Crashed servers, ‘superpowers’ and science journalists: How Maldita.es navigated the pandemic and nearly doubled its membership

Inundated with messages from fearful readers, the Spanish fact-checking organization used reader expertise and a chatbot to tackle COVID-19 misinfo

July 8, 2020
Category: Business & Work

This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organizations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. 

In a nutshell: More than 1,000 explainer articles, a host of in-depth podcasts and a database of medical experts aided this Spanish nonprofit in combating fast-traveling falsehoods.

Spain was one of the focal points in Europe at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Confusing information circulating on social media compounded with a strict lockdown led Spaniards to turn to Maldita.es — a Spanish fact-checking platform founded by two broadcast journalists — for answers.

By listening to its supporters — otherwise known as ‘malditos’ or ‘damned ones’ — the team fact-checked COVID-19 as it spread across the country and almost doubled its member count in less than four months. It has since partnered with WhatsApp and a group of nonprofits to develop a chatbot to handle some 1,500 daily fact-check requests.

Tara Kelly of the European Journalism Centre learned spoke with one of Maldita.es’ co-founders to find out how the organization was able to trust its readers so reliably and what makes hiring journalists with specialist skills more important than ever.

What is Maldita?

Maldita.es is a nonprofit fact-checking platform focused on combating the spread of misinformation. “Maldita” translates as “the damned” while its tagline is “journalism to not be fooled.”

Its mission is to monitor political discourse and promote transparency in public and private institutions. It has a focus on media literacy and uses technological tools to empower its community of fact-checkers.

The organization was founded in 2014 by Clara Jiménez Cruz and Julio Montes, two Spanish broadcast journalists who sought to fact-check stories in a social media-friendly format. They started Maldita Hemeroteca as a Twitter account and it became a fixed segment on radio and TV some months later. In 2018, the pair quit their jobs and launched Maldita.es.

Based in Madrid, Spain, Maldita.es is made up of a team of 23 journalists and two developers. It recently expanded during COVID-19 by hiring three more people, including one graphic designer and two part-time science journalists. Maldita is a signatory of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network.

The fact-checking organization’s work is divided into niche projects with specific themes aimed at reaching different users. For example, Maldita Hemeroteca seeks to detect flip-flopping by politicians, Maldito Feminismo debunks hoaxes related to gender and Maldita Ciencia verifies science and health misinformation. Each project has its own trademark, imagery and language.

(Courtesy: Maldita.es)

Maldita.es embeds its community into its fact-checking process. Members, who are called “malditas” or “malditos,” report misinformation to the Maldita.es team to fact-check. Journalists then send the results back to the community who share it online in formats that can be easily read and forwarded on mobile devices. This process aims to make the fact-checked information as viral and popular as the misinformation. The team has also built tools to combat false information, including a browser plugin that alerts users when they’ve visited a fake website or content that has already been verified.

In 2019, Maldita.es was funded by the European Journalism Centre’s Engaged Accelerator program to create a “superpower” customer relationship management system to help its team reach out to qualified experts within its audience in the course of fact-checking. This CRM allows the team to find and reach qualified individuals who can help them in their journalism, whether it be teachers, translators or medical professionals.

Maldita conducts a background check on all experts and reaches out to them to certify who they say they are. The program is also a way to bring people who haven’t engaged with the media before into the Maldita.es community and to encourage them to become members.

Maldita funds itself through a mix of revenue sources. Its revenue streams are split as follows: 11% comes from crowdfunding and membership, 12% comes from collaboration with other media organizations, 50% comes from technology partnerships such as Facebook’s third-party fact-checking network and Google Jigsaw, 16% comes from grants and foundations, 7% comes from collaborations from civil society organizations and 4% is from Maldita.es’ education stream in which the team gives lectures and training in media literacy.

Maldita.es’ content is free for all to access with no paywall. It has two types of membership programs, one for paying members and one for registered members who don’t contribute financially. Paying members, called “ambassadors,” pay €5 per month or €50 per year. Students or unemployed people can either contribute €3 per month or €30 per year.

Registered members now number over 40,000. All members are eligible for the weekly newsletter and can sign up for Maldita.es’ superpowers program. Paying and non-paying members receive access to the same stories.

How did Maldita.es handle the COVID-19 crisis?

The team saw a huge spike in messages within the 70 WhatsApp distribution groups that it had set up before the crisis — 250 queries before COVID-19 became over 1,500 daily messages at the height of the pandemic. “Malditos” also asked about coronavirus through email and social media, where Maldita.es encouraged audiences to send their questions through WhatsApp or direct message on Twitter. Two forms on Maldita.es’ website also received over 3,200 queries.

At the beginning, most questions were about international hoaxes or misinformation about the coronavirus, but when the pandemic arrived in Spain, “malditos” began to ask about COVID-19 prevention, scientific research and general questions about life under lockdown.

Reader input was used to shape Maldita.es’ coverage and, between March and May, the team wrote 1,374 articles. Most of these were fact-checks but others were Q&As and some were cartoons. A landing page was created as a home for all COVID-19 coverage. Banners were added at the top of each page on its site encouraging audiences to go to its coronavirus landing page.

As soon as Maldita.es began receiving questions about the virus, it reached out to medical professionals — including biologists, virologists, immunologists and doctors — within its “superpower” database of 500+ experts. These people helped Maldita.es’ team to explain all aspects of the pandemic and to write explainers about how the virus worked and what steps could be taken to prevent its spread.

Other “malditos” used their superpowers to help the team debunk. For example, people fluent in Chinese helped debunk hoaxes from China and misinformation about sanitary material purchases. During this time, Maldita.es grew the number of experts in their database from 606 to 2,046. Many were key to stopping mis- and disinformation from proliferating.

The team also experimented for the first time with directly connecting “malditos” who had specific COVID-19 questions with experts from its database. Only a handful of people participated (about 20 in total), but everybody was satisfied — experts because they helped, and “malditos” because they were satisfied with answers.

Maldita.es was well equipped to cover the pandemic thanks to their already established science and health vertical, Maldita Ciencia. But to cope with the extra workload, it hired two part-time science writers and a graphic designer to ensure stories were rigorously edited. To ensure they hired good science writers, the team asked science journalists in their network for recommendations. They sought people who could work well remotely, meet tight deadlines, slot easily into a team and accept feedback.

In March, the website received 10 million unique visitors, up from an average of 2 million before COVID-19. This steep rise in users made it the second most visited fact-checking media outlet in the world, according to SimilarWeb. The spike in traffic also caused Maldita.es’ servers to crash, creating chaos for the team and forcing them to add another three servers and a load balancer (a way to efficiently distribute traffic across multiple servers) to its network.

As well as written articles, Maldita.es covered COVID-19 through its weekly podcast. Traditionally, this has highlighted the most important debunks from social media. During the pandemic, it included a special focus on COVID-19 and health misinformation. The team has produced 33 episodes since February which have received 3,169 listens on Spotify and 41,425 downloads on Ivoox.

Over time, managing Maldita.es’ 70 WhatsApp groups became time-consuming and repetitive so the team decided to create a WhatsApp chatbot. The International Fact-Checking Network had developed one in English so Maldita.es teamed up with COVIDWarriors — a nonprofit association made up of professional volunteers, developers and senior managers — and WhatsApp, which provided access to its API, to build a version in Spanish.

The app allows users to send text and images that they suspect to be false and to receive debunks where available. It also provides daily summaries, a curated list of debunks for the day and a two-minute audio summary. If the user doesn’t find any content that satisfies the search, the Maldita.es team receives a warning and a journalist takes over the conversation. In May, a beta version of the app was launched to its “malditos” and, on June 17, it was released to the public.

Maldita.es’ bot has received over 17,000 messages and sent almost 36,000 messages back to users at an average of between 600 and 800 messages a day. Usage tends to spike at around 11 p.m. Spanish time. User retention is above 50% for the first day, above 30% for the second day and between 20-30% for the third day.

The most popular recent searches have been about an attack on a member of parliament by the Vox party; the cost of a pro-LGBTQ campaign from the Correos, the state-owned postal company, and warnings about the Chinese community closing their businesses in Madrid because of the coronavirus.

Membership also grew significantly during this period. Non-paying “malditos” went from 22,605 by the end of February to 42,170 by the end of June, an increase of 87%. Ambassadors (those who give more than €50 a year) grew from 419 at the end of February to 1,300 ambassadors (a 210% increase) by the end of June.

The rise of both paying and non-paying members can be attributed to call-to-actions placed in COVID-19 articles. Maldita.es also sent newsletters and email communications to its community during the pandemic in which it asked for their support. The messaging explained how the team was working to debunk hoaxes and also how as fact-checkers they faced online abuse on social media. This proved effective at garnering financial support.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Maldita?

Spain was one of the hardest-hit European countries and experienced an incredibly strict lockdown. This left Maldita.es staff little choice but to work from home.

With a team of 25, management found it challenging at first to establish an efficient workflow. They turned to WhatsApp and Telegram and had daily Zoom meetings to brainstorm story ideas. The lack of experience working as a remote team made it difficult to adapt and this meant precious time was lost in the misinformation battle. The co-founders plan to put in place more standard operating procedures to handle this in the future.

During the pandemic, Maldita.es’s servers crashed, creating chaos for the team. System costs have skyrocketed. This, and new tools like the WhatsApp bot, forced them to invest in new infrastructure to keep their site secure and running. Maldita has two IT people, one for development and the other one both for development and system administration. The investment also includes hiring a new system administrator for occasional system adjustment, maintenance and the implementation of a monitoring system that can warn the team if the site is about to go offline.

Although Maldita.es had good scientific expertise within the newsroom and strong medical sources, the pandemic has reiterated the need to have links with medical and scientific societies in Spain. This will help if journalists have questions that they want answered promptly. So far, the team has established 22 alliances with medical and scientific societies over the last two months.

The team is concerned that grants — Maldita.es’ main form of revenue — may be difficult to obtain in the next year or so as competition increases from other Spanish media outlets affected by COVID-19. On this basis, the organization is preparing a membership drive for later this year.

What have they learned so far?

“Throughout the pandemic, a lot of misinformation spread in Spain across social media. This was partly because reporters with no science or health background wrote and published stories that weren’t accurate without verifying information with experts. That’s why it is essential for the media to invest in hiring health and science journalists to ensure accurate reporting. Talking to experts and verifying information is the one way to fight this. Internally, we struggled at the beginning of COVID-19 to remotely coordinate our workflow. We also experienced a couple of server issues and discovered how critical it is to have a scalable IT system that can cope with high volumes of traffic. We plan to come up with more standard operating procedures so we can better handle future situations that would require remote work.”

– Clara Jiménez Cruz, co-founder of Maldita.es 

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This case study was produced with support from Evens Foundation. It was originally published by the European Journalism Centre on Medium and is published here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Poynter Institute is also the fiscal sponsor of the Verification Handbook.