Can Fact-Checking contain Sri Lanka’s many Pinocchios?

April 1 is April Fools’ Day. No global agency ever declared it as such, but historically many societies have engaged in fooling people with practical jokes and harmless fabrications on this day. However, April Fools’ Day doesn’t feel the same any longer. Instead, every day feels like April Fools’ Day in this age of fake news, clever satire and various online pranks. Worse, many who try to remain skeptical on April 1 are not half as vigilant for the rest of the year.

Until the 1990s, some Lankan newspapers used to carry seemingly plausible – but completely false – news stories on frontpages on April 1. They owned up the following day, to be sure, and then got back to their regular business of reporting facts for the rest of the year. Those harmless pranks won’t work today – because our media has now become such a regular peddler of half-truths, untruths and various distortions every day of the year!

The information landscape has evolved fast in a single generation. Besides newspapers, we now have dozens of radio and TV channels, as well as SMS news services and many news websites trying to ‘break’ news (often with scant regard for accuracy or balance). Parallel to these institutionalised media operations, millions of social media users originate and/or share vast amounts of information and images.

We have too much media, but not enough journalism! At least journalism of the classical kind where facts are sacred, and comment is free (yet informed). We also lack skepticism as a society. That is why it is so easy to mislead large numbers of our people with conspiracy theories ranging from ‘infertility pills’ and ‘resurgent Tigers’ to a ‘diabolical plan’ by multinational corporations to ‘poison the Lankan nation’ (with highly toxic agrochemicals).

Fact-checking as Antidote?

What is to be done? To respond, we first need to understand the complex problem of fake news. ‘Fake News’ is the commonly used term, but it can be quite misleading. Serious discussions now avoid it and instead prefer ‘information disorder’. (It sounds like a malady, and really is one.)

Information disorder has three key elements: disinformation (deliberately spreading falsehoods); misinformation (falsehoods spread unknowingly); and mal-information (falsehoods spread with clear intent of causing societal harm). These can come in various forms – text, images, audio or video. There can be overlap, too. Importantly, all three kinds have been around for much longer than the web (which just turned 30). Tall tales have been circulating in various forms in society through media, books and even gossip. What is new is the high speed and wide reach enabled by the digital and web technologies.

An effective long-term solution is to raise everyone’s media literacy and information skills, so that people can critically consume what they come across in the mass media and social media. That takes time and effort. Meanwhile, every passing day, information disorder is rotting the public mind and undermining democratic processes. Evidence is mounting around the world on how it threatens communal harmony, integrity of elections, trust in disaster early warnings, and even public health (e.g. vaccinations).

So we also need a more immediate countering of mis/dis/mal information on a case by case basis. One proven strategy is fact checking. The practice entails verifying information – before or after publication – in the media.

Reputed mainstream media institutions in the West have been doing it inhouse for decades as part of their commitment to professionalism. Another approach is having independent researchers or civil society groups verify questionable media content after publication: this is known as post hoc fact-checking.

In the United States, several groups are devoted to such post-hoc fact checking. These include FactCheck, PolitiFact, and NewsTrust’s Truth Squad. They fact check the media as well as statements by politicians and other public figures.

Global network

Fact checking services have been initiated in a growing number of countries during the past decade, which represents a new phase in holding journalism and public officials accountable. And in some countries, fake news makers are fighting back with partisan copycats or faux fact-checking websites trying to muddy the waters for media audiences.

In 2015, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a non-profit organisation in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the US helped form International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). The following year, member organizations from nearly 30 countries adopted a statement of principles to ensure that they adhere to a non-partisan, fair-minded and transparent approach to fact-checking (read the full text).

The network members observed the inaugural International Fact Checking Day in 2017. Not coincidentally, the chosen date was April 2.

“Fact-Checking Day is a rallying cry for more facts in politics, journalism, and everyday life. It is meant to be light-hearted, but practical,” says IFCN’s web page promoting the day. “We believe that fact-checking shouldn’t be something only professional fact-checkers do. An accurate information ecosystem requires everyone to do their part.”

Fact Check Lanka

The visual icon for the inaugural Fact-Checking Day was Pinocchio, the fictional puppet character whose nose grew long each time he uttered a lie.

In an op-ed published in April 2017, I wrote: “We in Sri Lanka urgently need a professional, non-partisan fact checking service to save us from the alarming proliferation of Pinocchios in public life. Not just our politicians, but also many academics and activists who peddle outdated statistics, outlandish claims or outright conspiracy theories.”

Such fact checking should be done by a research group outside the media industry, I argued, as most of our professional journalists only take down dictation rather than ask hard questions.

Verité Research, an independent think tank, stepped up to the challenge in 2018 by creating Sri Lanka’s first independent fact-checking service:

From September 2018 it was piloted using a public access Facebook page ( Last week, the service unveiled its dedicated website at

As the website says in its self-introduction, “We are a platform that monitors Sri Lankan print media (Sinhala, Tamil, and English) to identify and fact check statements attributed to high-level decision makers in public office on subjects of public interest. The main objective of FactCheck is to improve the space of public understanding and information in Sri Lanka and thereby help to hold decision makers accountable for their public statements as reported in the media.”

Using their own methodology, Verité Research ranks the ‘truth value’ of public statements by politicians as true, partly true, false, blatantly false, or unable to verify (i.e. cannot be assigned a truth-value because information or data that is required to verify the statement is not accessible to researchers.)

“Journalists pay too little attention to checking the accuracy of what they report; so we need this kind of platform for Sri Lanka,” says Verité Research executive director, Dr. Nishan de Mel.

Already the service has gained traction by fact-checking the President, Prime Minister, Opposition Leader, some key ministers and other Parliamentarians. At least one Parliamentarian has corrected himself in the House based on such a fact-check. And more than one high profile politician has responded to, sometimes a bit defensively.

Slowly but surely, can move our political discourse to a more evidence based and accountable one. Given the penchant of Lankan politicians to make sweeping statements, is assured of a steady supply of questionable claims to investigate. The challenge, in a highly polarized society like ours, it is to be totally non-partisan — and to be perceived as such. Like media editors select what news to carry, Verité’s researchers also have to select which public statements are worth fact-checking, i.e. in the public interest. Once that is decided, they can follow IFCN’s five principles to ensure rigour and integrity of their process.

Ultimately, even the finest fact-checking can only appeal to reason. Some folks many not want facts or reason to get in the way of a good conspiracy theory. But research in other countries with fact-checking services shows that these do correct public misconceptions, and also discourage politicians from making fanciful claims.

Disclosure: The author is on the honorary advisory panel for

This article has also been published in The Sunday Morning newspaper on 31 March 2019