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June 21, 2024updated 04 Jul 2024 1:20pm

Politicians’ claims rather than AI fakes have kept UK election fact-checkers busy

Fact checkers spending more time on verifying claims made by politicians than on fake AI-generated content.

By Charlotte Tobitt

AI-generated content is not having as much of an impact on the general election campaign as many anticipated.

Instead fact checkers have primarily been kept busy verifying claims made by politicians – for example Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s disputed claim first made in the first ITV leaders’ debate that a Labour government would put up household taxes by £2,000.

News agency PA Media launched an election fact-checking service on 23 May, coincidentally the day after Sunak called the election for 4 July.

Election Check 24 was expected by those inside PA Media to have a further six months to sign up participating publishers and ramp up its fact-checking capacity before the election.

They are now publishing four to five fact checks per day, with more than 30 in total since the election was announced. These are available to participating publishers to use free of charge with ITV News, Reach, Newsquest, DC Thomson, Metro, the Irish News, the Evening Standard, Yahoo News and the Yorkshire Post all signed up.

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The fact checks are produced by a full-time team of four journalists partly seconded from elsewhere within PA for the duration of the election. Also chipping in are some of PA’s specialist journalists – for example its health correspondent helping out with checking health-related claims – and head of production Wesley Johnson and his deputy.

Those who sign up can also access free in-person digital verification training sessions to help upskill their newsrooms. So far more than 400 journalists have been signed up for the scheme, run by PA Media Academy.

Why PA became election fact checkers

Johnson, who has been helping to lead the project, told Press Gazette: “PA’s obviously been checking facts for 150 years, it’s nothing new, but actually in terms of fact checking as a service that isn’t something we have really done before.

“Maybe about 18 months ago… we were thinking about our plans for this election and thinking about our approach and things we could do differently this time and fact checking was one of those services we thought we could perhaps offer.”

But he said the nature of what they are fact checking does not include as much AI-generated fake content as expected.

“When we were planning this project there was a real concern in newsrooms across the country around the rise of AI-generated deepfakes and misinformation and disinformation and there was a general expectation that we would see a massive rise in that for the election and for whatever reason we haven’t seen a massive amount of that.

“I’m not saying we haven’t seen any, we have, and we have done some checks on it and I suspect we might see some more before the election and we are very much on the lookout for that completely wrong AI-generated content, but at the moment I don’t think that has played a significant role in the election yet from what we have seen.”

PA has fact checked several examples of fake images, video and audio but they were not generated by AI. For example, audio was added to a clip of Labour’s Wes Streeting on the BBC’s Politics Live making it appear he described fellow candidate Diane Abbott as a “silly woman”.

A video of Sunak was edited and shared by the Labour Party itself to appear he was endorsing its “steps for change”. And a fake Twitter/X screenshot that appeared to show a Labour candidate comparing Palestinians to rats was initially shared by a politician who did not realise it was false.

One example of a deepfake-style video is one posted on Tuesday purporting to show David Dimbleby announcing the Conservatives winning zero seats. The video begins with a clip of Dimbleby on the night of the 2015 election results but the rest is a fake version of his voice.

PA’s fact check said it is “clearly fake and likely intended as satire” given it is presenting events on a future date but Johnson noted there was potential for confusion if it was shared on 4 July.

Full Fact: ‘Relatively few signs’ of deepfakes gaining traction

Steve Nowottny, editor of Full Fact, also said AI content has proved less problematic than expected so far.

“The election campaign has increased the scale, speed, and complexity of our fact checking,” he said. “We’ve ramped up our political fact checking operation, expanded our monitoring with the help of our AI tools, scrutinised party manifestos and fact checked seven TV debates and interviews in real time.

“Overall we estimate we’ve so far published verdicts on more than 120 claims or repeats of claims, and have fact checked many more.”

But he added: “For all the predictions that this would be the ‘generative AI election’, so far we’ve seen relatively few signs of deepfakes and other such content gaining traction. Instead, our fact checking has focused on what politicians have actually said, and whether it holds up to scrutiny.

“Some of our most important checks have focused on the headline-grabbing numbers parties have put out to tell economic horror stories about their opponents’ policies – numbers which have often turned out to be based on unreliable or speculative calculations relying on multiple assumptions.

“Every misleading statistic damages trust in democracy and risks alienating more people from the process. Voters deserve better.”

Other fact-checking organisations can also join PA’s coalition, and Full Fact has done so enabling some of its fact checks to be distributed through the service to reduce duplication.

PA’s project has been funded by the Google News Initiative but Johnson said if the service is successful over the next six months they may aim to secure further funding to continue its work.

Johnson said he believes the best way for fact-checking services to be funded is through grant funding and support rather than charging customers.

Many potential funders including social media platforms only support fact-checking services if they are accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.

PA Media has therefore spent time producing fact checks in the background, publishing them but not pushing them out, in order to meet the requirements to have six months experience and one fact check per week. It was accredited by the IFCN in October.

Full Fact, a registered charity which launched in 2010 and is also accredited by the IFCN, for example receives some funding through its participation in Meta’s Third Party Fact Checking Programme which means it helps to check content on platforms like Facebook. Its other funding comes from Google, charitable foundations and thousands of individual donors.

Full Fact told Press Gazette two of its most engaged-with checks of the election so far were, again, Sunak’s claim about a Labour £2,000 household tax rise, and a claim by Labour that Conservative spending commitments would mean a £4,800 mortgage increase.

It has similarly written about edited photos of Sunak but, again, these were not generated by AI.

Also in this space in the UK are the fact check team at Channel 4 News, BBC Verify which launched last year, and Reuters Fact Check.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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  • Director or equivalent
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  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
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Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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