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Fact-Checking COVID-19: A Planetary Newsroom

06 April 2020 14:02

Fact-checkers are proving that the competition is not with each other, but with disinformation.

In an interview with this researcher, Cristina Tardáguila – the associate director of IFCN (International Fact-Checking Network) and a coordinator of the #CoronavirusFactsalliance – says that one of the greatest lessons learned by fact-checkers around the world is that the great enemy is not the competing news outlet, but rather, the "brutal" volume of mis- and disinformation that plagues the informational environment. Cristina, who is also the founder of the first fact-checking agency in Brazil, Lupa, has been playing an essential role in this alliance, which has been combating the spread of mis- and disinformation online since January 24.

The work is strenuous and Cristina confessed that she is suffering from fatigue, but the work is also rewarding:

"The union of journalists within the same country, within the same language – Brazilian fact-checkers are united, Spanish fact-checkers are united, Asian and Indian fact-checkers are united – means that instead of competing with each other, intra-business competition is surpassed to compete against this monstrosity that is disinformation."

By the time of the interview, the alliance had 107 fact-checking units in 45 countries and checks conducted in more than 15 languages. The alliance has created a "planetary newsroom&", as Cristina describes it. In this planetary newsroom, the different skills and competencies of professionals come together and develop. Collaboration optimises everyone's work: each participant contributes his/her skills and benefits from the skills of others. The united approach offers gains in agility and quality of service by greatly multiplying the volume of information that is checked.

Cristina emphasises the importance of the alliance for the COVID-19 crisis:

"There are things that we checked back in early January that came back to the fore because disinformation accompanies the virus. The virus is now arriving in Latin America. Waves that we saw in Europe and Asia three weeks ago or four weeks ago are now appearing in these new areas, which again underscores the importance of optimizing the work of alliance colleagues."

Considering these waves of disinformation, an important long-term contribution of the IFCN is the archiving of information that will be essential for the analysis of this pandemic situation. Based on this data, Cristina has identified six waves of mis- and disinformation around COVID-19:

  1. False claims about the origins of the virus;
  2. Manipulated or edited videos of people falling ill in China;
  3. False claims about cures and preventatives such as garlic, sanitary water, cow urine and so on;
  4. Conspiracy theories about extermination plans;
  5. Scapegoating and claims about racial and religious superiority; and
  6. False claims about tests in the USA.

An article by Karen Hao and Tanya Basu, published in the MIT Technology Review back in February, found that one of the significant side-effects of the current communication environment is that the excess of information, an "infodemic", has taken over. In February, the World Health Organization dubbed the new coronavirus "a massive 'infodemic,'" referring to "an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it." Moreover, it can also be harmful in generating anxiety and confusion.

Setting communication standards – as Cristina and the IFCN are doing with, for example, the database factcheckingday – could help to monitor and assess the decision-processes of reporters and media organizations. For example, there are important decisions around when and what to publish and whether publishing risks further flooding the environment with information that is not relevant and won't serve the general public.

Another essential aspect of the coordinating work of entities such as IFCN is the power that collaborative efforts can have in terms of influencing policy-making, fostering commitments as well as other social, political and economical impacts. To this end, Cristina says the IFCN are lobbying the major social media platforms to act. She notes the benefits of working together through a body like the IFCN when trying to engage with social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. With the alliance in place, "these platforms know to whom to speak. The alliance provides a unique voice, avoiding that 107 people are beating on Facebook's doors instead".

Yet, since the virus has spread to Latin America, it is believed that mis- and disinformation will primarily circulate through WhatsApp. According to a recent post on Poynter written by Cristina, the need for fact-checkers on the platform is already much bigger than the ones experienced during elections in countries like Brazil and India. This being so, the platform has announced support for fact-checkers in the IFCN movement, and many other supports have been announced by other platforms like Google.

Meanwhile, around the globe, many initiatives are taking place, and if there is any good in all this situation is that collaboration is more than ever a necessity.

Lucia Mesquita is a PhD researcher on the JOLT project, which has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 765140.