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The bet on fact checking: journalists create more initiatives to verify public discourse and reveal false news



This story is part of a series on Innovative Journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.(*)


The FARC will receive government aid of 1.8 million Colombian pesos for five years. The combatants will not spend a day in jail. Timochenko, the top leader of the armed group, could become the president of Colombia.

These were just a few of the false or exaggerated statements made by former President Álvaro Uribe before the plebiscite that rejected the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the guerrillas, according to fact-checking website ColombiaCheck.

The debate that preceded the vote by the Colombian people was permeated by lies, rumors and post-truths, according to Fabio Posada, editor of ColombiaCheck. For him, people care less and less about knowing the truth and the reasons behind the behavior of their leaders.

“[People] are more likely to follow an ideal that interprets their discontent or their fears, even if the leader who brings them together has no legitimacy and his speech is plagued with inconsistencies,” Posada told the Knight Center. “We are no longer in a world of reason rather now we face a world that prefers bullying. That is the challenge that journalists and checkers must decipher in this time in which we live.”

In this "post-truth" scenario, fact-checking initiatives have experienced a global boom, including in Latin America, where more and more journalists are involved in initiatives of checking public discourse or verification of news and rumor that proliferate on social networks.

Currently, when doing a search in Google it is easy to identify whether or not the results are "fake-news". Since February, a Google News seal tells the user what information has been verified by independent organizations such as Chequeado, ChecaDatosMx and El Sabueso of Mexico or Brazil’s Agência Lupa, Aos Fatos and Agência Pública.

This is just a sign of how fact checking is becoming more established in the region – 14 of the world’s 115 active fact-checking initiatives are located in Latin America, according to a February survey from Duke’s Reporters’ Lab. In 2014, this number was just three.

Checking information is not new to journalism. As part of the traditional newsroom, texts are revised multiple times before publication to ensure accuracy of the facts and the precision with which they are written. But since the 2000s, a different kind of checking began to emerge after publication – this time, it was focused on statements made by public figures. “Truth” also started to be objectively measured, whether in “Pinocchios,” like the Fact Checker of The Washington Post, or with tags of varying degrees, like Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter.

“Checking has always been part of journalism. What changes is that one of the stages of information production has become the most important part of the news,” Fábio Vasconcelos, coordinator of the fact-checking blog É Isso Mesmo? (Is that right?) from traditional Brazilian newspaper O Globo, told the Knight Center.

According to the Poynter Institute, fact checking as we know it today emerged in 2003 with the launch of U.S. site Factcheck.org. It was also in that country where the genre was recognized as a form of journalism of great value when PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

The practice has grown, and today, the world’s checkers have an international collaborative network (the International Fact-Checking Network - IFCN, of the Poynter Institute), a code of principles, an annual global summit and an international fact checking day, April 2, the day following April Fools’ Day.

Latin American checkers are among the pioneers of this journalistic practice and are helping to build the way in which the verification of speech will appear and how it will be done in the future.

LATIN AMERICAN INNOVATIONS

One of the captains of innovation in the region is Chequeado, an Argentinian site dedicated exclusively to fact checking that is the first of its type in Latin America. Since it started in 2010, it says it’s methodology has been used to create at least eight other fact-checking sites in the region.  

 “The real reason for the success of the initiatives is the caliber of some of the leaders of the fact-checking organizations in Latin America, starting from Chequeado, who have really pushed the conversation forward,” IFCN director Alexios Mantzarlis told the Knight Center.

Since 2015, Chequeado has had its own division for innovation. Some of the projects developed under this banner include the Chequeador, a platform for collaborative checking between users (or crowd-checking); ChequeadoEducación, an online learning environment; CHQueate!, a question and answer game about fact checking.

One of the most significant advances coming from Buenos Aires, however, is the use of automation in fact checking. Imagine, for example, that a politician makes a speech and instantly we will know how much of what he says can be backed by data. For now, this scenario is still science fiction, as Pablo Martín Fernández, director of innovation at Chequeado, explains in this article where he provided the example above. But the organization has already worked with automating the fact checking of statements that previously have been checked “manually.”

There is already practical technology that helps monitor statements made in newspapers, legislative debates and on Twitter, identifying which have already been analyzed with fact-checking methods and giving small verdicts of “false” or “true,” as reported by British website Full Fact last year, a world leader in the field. Chequeado’s automated fact-checking prototype was born from a collaboration with colleagues from this British organization.

“Checking is automatic if someone repeats a statement that had already been checked. We got a prototype, this is just the first state. We're going to keep with automation. It’s not going to happen immediately, but in some years we think that people can use automation in general,” Laura Zommer, executive director at Chequeado, told the Knight Center.

The next phase of automation, led by Full Fact with the incentive of the Google Digital News initiative, is to use Natural Language Processing (an area of computing that understand human languages) and statistical analysis to, in addition to identifying statements that still have not been previously checked by humans, automatically check them in databases.

THE FACT-CHECKING PUBLIC

Other initiatives in Latin America have innovated in terms of the format for presenting checked content: rather than long articles, fact checking organizations have bet on ‘Tweets,’ videos, memes, GIFs and humor. (The next article of this two-part fact-checking post will explore this in greater detail.)

“With studies indicating that tweets are very often shared without the links being clicked, it is important for fact checkers in particular to offer accurate and complete information in the 140 characters that are available,” Mantzarlis said.

Zommer pointed out that this concern is especially due to the fact that in the region, the public tends to read less about politics, and thus be less informed about decisions made in the public sphere. “In the U.S., the research shows that people who already have a strong position with one candidate, the facts don’t help. But with people that are not involved in politics, sometimes they’ll change their minds,” said Zommer.

In Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Globo, É Isso Mesmo (Is that Right?) came up with an advertising campaign to combat ‘fake news’ – a term popularized by Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency of the United States.

 “Trump only made more evident what was already happening in the digital world: the fact that any user can produce information. What happens with Trump is a political power using the agenda to spread fake news. The endeavor of fact checking is to counteract this volume of rumor,” Vasconcelos said.

In Argentina, fake news and a lack of transparency have existed for many years. According to Zommer, the public ends up believing in what seems plausible. “For Example, in 2008, our [Argentina’s] government did not public criminal records. In 2012, poverty records were not published because the rates were increasing. A lot of the media just published what the government was saying. There is a lot of bad information and media just don’t want to do anything more with that information. That information is not journalism,” Zommer said.

In this context, Latin American organizations have tried to attract the public more and more to participate in the checking of facts. In the platform Chequeador, from Chequeado, it is already possible to see several statements from public figures that were checked using the Argentine organization’s step-by-step guide in a collaborative way and were voted on by the users according to their relevance.

In Ecuador, editor of the site Ecuador Chequea, Desiré Yepez, said that readers themselves have increasingly asked for the facts. Journalists try to stimulate interaction with the public mainly through social networks.

 “To promote and include the public, it is necessary to develop strategies of interaction through social networks and direct communication lines. With them, there is also a feedback process that facilitates the evaluation of our products and the delineation of our future proposals, while at the same time strengthening the bond with the community that follows us,” she explained.

For É Isso Mesmo?, one of the sources of story ideas for the checkers are the social networks mainly the rumors that arise in groups on WhatsApp, the messaging app that is extremely popular in Brazil.

 “We are monitoring truths, which passes through social networks. This is not only because there is little responsible dissemination in these media, but because there are also public agents using this tool to spread information,” Vasconcelos said.

At ColombiaCheck, there is a section called Periodismo Impulsionado por la Gente (Journalism Boosted by the People, in Spanish). For four months, the site asked for public input on phrases to check and the most popular phrases were chosen on social networks. The author of the winning proposal was invited to participate in the checking and production of the report, and thus another lie told about the FARC was discovered: that they would be the biggest cartel in the world.

However, in the Colombian case, the public showed more interest in proposing statements that in participating in the checking process. “I see more and more concern that the audience is indignant and screams that indignation. They also insult and polarize. But I do not know if we could call that participation,” Posada said. “We are rethinking that section because we believe it is vital to have that engagement with the audience, although we learned that people want to be taken into account, but do not want to participate.”

AN EDUCATION IN CHECKING

To counter this scenario, several organizations have invested in fact-checking education programs, geared not only to journalists. In Argentina, Chequeado has already expanded the debate on fact-checking to adolescents between 15 and 18 years of age. Questioning statements, weighing their relevance, comparing them to official sources, confirming with alternative sources and putting them in context to find out if they are true or not has become a school subject.

In Chequeado Educación classes, students learn that checking data is the job of all citizens who want to ensure a democratic society. The most recent initiative of the organization in this regard is “Active citizenship and the value of the work: verification of discourse in models of the United Nations and the legislative model,” aimed at young participants of United Nations simulations.

The idea is to teach the importance of fact checking to not only the future generation of voters, but also to the next politicians and representatives of society. Last year, there were 1,200 students from two provinces of Buenos Aires. This year, the number increased to 5,000 from five provinces.

 “The secondary school is the time they start being citizens. In Argentina, they can vote at 16. One of the things we observed is that teachers teach how to make good speeches, but not how to use information. With fact-checking groups, they learn how to make a speech with good information,” Zommer said.

In Brazil, two initiatives were also launched for the purpose of education: as part of International Fact-Checking Day, the site Aos Fatos created a series of online classes in partnership with the Institute of Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro, and Agência Lupa debuted Lupa Educação.

“It will be a branch made for the general public, for those who want to learn how to do what we do, following our methodology,” Cristina Tardáguila, founder and director of Lupa, told the Knight Center. “This is extremely important in the philosophy of the company and in my personal belief as well. A person with good control of the data ends up making better decisions.”


(*) This story is part of a special project by the Knight Center that is made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations. The "Innovative Journalism" series covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Other stories in the series include:



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