With presidential elections coming up in Argentina this weekend, the fact-checkers at Chequeado.com have been steadily increasing their profile: they recently completed a crowdfunding campaign, were awarded the Gabriel Garcia Marquez award for innovation and passed the 100,000 followers mark on Twitter.

Chequeado is an independent non-partisan Argentinian fact-checking operation launched in 2010. Besides its domestic activities, Chequeado has helped spread the fact-checking bug across Latin America.

I spoke to Laura Zommer, executive director of Chequeado, and Olivia Sohr, its editorial coordinator, about fact-checking the Argentinian elections.

The election in three fact-checks

The first thing I asked Zommer and Sohr was to summarize the current election in three fact-checks. They chose one for each for the main candidates jostling to succeed outgoing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (or CFK).

Daniel Scioli, governor of the province of Buenos Aires and the candidate closest to CFK, is running “a campaign based on continuity […] especially in the social area,” says Sohr. Chequeado found that he was falsely claiming that he had increased the number of provincial hospitals to 80. The number is lower than that, with no tangible increase since Mr Scioli took office.

Mauricio Macri, a two-term mayor of the city of Buenos Aires – and former president of Boca Juniors, one of Latin America’s most successful football clubs – is running as a candidate for the “Cambiemos” (Let’s Change) centre-right coalition. He too distorted his record in office, incorrectly stating, "The city has the same amount of public employees as the day we arrived.”

Sergio Massa, a former ally of CFK who has since clashed with her, has put a strong emphasis on security. Mr Massa claimed that homicides during robberies increased dramatically in Buenos Aires. Chequeado noted that with the available data (“and there is not as much as we would like”, Sohr adds), this type of crime seems to have fallen, not increased.

I also asked the Chequeado duo what has changed since the last time they covered a presidential election. Sohr says that in a way, ”the 2011 campaign was much easier to cover because the issues were a lot more data-centred”. However, unlike in 2011, this election is not a foregone conclusion, which has made voters more interested in fact-checking. This was also the first time in Argentina’s history that a presidential debate was held (though Scioli, who is leading in the polls, did not attend).

Fact-checking the presidential debate

Chequeado had a strong track record to build on, thanks to its live coverage of CFK’s annual speech to Congress. The video below, from one such occasion, explains better than I could their level of organization:

On the night of the presidential debate, Chequeado gathered a group of 70 people between experts, journalists and its own staff. Zommer adds, “The vast majority were there as part of our community, as volunteers.” Before the debate, participants were grouped into four teams by topic of expertise and given a spreadsheet with sources and previous fact-checks relevant for that topic. Chequeado hired for the occasion a team of stenographers to transcribe the debate live on a shared Google doc and a number of journalists to help them produce more pieces in less time. By the end of the night, Chequeado had published 18 fact-checks on the debate (the current total is thirty-one).

A limitation to live fact-checking the debate was its duration: at a "mere" ninety minutes, it was far shorter than CFK’s speeches to Congress, which have lasted up to four hours in the past. This gave fact-checkers less content to work on and less time to write it up.

Debates are a particularly useful moment for fact-checkers to intervene, as candidates clash head-on and statements are made in the same context. Chequeado recognized this and presented all its work in an appealing overview.

chequeado grafic

And how did the candidates respond? No one got as angry with Chequeado as CFK’s former chief of staff, who in January literally tore apart criticisms from the press (including a fact check from Chequeado). The teams of the presidential candidates, not particularly responsive prior to the debate, became much more interested in providing Chequeado with data to back their candidates’ claims after it. Two fact-checks were revised following publication (see here and here).

The best reaction of all, however, came from Gabriella Michetti, vice-presidential candidate on the Macri ticket. Asked about a “Falso” that Macri got from Chequeado on a radio show, she replied, “Yo lo ví a lo de Chequeado, por eso lo corregimos y nunca más lo dijimos" ("I saw that on Chequeado. Which is why we corrected ourselves and never repeated it")