News Analysis by Mehak Gill and Angel Villares
At a moment of widening global unrest, small bands of online fact-checkers in Spain, Ecuador, Chile, and Lebanon are using their news literacy skills to halt the spread of damaging hoaxes. They’re trying to defuse stand-offs between protestors, police and government officials—not with guns or explosives, but with facts.
The Poynter article, “Amid protests and misinformation, fact-checkers are again proving their usefulness,” by Cristina Tardaguila, describes how four skeleton-staff organizations with few resources—“Maldita.es” from Spain, “Ecuador Chequea” from Ecuador, “El Polígrafo” from Chile, and “The Maharat Foundation” from Beirut, Lebanon—have been working tirelessly to disarm fake news as people take to the streets to protest their governments and corruption.
In Quito, Ecuador, protests escalated around a national strike as citizens objected to an austerity plan that President Lenin Moreno planned to implement. Amid street confrontations and tear-gas bombs, Ecuador Chequea’s tiny team of three journalists issued a whopping 66 verifications in 11 days, using social media to amplify fact-checked updates. Perhaps the most important: they debunked a rumor that Quito residents were going to face a water shortage. That false story said that protestors had somehow seized control of all local water supplies; the ensuing panic led people to begin hoarding water in their homes. But the fact-check helped defuse the crisis and publicize an official announcement by the municipality that the water supply was safe.
According to the Poynter article, staff at these four fact-checking organizations all say that “Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are the main diffusers of false news,” and do little to keep the misinformation from migrating from one platform to another. That’s why makeshift fact-checkers have to fill the gap. In the aftermath of the Quito strike, Chequea leaders say they hope to directly pressure Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to partner more closely with local authorities to prevent future outbreaks of incorrect information.
Meanwhile, in Spain, rumors that the death of a 5-year-old boy had been caused by protestors not allowing an ambulance to reach him were also proven completely false by fact-checkers. Lebanon and Chile also saw their share of false rumors, with one broadcasting the alleged resignation of the prime minister, and another involving out-of-context WhatsApp videos of protestors supposedly “entering to loot” a hospital. Both of these were denounced as fiction.
Inspired by this Poynter account, we did a little lateral reading. It turns out that the four countries highlighted by Poynter are far from the whole story. Although the sheer number of disinformation outbreaks in crisis zones is chilling, it’s also heartening to see that worldwide, there’s a rise in fact-checking organizations attempting to inoculate against the chaos.
According to a team of journalists in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University who launched a global database and map, there were about 44 fact-checking organizations globally in 2014. That number has since more than quadrupled, to 188 in more than 60 countries due to a greater concern about misinformation.
Even news literacy students doing their part, fact-checking the rampant misinformation surrounding Hong Kong’s protests. The project called annielab.org is being run by news literacy students at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center.
Although there can be friction between established journalistic outlets and these new online crusaders, the process has by and large been a cooperative one.
The Takeaway: When a country faces dire circumstances that lead to street protests that turn violent, the chaos can become a breeding ground for falsehoods and hoaxes. Sometimes these are spread intentionally; sometimes through sheer panic (as we saw in reporting about Hurricane Katrina). Web and smartphone platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have few tools to stop misinformation from spreading like a wildfire. Often the misinformation targets protestors unfairly and can escalate an already combustible situation. That’s when the bedrock journalistic practice of independently verifying information—that is, systematic fact-checking accomplished by interrogating information—can become an integral part of keeping the peace. The small size of these fact-checking organizations in Spain, Ecuador, Chile and Lebanon and even the student-run group in Hong Kong, proves that just a few people can make a vast difference. There, as here, we should all keep keep calm and interrogate information.