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‘A logical step from medieval literature to fact-checking’

Alumnus Peter Burger – along with his colleague Alexander Pleijter – is the face of fact-checking in the Netherlands. ‘My degree led straight to this.’

‘A logical step from medieval literature to fact-checking’

Burger gives a few recent examples of the ‘cleaning work’ done by the Leiden fact-checkers: unmasking a Macedonian group that made a fortune in advertising revenue from churning out enticing fake news or refuting the fake claim that the UN global compact on migration promotes international migration and will force countries to take on migrants.

Fact-checking at the Leiden University Centre of Linguistics.
Fact-checking at the Leiden University Centre of Linguistics. Alexander Pleijter is at the back.

Junk news gets more hits

When asked what Burger does apart from fact-checking, he bursts out laughing: ‘It’s closer to the truth to say that this is what we do on the side. Like Alexander, I do a lot of teaching on the Journalism and New Media minor and master. We also do research on the basis of our fact-checking.’ Such research, which is conducted in collaboration with the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science, led, for instance, to the conclusion that junk news gets much more hits and likes than serious news in the serious media. In addition, Burger and Pleijter often discuss fact-checking in the media.

Collaboration with Leidsch Dagblad newspaper

Nieuwscheckers, the team that does the fact-checking, is based at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. Alongside Burger and Pleijter, the team includes two student assistants and freelance journalist Sebastiaan van der Lubber. The two lecturers are also teaching their students fact-checking. Freelancer Van der Lubber has been hired for the collaboration with Leidsch Dagblad, which has already led to a number of scoops. They discovered that it was untrue that income in Leiden correlates with car ownership, as a Leiden politician had claimed: no fewer cars are parked in neighbourhoods with a lower income than in those with a higher one. In the past nieuwscheckers.nl has worked with Facebook, but they had to end this collaboration. ‘It’s a shame,’ says Burger, ‘but the University couldn’t bear any potential financial liability.’

Who: Peter Burger (1961)
Degree: Dutch language and literature (1979-1988)
Member of a student society: No
Favourite spot in Leiden: ‘The scruffy end of Haarlemmerstraat by Haven. I lived in a student house there with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and friends with whom I learned how to write.’

Peter Burger

Successful crowdfunding

‘The collaboration with Facebook was definitely worthwhile,’ says Burger. ‘We were able to check a substantial number of fake posts that were circulating on the platform, and we gained a better understanding of the revenue models of junk news producers and Facebook’s policy.’ 

Their latest partnership is with nu.nl [in Dutch]. The Leiden fact-checkers and the staff of NU.nl are taking a critical look at the campaigns of Dutch parties and politicians in the European elections. They launched a crowdfunding campaign on the University website to raise money for this. And they managed to raise more (12,460 euros) than they had asked for (9,795 euros). ‘The money means we can employ more people to follow what is said about the EU elections in the news and social media and check any claims that are made.’ This has already resulted in various articles on nieuwscheckers.nl and NU.nl. It has been claimed that Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, wanted to block eurosceptics from the highest positions in the EU, even if their parties had won the elections. Nieuwscheckers discovered that the words attributed to Juncker had been taken out of context and manipulated, and that the quote was therefore untrue.

Literature

Burger is not a linguist himself. He studied Dutch, specialising in medieval literature, and went on to work at the Institute for Dutch Lexicology, which is hosted by Leiden University and draws up the glossary of the Dutch language. It also produces dictionaries such as the Early Middle Dutch Dictionary. Burger has also worked as a lecturer at the School of Journalism in Utrecht and as a freelance journalist, and has written a lot about language, also for Onze Taal magazine, and has written short stories.

NOS fake news
Fake news on the one hand, wild claims on the other...

Urban myths

The Journalism and New Media programme that Burger currently teaches was developed to increase the employability of graduates from the Faculty. He started by teaching courses and was then made a lecturer at the University. His research looks into how to debunk the urban myths that sometimes do the rounds (and keep on returning). For instance, the story of how pig sphincters are sold as calamari in the Netherlands. Urban myths often prove longlived, with different versions popping up in different countries. Sometimes they are almost as old as time itself, which is when Burger’s specialisation – medieval Dutch – comes in handy. Burger publishes his findings on his blog De gestolen grootmoeder [in Dutch]. ‘And fact-checking is exactly the same as checking urban myths,’ he avers. ‘I’ve been doing it since 1990.’ 

Impossible to check all facts

Burger’s work has become easier in the sense that the main facilitator of fake news – the internet – is also the most main source of information that can be used to debunk it. ‘There is so much information to be found,’ he says. ‘You can also check a lot of facts yourself if you are unsure, but you can’t check everything. There’s not much you can do if you can’t find any facts.’ And lots of things are true, but there is a but... Burger: ‘Resettling refugees in their own region is supposed to be ten to 30 times cheaper than resettling them in the Netherlands. That is true, but the picture is very different if you include the quality of the provisions. So news checking is sometimes adding context to a fact.’ Burger also has some concerns. For instance, there is little willingness among politicians to correct or withdraw a fake news item that has been shared on social media. What is more, there is less willingness than one might expect from the news media, although that is changing – in the Netherlands at least.

Peter Burger
Burger in the 1980s.

It often boils down to politics

Inaccuracies or downright lies no longer seem to faze people. The Washington Post recently celebrated President Trump’s 10,000th lie, and President Putin denies the slightest allegation against Russia as a matter of course, even if there is plenty of supporting evidence. And their supporters don’t seem to mind either: they take what has said with a pinch of salt and carry on supporting them anyway. ‘It often boils down to politics,’ says Burger. ‘Some time ago now, in around 1990, a story started doing the rounds about an illegal trade in organs in America. The Russians jumped on the bandwagon because it made the Americans look bad. We had a visit from an American in 1995 who wanted to know what could be done about this urban myth. Not much, unfortunately.’

Burger is pleased with his work. ‘It involves everything that the University asks of us,’ he says. ‘Research, teaching and knowledge transfer, and we teach the students transferable skills. How to read something properly and research sources, with the aid today’s digital resources.’

Text: Corine Hendriks
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