June 26, 2020

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: Faktograf co-founded a fact-checking network with similar organizations in southeastern Europe and started a Viber group to debunk viral COVID-19 misinformation.

Misinformation doesn’t care about borders, especially in southeastern Europe, where trust in the media tends to be low and news avoidance is sky-high. False news can spread quickly via popular messenger apps like Viber and WhatsApp.

That has been the key takeaway from Faktograf’s COVID-19 experience. The Zagreb-based fact-checking organization knows that mis- and disinformation are as much of a problem in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia as they are in Croatia. Tackling the issue in one country isn’t enough.

That thinking led Faktograf to join forces with international fact-checking efforts and to create its own network of Southeastern Europe fact-checkers to stem COVID-19 misinformation in the region. And not even Croatia’s largest earthquake for 140 years could stop them.

Here, Tara Kelly from the European Journalism Centre speaks to Faktograf’s Ana Brakus about what she and the team have learned over the last four months.

What is Faktograf?

Faktograf.hr is a Croatian fact-checking website founded in October 2015 by the Croatian Journalists’ Association and Gong, a non-governmental organization.

Based in Zagreb, it is the only Croatian fact-checking organization verifying the accuracy of statements made by politicians and public officials. It has been a member of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network since 2017.

The organization relies solely on grant and project funding and has no membership or subscription program for readers, nor does it host any advertising. In 2019, it partnered with Facebook to review and rate the accuracy of content on the platform as part of its third-party program with the IFCN.

Faktograf has a newsroom of seven people plus three freelancers for covering additional work during COVID-19. They also have some occasional contributors who write on specific topics.

The team primarily fact-checks the statements of top government officials, members of parliament and other elected officials; however, they also debunk common untruths or misconceptions which circulate widely on social media. These fact-checks are published on Faktograf’s website and distributed via its social media accounts.

Prior to the pandemic, Faktograf’s daily output was around three articles per day. Since the European elections in May 2019, the team has begun receiving regular requests from readers via Facebook, email or Twitter to check out claims or statements.

Faktograf aims to reach an audience of engaged Croatian citizens who are keen to take part in public discourse. Its ideal readers have a high dose of skepticism and curiosity.

In 2019, the Faktograf site received a million unique views, but in the first six months of 2020, it recorded more than two million uniques. Around half of its readers are aged 25-44 years old, while 54% are female and 46% are male. Its readers are predominantly based in Croatia, with some in neighboring countries, mostly Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

In recent years, Croatia’s press freedom track record has become cause for concern. According to Reporters Without Borders, Croatian investigative journalists, especially those who cover corruption, organized crime or war crimes, are often subjected to harassment. Media law is particularly strict in the country; for example, individuals and organizations can launch criminal proceedings for insult and defamation or start civil proceedings with claims for compensation.

This happened in 2018 when the national broadcaster Croatian Radio and Television filed a lawsuit against the president of the Croatian Journalists’ Association following a critical press release about the organization. As of May 2020, there were 905 current lawsuits against journalists and the media in Croatia.

To compound matters, Croatia’s media is also highly concentrated with most print, TV and radio owned by two companies — Austrian Styria Media Group and Hanza Media

Perhaps unsurprisingly, citizens’ trust in the media — like many public institutions in the country — is low. The 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report shows out of 38 countries surveyed around the world, Croatia has the highest percentage of people (56%) actively avoiding the news followed by Turkey (55%) and Greece (54%). The European countries in the survey with the lowest avoidance of news are Sweden (22%), Norway (21%), Finland (17%) and Denmark (15%).

How did Faktograf handle the COVID-19 crisis?

In January 2020, when the spread of the virus was restricted to China but misinformation was already rife, Faktograf worked with the International Fact-Checking Network to create the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance Database. The alliance brings together more than 100 fact-checkers around the world to publish, share and translate facts-checks about COVID-19.

The database — which now has more than 7,100 entries in over 40 different languages — helped Faktograf to better understand what mis- and disinformation was being widely shared on a global scale. This made it easier in the early stages of the pandemic to fact-check claims that originated someplace else and found its way to Croatia.

When cases started to appear in Croatia, Faktograf started a liveblog to debunk COVID-19 mis- and disinformation. The team prioritized topics that endangered public health and that were likely to reach a large number of people. This included information about face masks, fake cures and vaccines. Collaboration with readers intensified during this period and the team regularly received messages via Facebook and email with suggestions of stories and posts to fact-check. (The liveblog does not allow for comments but readers can post or message the team on Facebook or Twitter.) In total, the team has published more than 130 COVID-19 related articles since March.

At the start of March, Faktograf co-founded a new fact-checking network to foster collaboration between fact-checking journalists in the region and to promote media accountability. Called SEE Check, it is made up of seven fact-checking organizations in six countries in southeastern Europe — SEE — including Slovenia (Razkrinkavanje.si), Montenegro (Raskrinkavanje.me), North Macedonia (F2n2.mk), Serbia (Fakenews.rs & Raskrikavanje.rs), Bosnia & Herzegovina (Raskrinkavanje.ba).

The network created a Twitter account and Facebook page as well as a Viber community, and hosted a roundtable discussion in May 2020 to share tips on how journalists across the region could better work together. Prior to forming the network, Faktograf had been in touch with those organizations on an informal basis; however, the spread of COVID-19 led them to formalize the relationship.

A concrete example of SEE Check’s work is the debunking of the 26-minute film “Plandemic,” which went viral online in April and was removed by YouTube in early May. Journalists from Faktograf and Raskrinkavanje.ba worked together to produce a detailed explainer in Croatian about why the film’s claims were baseless. The article was published at the same time on both Faktograf and Raskrinkavanje.ba’s platforms, as well as all SEE Check’s social media channels.

That network also set up the COVID-19 Provjereno (meaning ‘checked’) group on Viber, an instant messaging platform popular in the southeastern Europe region, after realizing that disinformation was spreading primarily via messaging apps. The aim of the group was to debunk false information and to share factual information with as large an audience as possible across all six countries.

All seven SEE Check members post fact-checked articles in the group as well as short videos and memes that counteract dis- and misinformation. So far, almost 5,000 people have joined the group.

On March 22, Zagreb was hit by one of the largest earthquakes in 140 years. At 5.3 magnitude, the earthquake partially damaged Faktograf’s city center offices. At that point, all of its journalists were working remotely from home. But the chances of returning to the office building remains unlikely at this point due to safety. Working remotely proved challenging during lockdown. The team mainly collaborated over email and Signal.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Faktograf?

In the future, SEE Check plans to expand the collaboration among its seven co-founding organizations. For example, the group has applied for grants to create a fact-checking podcast related to the southeastern Europe region. Each podcast episode would be produced by a different newsroom and would be filmed to create versions with English and regional language subtitles.

The pandemic helped the team realize the importance of expanding their efforts to new platforms, such as WhatsApp and Viber. Creating the COVID-19 Provjereno group seemed to help check the flow of mis- and disinformation these mobile platforms although it is difficult to gauge its impact. Nonetheless, the team is examining how it will also set up a similar fact-checking community on WhatsApp.

Following the success of the Viber community, Faktograf also plans to start a newsletter to help build a stronger relationship with its readers. The team wants to show that there is a reason to come back to Faktograf after the pandemic subsides. While there is no membership or crowdfunding planned, they believe the newsletter is the first step to more deeply engaging its audience. There are also plans to redesign the Faktograf website with a responsive design given 78% of Croatians use smartphones to consume news on a weekly basis.

COVID-19 highlighted to the Faktograf team how important it is to expand their network of experts to help answer readers’ questions. For example, for a recent article about the effects of 5G masts, they spoke to medical experts and telephone network specialists to debunk misinformation about the effect of the masts on people’s health. Going forward, this means creating a database of scientists, academics, researchers and others working in public institutions who are amenable to working with the Faktograf team on debunks and other articles.

Media literacy will become a bigger priority for Faktograf in the future as a result of the coronavirus. According to Medijskapismenost.hr — a Croatian media literacy portal set up in 2016 by the Agency for Electronic Media and UNICEF — only 11% of Croatian citizens have the opportunity to learn how to critically evaluate media content. Most of these people are from a young generation (15-30 years old) and tend to be highly educated. One way the team intends to help increase media literacy is by creating shareable memes and videos on social media and messaging platforms to make people aware that what they share has wider societal consequences.

What have they learned so far?

“From COVID-19 to the anti-vax movement, we’ve witnessed how easy disinformation or misinformation is to consume and share. This is not the case with factual information and that’s a big problem. That means there is an even greater need to put out truthful and factual information in large numbers in order to combat this. But this responsibility isn’t solely on fact-checkers or journalists. It has to include not only media literacy — it has to come from the bottom as well as the top. In terms of positive outcomes, we learned we can adapt quickly and create new ways to collaborate across borders and within our team. Our readership skyrocketed during this time of uncertainty. Our hope is to serve these readers beyond COVID-19.”

– Ana Brakus, journalist, Faktograf.hr

Related reading

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.

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