sued.
If they raise enough, they plan on hiring a staff member, Wagner said. But until then, they’re entirely volunteer-run.
“I’m not a fan of working for free,” said Kate Barker, an instructor who teaches fact-checking at Ryerson. “I don’t believe in unpaid internships. That said, this looks like it’s taking off.”
Wagner said she feels OK about having volunteer fact-checkers because she, Schroeder and Sommers are volunteers too.
“All three of us are doing this as a separate full-time job on top of full-time jobs,” Wagner said. “It makes me feel better right now taking on volunteers and having them know that the management is not getting paid either. So there’s a bit of an ethical piece there, too.”
Wagner said that having a consistent methodology and people who know that methodology is critical to FactsCan’s success. “Verification is a process … if your process isn’t bulletproof, then as a fact-checker you’re standing on weak legs.”
The fact-checker looks at online sources and makes phone calls. The Indiegogo campaign closes March 12.
Wagner said they expect to have the full website up and running by the end of March.
“What we have up now is a temporary page,” she said.“It’s going to be a lot more robust once we actually launch.”
Right now, Wagner said they’re looking at taking on a few key people to write and edit posts. She said she’s received
dozens of offers from all across Canada, mainly from students.
“We’ve had more volunteers come forward than I’ve yet been able to follow up with.”
Fact-checking has become more popular over the past few years, Barker said. PolitiFact won the Pulitzer in 2009 for its coverage of the 2008 American presidential election. Since then, similar sites have been popping up all over the world.
However, the effect of dedicated fact-checking services on politicians may not be what we expect, Wagner said. “The aspiration is that it will encourage politicians to be more honest and accurate with their words.”
But in reality, she said there’s debate about whether or not fact-checkers lead politicians to include fewer facts in their speech, in favour of opinions.
“I don’t think it’s been proven,” she said. “But it’s part of the conversation.”
The first step in the FactsCan process is contacting the person being checked, and asking where he or she got the information, Wagner said.
“So if Stephen Harper said it, we’re going to send him a direct email and say, ‘Where did you find that information?’”
Barker is more optimistic.
“Knowing that there’s a watchdog out there that’s getting a certain amount of public credibility can only be a force of good.”