RIO DE JANEIRO — The news of Maria Eduarda Alves da Conceição’s death dominated headlines in this city that has become painfully familiar with extreme levels of violence.
The 13-year old was killed in a schoolyard last month when a gunfight erupted outside between the police and gang members. As authorities scrambled to investigate who had fired the fatal shots, the event reignited debate about Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously violent police force.
On the Monday following the tragic event, a team of journalists in the combined newsroom of the newspapers O Globo and Extra scanned social media threads and WhatsApp messenger groups where rumors about the teenager’s death had started to circulate.
One headline —"Report: It wasn’t the police that killed Eduarda" — was gaining traction on Facebook. The article claimed that a technical report revealed that the bullets were from an AK-47, which is not used by police, and that therefore the young girl had been killed by the drug traffickers.
By 4 PM, the team had confirmed that the report was false and posted an article to both newspapers’ newly launched fact-checking sites, clarifying that, at the time, there was no conclusive information about who had fired the shots.
"The democratization of internet access is positive, but not everything that happens on the internet is necessarily good for democracy," said Fábio Vasconcellos, a veteran data journalist who was tapped to coordinate O Globo’s newly launched fact-checking site, "É isso mesmo?" (roughly, "Is that so?").
O Globo is not alone. In recent months, fact-checking has experienced something of a boom in Brazil, as several major media organizations have launched initiatives dedicated to combating the false news and rumors that run rampant on Brazilian social media feeds and in WhatsApp groups.
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They join several independent fact-checking initiatives that gained prominence in Brazil during last year’s political turmoil.
More than 40 journalists are now working full-time or part-time on dedicated fact-checking projects in Brazil, a dramatic expansion of resources compared to previous efforts. Collectively, this surge reflects a concerted attempt to bolster and reassert credibility in Brazil’s media landscape, as journalists develop a clearer understanding of the profound implications of fake news on the political discourse.
One early effort to combat fake news in Rio de Janeiro can be traced to November, 2010, in the days leading up to the police occupation of one of the city’s largest favelas. With buses being lit on fire and residents unsure about which parts of the city were safe, Extra journalists launched the "#É verdade #É boato" ("Truth or Rumor") label to respond to the barrage of rumors about violent incidents in the city.
Fábio Gusmão, who launched the initiative, explained that he and his team quickly learned the urgency of spreading corrected information "like a vaccine" through the same social media platforms where the false information was being shared.
"We are learning how human nature is behaving within these social media environments," Gusmão explained. "Something that used to be a piece of gossip in small groups today has a massive sharing power."
The problem of online misinformation has worsened in recent years. Brazil has the third highest number of Facebook users in the world—behind the United States and India—and although television is still the primary source of news, social media has gained increasing prominence.
Last year, a team of researchers at the University of São Paulo determined that in the week leading up to the Congressional vote that would impeach former President Dilma Rousseff, three of the five most shared news items on Facebook were false.
"Refuting false news stories needs to become the news," explained Pablo Ortellado, a researcher on that team. "If you ignore" false news, Ortellado said, it "continues to circulate and as we have demonstrated, it is forming political opinion at a profoundly alarming level."
During the 2016 municipal electoral season, the online news portal UOL partnered with independent site Aos Fatos to fact-check the debates in real time.
"It was very affirming to realize that the candidates changed their positions based on our fact-checking efforts," said Rodrigo Flores, Content Director at UOL, after the team pointed out inconsistencies in statistics being used.
UOL decided to use internal resources to launch UOL Confere, a dedicated fact-checking platform made up of more than ten journalists across three cities. The team has tackled false reports—including a fake document suggesting that a recently-deceased former first lady had been receiving a Congressional salary—and fact-checked the data used in a government communications campaign to generate support for an overhaul of the pension system.
In Rio de Janeiro, O Globo’s "É isso mesmo?" and Extra’s "#É boato #É verdade" have confronted local stories head on, especially, Vasconcellos explains, reports related to violence and police operations.
"Fact-checking comes in to try and give some minimum level of predictability in people’s lives," he said.
The seven-person team has also corrected dangerous health rumors, such as an article that had been shared thousands of times which claimed that the yellow fever vaccine was causing death.
International events, too, have prompted the growth of Brazilian fact-checking. When online news site G1 announced the launch of their "É ou não é?" fact-checking initiative in March, they pointed to Brexit and the U.S. elections as two key events that revealed "the impact of false information on the formation of public opinion."
In February, Google announced that their fact-check label—launched in the wake of the U.S. election—will be expanded to include Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Three independent Brazilian fact-checking initiatives—Aos Fatos, Agencia Lupa, and Truco/Agencia Publica—were selected to receive the “Verificação de fatos” stamp alongside links searched through Google News.
Tai Nalon, who co-founded Aos Fatos in 2015 during what she describes as a politically turbulent year in Brazil, told Poynter that it’s very important that Google is being attentive to the problem and "recognizing the work of fact-checkers."
But she added that these remain small steps, and that Google and Facebook still show "a lot of resistance in assuming any responsibility for the content they distribute."
The pioneering generation of independent Brazilian fact-checking initiatives—Aos Fatos, Agencia Lupa and Truco— has provided nuanced fact-checks about the proposed pension reforms, broken promises of the Olympic Games, and tracked corruption charges against politicians who supported impeachment.
"I love that [fact-checking] has gotten popularized," says Cristina Tardáguila, who founded Lupa having previously run O Globo’s fact-checking project during the 2014 Presidential election. "It’s very important for this logic to spread throughout Brazil."
Agencia Lupa, which has doubled the size of its team to ten journalists since its 2015 founding, recently launched the Lupa Educação program, a series of lectures and workshops designed to teach fact-checking techniques. But Tardáguila urges all new initiatives to adhere to rigorous standards because fact-checking "is a very powerful tool and if used incorrectly, can have the opposite effect and actually increase misinformation."
Nalon of Aos Fatos agreed that the more fact-checking the better, and urged that all new fact-checking initiatives be transparent in their methodology--including linking to sources of information--as a way to build trust with readers.
Journalists from traditional outlets emphasized that they are adhering to the highest standards, and that fact-checking has always been part of the news-gathering process; they say what has changed is the creation of dedicated spaces to emphasize the work’s importance and draw attention to false news.
"The current context," says Vasconcellos of O Globo, "has brought fact-checking to the front of our production, rather than being the means to an end."
Tardáguila says the most urgent question is how high-quality fact-checking can reach the public.
"There isn’t competition between the fact-checkers," she said. "There is so much work to do that there is still plenty of market left over."
Update: The paragraph quoting Nalon on the new fact-checking initiatives was updated to more accurately reflect her statement on the importance of transparency of methodology.