Nesta Democracy Pioneers

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Nesta Democracy Pioneers

Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.

Bad information is harmful - to our health, our communities, and our democracy. Full Fact is a team of independent fact checkers and campaigners who exist to fight it. With the backing of our supporters, we scrutinise what’s said in public, ask politicians and the press to correct the record when they get things wrong, have developed new technology to counter misleading claims, and campaign for better information in public life.

In 2019, we saw 9.4 million users visit our website. In the first half of 2020, that number has more than doubled to 13 million, and millions more heard from or read about us from over 2,000 media mentions. Through our work we have secured corrections from politicians on all sides of politics and from a Prime Minister. Of all the requests we made for corrections to false and misleading claims in 2019, 54% resulted in positive action. Full Fact’s millions of readers and thousands of supporters are a testament that for so many of us across the UK, honesty matters.

The threat of bad information

The threat of bad information to our society and democracy is becoming all too clear through recent events. You need look no further than the 2019 UK general election to see the damage bad information can do. From edited interview footage of rival politicians, to attempts to disguise campaign materials as the work of independent journalists, we fact checked harmful tactics which crossed the line on all sides. These tactics distort our politics and threaten the integrity of our democracy.

During the election, the UK’s outdated election laws were unfit to protect voters from being manipulated online. Research commissioned by Full Fact during the election also found that over half of the UK public are willing to ignore parties and politicians on all sides because after years of feeling misled, they don’t know if they can trust them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the urgency for greater transparency online. Full Fact has fact checked a range of false content, from unsubstantiated advice that gargling salt water can cure it and eating ice cream can make it worse, to harmful rumours that children are immune to it. If believed, these claims could put lives at serious risk. False conspiracies about the harms of potential coronavirus vaccines are becoming widespread. They could hamper uptake of a cure, when vaccine hesitancy is already a top 10 world health risk.

The COVID-19 crisis has also demanded a faster pace of communication of information from the government. We’ve seen that this has led to inaccurate claims and unpublished information on targets. We recently wrote to the UK Statistics Authority about our concerns over the way in which statistics about COVID-19 testing in the UK are being presented and communicated to the public. Good information that increases the public’s trust has never been so important. It will be critical to getting out of the crisis with as little harm to people's health and livelihoods as possible.

We understand that there are significant pressures on the government at this time, and that mistakes will be made when providing data. But we believe that much more can be done to improve the presentation and communication of data, and there must be a willingness to correct inaccurate claims once they are identified, no matter who said them.

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Rebuilding trust and strengthening our public debate

If our ten years of fact checking elections, referendums, and the current health crisis have taught us anything, it’s that individual fact checks alone aren’t enough to tackle bad information. We’re campaigning for an update to our election laws that includes full ad transparency, online imprints and charitable access to the electoral register. If we don’t see these changes to our election laws before the next election, we feel there is a risk that the UK could lose faith in democracy entirely.

Despite a disruption of plans, it’s vital that the government’s Online Harms Bill, which aims to better regulate damaging and harmful content online, goes ahead as scheduled this year. In June, we were pleased to see a report from the House of Lords backing our call for the Online Harms Bill to be pushed forward. As part of our campaign, we have called for proportionate measures that ensure transparency from our internet companies about the steps they’re taking to tackle bad information.

This year, Full Fact has also built a policy and research team to help expose recurring problems with accuracy in public debate. The team is pushing for internet companies, press, and politicians to take accuracy and transparency as seriously in their actions as in their words. Without accuracy in public debate, it is impossible for citizens to make informed decisions about their future and hold their representatives to account. Promisingly, in recent months, we’ve seen MPs across the political spectrum share our fact checks with their constituents.

We’ve also welcomed conversations with DCMS on the trends we are seeing through our fact checking, and on how this is being tackled by the government since the surge of harmful information about the COVID-19 crisis began.

As our team continues to call out bad information and demand higher standards from our leaders, we hope to gain back trust that our institutions are doing all they can to give us the information we all deserve.

Author

Jessica Hailstone

Supporter Communications Manager at Full Fact