Alexios Mantzarlis: “People spend less time thinking about your failures than you do”

People spend less time thinking about your failures than you do. Learn what you need to learn from your mistakes but don’t spend too much time dwelling on what others will think about you now that you made that mistake. Chances are, they forgot. As a part of our series about “the 5 steps we can […]

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People spend less time thinking about your failures than you do. Learn what you need to learn from your mistakes but don’t spend too much time dwelling on what others will think about you now that you made that mistake. Chances are, they forgot.

As a part of our series about “the 5 steps we can take to win back trust in journalism” I had the distinct pleasure of interviewingAlexios Mantzarlis.

Alexios Mantzarlis is the News and Information Credibility Lead at Google News Lab. He helps coordinate Google’s efforts to fight misinformation across both partnerships and product, with a particular concentration on fact-checking. Prior to joining Google, he was the founding director of the International Fact-Checking Network and Managing Director of Pagella Politica. As Director of the IFCN, he helped draft the fact-checkers’ code of principles and shepherded a seminal partnership between fact-checkers and Facebook. He has been a member of the European Union’s High Level Expert Group on fake news and online disinformation. His publications include a draft lesson plan for UNESCO, a chapter on fact-checking in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in Truth Counts, and a peer-reviewed study on Zika and fake news on the American Journal of Health Education.

Thank you so much for joining us. Before we dive in, our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you share with us the “backstory” about how you got started in your career?

I fell into journalism by mistake. After college, I worked for the UN, a think tank, that kind of stuff. Then one day with some friends I started a side project called Pagella Politica. It was Italy’s first dedicated fact-checking site, born out of a frustration with talk shows where one guest would say one statistic, another would say something opposite, and the host would pretend like the two things could both be true at once. Within a year it had become my full-time job.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

This is a hard question because I’m always reading at least two books at a time and any book I finish tends to leave me with something appropriate for that moment. Recent books I’ve loved are Circe, Little Fires Everywhere, Bad Blood, The Topeka School and Uncanny Valley. I also physically can’t wait for Robert Caro to drop his fifth (and last?) volume on LBJ.

Generally speaking, I enjoy books that remind me that life is supposed to be messy, that most things don’t happen according to plan and that it’s kind of a miracle that humans haven’t messed up even more than they have. One of the earliest books in this genre I remember is probably Brave New World. I also recently inhaled Station Eleven.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Eh, I don’t know. Working in fact-checking means the big twists are typically things like finding a PDF somewhere in the archives of a ministry or other that has the statistic you were looking for. Nothing particularly glamorous, I’m afraid. I will say I didn’t expect that something so humdrum would get me a regular slot on TV (I presented a weekly segment on an Italian talk show for over a year) or pay for my rent for now almost a decade…

Can you share the most humorous mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson or take away you learned from it?

Not sure about humorous, but the most ironic thing I can think about is probably that we launched our fact-checking site in Italy without a corrections policy… None of us were journalists by training (plus, Italian media outlets don’t have corrections policies as open and prominent as American ones) and we thought our method would protect us from making errors. We had a peer review phase and an editing phase; surely we wouldn’t make mistakes? Reader, we did.

So we ended up publishing a page with all articles that had been corrected and anchoring it to the home page; at least until I left the post announcing this policy was our most popular on Facebook. People appreciate if you correct others; they love if you do the same to yourself.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I enjoy my job because I have a mixture of responsibilities. Earlier this year, through the Google News Initiative, I helped select projects worth 6.5M dollars to support the news ecosystem combat COVID-19 misinformation. The funds went to fact-checking and verification efforts and initiatives increasing access to data and scientific expertise about COVID-19. With several vaccines now on the horizon, we are looking at how we may support efforts that fact-check misinformation about COVID-19 immunization.

On the product side, it’s been a busy year for the fact check features I work on. We launched a dedicated fact check section in the COVID-19 News topic early in the pandemic; we also brought fact checks to Google Images globally and YouTube in the United States. A few weeks ago, we launched a fact check section on the mobile app of Google News in Brazil. And this past year we published data on the reach of fact checks across these features for the first time since we launched the first ones in 2016. Users saw fact checks on Search and News more than 4 billion times in the first eight months of 2020.

My job and that of the many colleagues I work with is to surface fact checks whenever they provide relevant and useful context. But the challenge of misinformation is much broader than surfacing fact checks, and there are teams across Google working on this from a variety of different points of view. Ultimately, organizing information is foundational to the services Google provides and it is a continuous process we must keep working on.

What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?

I am enormously privileged that my company and my manager understood immediately that these are not normal times. I have a toddler, so when daycares shut down my wife and I had to figure out how to get work done while also finding activities that would keep my daughter busy and learning. That meant a lot of creative scheduling (and the occasional video call with a toddler in tow). Not going to lie, it’s been exhausting. But we made it work. I have no advice, frankly, because everyone’s situation is different and I am among the lucky ones whose job security is unaffected by lockdowns, among other privileges.

I do have questions for managers: Are you giving your reports the latitude to do the work flexibly as long as they get it done? Are you ready to get rid of meetings and tasks that are not essential? If not…what’s wrong with you?

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main parts of our interview. According to this Gallup poll 45% of Americans trust the mass media. As an insider, are there 5 things that editors and newsrooms can do to increase the levels of trust? Can you give some examples?

The short, pessimistic, answer is: I don’t know. Trust is hard to disentangle from expressions of support for a political belief system these days.

The longer, more hopeful, answer is I think investing in transparency should help. With several leading fact-checkers from around the world I helped create the International Fact Checking Network’s Code of Principles. I think the commitments that make up that code — to non-partisanship and fairness, to standards and transparency of sources, to transparency of funding and organization and to open and honest corrections — are ones that should over time increase trust.

Anecdotally, as I mentioned above, readers really respect when a newsroom is upstanding about correcting itself. But I think we need much more research to prove that this makes a systemic difference.

As you know, since 2016, the term ‘fake news” has entered common usage. Do you think this new awareness has made a change in the day-to-day process of how journalists craft stories? Can you give some examples?

I think journalists are increasingly aware that (a) misinformation matters and should be tackled head-on, even if it sounds silly; (b) it isn’t something that only affects “other people.” We are all vulnerable to it, we all want to believe in things that conform with our viewpoint, or warn people about something that is worrying and © that journalists themselves can unwittingly amplify conspiracy theories that haven’t been picked up extensively if they don’t pay attention to how they’ve formulated their article and to why they’ve chosen to cover the piece of misinformation.

Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. People spend less time thinking about your failures than you do. Learn what you need to learn from your mistakes but don’t spend too much time dwelling on what others will think about you now that you made that mistake. Chances are, they forgot.
  2. Respond to critics. In previous jobs I spent quite a bit of time responding to people who called me or my organization out. 90% of the time it didn’t help. But I’m fine with a 10% success rate.
  3. Target the undecideds. Life is not like those movies where people suddenly have a revelation and change their worldview completely (I mean, it happens, but rarely). Best to win over those who are willing to change their views.
  4. Be extra honest about your organization’s failings with your colleagues. The biggest check on an organization doing something wrong are its own employees; the biggest risk is that things everyone is a little concerned about go unsaid long enough that they become ignored.
  5. Don’t follow other people’s lists of 5 things to do. Make your own.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I…wish I was a person of enormous influence. I can barely talk my daughter into wearing a scarf.

That said, when it comes to ideas, I do have one I wish someone would turn into something! I’ve spent ~8 years working on solutions to misinformation in one way or another. I have grown ever more convinced that the only way to contain the problem is if the public is an active participant in any proposed solution rather than merely the object of a top-down intervention.

I tried twice to bring the crowd into fact-checking — first with FactCheckEU and then at TED — and I failed both times. Wikipedia inspires us all into believing this is possible, so if you have an idea: Get on it!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter all day. Expect niche opinions on misinformation and lots of hot takes on being the parent of a toddler.

Thank you so much for your time you spent on this. We greatly appreciate it, and wish you continued success!

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