Universiteit Leiden

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Fact-checking from the local council to the European Parliament

‘Timmermans says more Polish workers are staying in Poland, but there aren’t any figures to back this up,’ was the headline of NU.nl news website during the European elections in 2019. This was after Nieuwscheckers, the fact-checkers at Leiden University, had checked a statement by PvdA politician Frans Timmermans. Thanks to crowdfunding and collaboration with NU.nl, they were able to fact-check politicians and share their findings with a wider audience during the European elections.

‘In this case, there proved to be no figures whatsoever on the number of Polish people who remain in Poland and no decrease could be seen in the number of Polish people coming to work in the Netherlands,’ says lecturer Alexander Pleijter, who set up Nieuwscheckers together with his colleague Peter Burger.

Minor in Science Journalism

Alongside claims made by politicians, Nieuwscheckers checks reports from media such as newspapers, magazines and news sites. It began in 2009 as part of the minor in Science Journalism. ‘We gave students the assignment to check whether reports, generally ones about scientific research, were correct,’ says Pleijter. There is now a master’s course on fact-checking.

Since 2017, Nieuwscheckers have also been checking claims made by politicians. This began during the general elections with a teaching project in which students worked full-time on checking claims made in political debates. For three whole weeks.

Collaboration with Facebook

This attracted the attention of Facebook, which, following the commotion surrounding the presidential elections in the United States, wanted to fight back against fake news. Facebook and Nieuwscheckers began to work together. ‘We spent a year checking Dutch news that was shared on Facebook,’ says Pleijter. ‘With the money that we earnt, we hired a freelance science journalist and students assistants as editors. This meant we were no longer dependant on our students. The disadvantage was the limited duration of projects or courses. In between them, the fact-checking stopped.’

Since the collaboration with Facebook, more Nieuwscheckers projects have been funded with grants. ‘Thanks to the Leiden Media Fund, we were able to fact check the municipal council,’ says Pleijter. ‘We worked together with Leids Dagblad newspaper here. The political reporter from the paper went to municipal council meetings and we checked the claims made there.’

Visible effect

Fact-checking has a visible effect. After one check, a member of the municipal council admitted on Twitter that he had got the wrong end of the stick. And during the European elections, political parties made changes to their websites after fact-checks. ‘We have also noticed that the idea alone of someone checking you has an effect.’

‘The ultimate aim of fact-checkers is not to label things “true” or “false,” but to explain how exactly the land lies and to add any qualifying remarks if politicians themselves don’t do that,’ says Pleijter.

Nieuwscheckers has the ambition to expand. It is now a successful teaching project, but what they really want is a permanent editorial team as well. ‘We’re now looking for continuous funding, so that we can fact-check throughout the year.’

Text: Dorine Schenk
Photo: Alexander Pleijter (standing left) during a Nieuwscheckers conference.
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