October 13, 2020

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter by and for women in media. Subscribe here to join this community of trailblazers. 

“Did you hear about those people who were arrested in China for misinforming about the new pneumonia?” a researcher asked Cristina Tardáguila in an interview back in January.

“Yeah, I have,” Cris replied.

“Aren’t you going to do anything about it?”

As Cris recounted this conversation to me, she whistled low, showing me how the question landed like a bomb. As associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network, Cris’ mission is twofold: fight global disinformation and foster a community of fact-checkers around the world. After that interview with the researcher, Cris felt called to investigate the mysterious arrests of eight “misinformers” in China, one of whom turned out to be a well-known Chinese doctor who later died of COVID-19.

What she found was rampant misinformation about the illness, and about those arrested for talking publicly about it. As much as the virus itself, misinformation was starting to multiply and mutate as it spread around the world.

Cris quickly mobilized the fact-checking community and launched the CoronavirusFacts Alliance. Since January, 99 fact-checking organizations in 77 countries speaking 43 languages and operating across 16 time zones have published more than 9,000 coronavirus-related fact-checks — almost entirely under Cris’ leadership. Through this collaboration, the alliance charted waves of misinformation as it flooded various regions of the world and worked with tech companies to make the fact-checks accessible to citizens.

Fast forward 10 months and Cris is already overseeing a second never-been-done-before collaboration. The IFCN’s FactChat unites 10 competing fact-checking organizations in the U.S. with the two major Spanish-language broadcast networks to get more verified, accurate election-related information in front of Hispanic voters.

Misinformation is confusing. Disinformation is dark. Cris, and her mastery of Shine Theory, casts a clarifying light.

Here’s how she helps the international fact-checking community prioritize collaboration over competition in the fight against mis- and disinformation. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Cris and IFCN director Baybars Örsek, both center, traveled to multiple Asian countries last fall to teach and establish deeper relationships with fact-checking organizations on the continent, unknowingly building a foundation for the CoronavirusFacts Alliance. They are pictured here with journalists and fact-checkers in Seoul. (Courtesy Cristina Tardáguila/Sara O’Brien)

Mel Grau: As your colleague, one of the main words that comes to mind when I think about you is “translation.” You speak five languages, three fluently. The CoronavirusFacts Alliance translates fact-checks from more than 40 languages. FactChat’s main purpose is to translate English fact-checks about the U.S. election into Spanish, which includes translating well-established fact-check rating scales — the Pinocchios and the Pants-on-Fire — into one common denominator. Tell me about why this is important to you.

Cristina Tardaguila: I honestly believe the IFCN is the house of fact-checkers. We understand each other. We sort of go through the same problems, and face the same issues, and have the same anxieties towards different things. It doesn’t matter if I’m Brazilian, if I’m Taiwanese, or I’m Italian, we speak the same journalistic language. And I feel much, much more understood when I’m talking to fact-checkers than when I’m talking to journalists. We already have a shared language.

Mel: It seems some of the key ingredients to your collaborations are passion and purpose. How did you get called to this work? 

Cris: It’s the fault of the U.S. that I became a journalist! I was 14. I was an exchange student in Illinois. I had some passport issues, and my American family took me to the Brazilian embassy in Chicago. The councilman was so nice, he came out to talk to me. At the time I wanted to be a lawyer, but he said, “No! You speak very well, you should be a journalist!” So that was on my mind. I started observing the people my American family watched: David Letterman, Jay Leno and later Oprah. Though I never wanted to be a TV journalist. I loved to write.

Mel: And how did you get into fact-checking? Because as you say, it’s quite different from reporting and editing.

Cris: I was associate editor in the political section of O Globo, which is the main daily newspaper in Rio, back in 2013. The polarization was already there, and we were trying to figure out what we could do for the next presidential election, which was the following year. I was invited to go to Columbia for a conference, and I met Laura Zommer from Chequeado in Argentina. They were finalists for the Gabriel García Márquez annual journalism prize. I was sitting in an auditorium and Laura was talking and she showed a video of what they had done in Argentina. I’m like, Oh, my God, this is so powerful. The video was two minutes long, it’s really short. But it seemed to me that it was an entire day. I introduced myself to Laura, we spoke a lot, and I remember flying back to Rio with the computer, click-click-clicking, trying to come up with what was going to be the first blog for fact-checking in Brazil. So, me being a fact-checker is the Argentines’ fault!

Mel: In some ways, your first fact-checking collaboration was Agência Lupa, the Portuguese fact-checking wire service you founded in 2015. You worked with a variety of news organizations in Brazil and further popularized fact-checking in your home country. What did you learn that you’ve taken forward into collaborations today?

Cris: I had a lot of luck and courage at first. I pitched one of the richest men in Brazil, João Moreira Salles, over lunch to see if he would fund my idea because we had worked together before at the magazine he owned. He said no, but told me to go study business. I enrolled myself in an MBA program. This is something that I believe is really, really wrong in the media industry today. Our schools do not prepare journalists to be employers, just to be employees. Journalism is not only knowing how to write, knowing how to pitch a good story. No! You really need to know a lot of management.

So then I came back to João a few months later, and he gave me enough money for three years.

Mel: Looking at the CoronavirusFacts Alliance and FactChat, you had already developed relationships with most of these organizations through the International Fact-Checking Network before you established these new partnerships. Beyond speaking the same language of fact-checking, as you said, how do you foster community with such diverse people? 

Cris: I’ve been in the IFCN universe since 2014. I felt like I was somehow in the vanguard of the new journalism. Alexios (Mantzarlis, the founding director of the IFCN), was wonderful.

When Alexios created the Slack channel, the listserv, and all those ways of communicating — as I said, I talk and write a lot — almost everything that people would share in those spaces, I would comment or send something or get involved. I felt like people in my geographical surroundings weren’t participating, weren’t believing enough in fact-checking. So when I had the chance to go to almost all the Global Fact conferences, I found the kind of people that believed in what I believed in. I could describe these people as people that work for love. I don’t care if I stay up 15 hours debunking content. I think it’s SO important. I don’t look at my work as something that just pays my bills. I really, really believe that it can do good.

It’s almost, like, a religious thing. And, when you find other people around you that believe the same, you really want to be with them in community.

Mel: I’m not sure I can think of anything that I’d want to do for 15 hours straight! Except for maybe sleep? Let’s talk about burnout or running on empty. How has community helped you in times of overwhelm? 

Cris: In 2018, the presidential election started and Facebook launched the Third-Party Fact-Checking project in Brazil. And Lupa, being the biggest fact-checking organization participating, got a lot of hate from both sides of the polarized political scene. They all thought we were actually a tool being used by Facebook to impose some kind of censorship.

Out of the 15 people who were on our team, six were receiving serious death threats. And that made me a little crazy. All of a sudden, I was acting as a journalist, administrator, human resources and psychologist. I started adding so many functions to myself. Because people do not teach others how to protect your team. What do you do? Just to give you an example of situations that I faced, we had an intern who was around 18 years old. She had to cross the city of Rio, take two buses to get to work. Her mother called me concerned about whether she should let her come to work. What do you do as a boss? Those ethical questions, mixed with the real threats, mixed with fear … that all made me worry about what could happen.

I talked a lot at the time to (the original IFCN team). They were super helpful. They developed the legal support fund based on the experience that we were having in Brazil. The IFCN wrote articles defending fact-checkers, defending us. I really felt protected, even from a distance.

Mel: Obviously now you help lead the IFCN here at Poynter and have spearheaded global projects on a scale that has really never been done before. What’s the biggest challenge to collaboration with the CoronavirusFacts Alliance?

Cris: The most difficult thing is the lack of data. There are so many times that we really need to say something, but we don’t have the correct answer. People are now sharing hoaxes regarding the vaccine, like it will cause infertility or deformation or that people are going to have a chip implanted so they can be traced. That all SOUNDS crazy, right? But as a fact-checker, you need data. So, if you don’t have any information about the vaccine, how can you say those things aren’t going to be?

Mel: So the biggest problem is related to the nature of the thing you’re fact-checking. Does that lead to conflict within the collaboration and, if so, how do you navigate that?

Cris: Sometimes we had data that pointed in different directions. There was an issue with whether taking ibuprofen was a good idea for coronavirus. As a coordinator, I saw fact-checkers in one country posting that yes, you should take ibuprofen, and fact-checkers in another country saying the opposite. I need to protect the credibility of the whole alliance. So I had to say, “Hey, guys, stop, stop, stop. You, please make sure you use his data. And you, please make sure you use her data.” With this unique perspective, we ended up publishing articles about disputed claims because international authorities are not agreeing.

Mel: The CoronavirusFacts Alliance is an international collaboration. FactChat is a U.S.-based collaboration. How have the experiences been different?

Cris: We understood from the CoronavirusFacts Alliance that the only way to fight the tsunamis of misinformation is working together. We are not going to win the battle, but we have more chances when we work together. That motivated the work with FactChat around the U.S. election.

Also, as a person who comes from Brazil, I know how dangerous WhatsApp can be and what happens when it is used by smart campaigns. I wanted to raise awareness about where misinformation lives. Every time in a meeting I say “misinformation,” Americans are thinking about Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, TikTok. They’re never thinking about WhatsApp. But there are more than 30 million voters in the Hispanic community that are probably using WhatsApp. And just because you’re not using it, doesn’t mean disinformation isn’t there.

Mel: If you could give only one piece of advice to women in media who are initiating change, what would it be?

Cris: People who know me in real life might say that my stubbornness, my constant talking and the fact that I don’t shy away from a fight helps me succeed! But I would say to other women: Nothing can stop you, and you should truly believe that.

For additional insights, community and ongoing conversations about women in digital media, sign up to receive The Cohort in your inbox every other Tuesday.

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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She also edits The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
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