10 things I learned from fact-checking Brazil’s toxic election

December 17, 2018
Category: Fact-Checking

It’s been two months since we had general elections in Brazil. Only now is the toxic dust of misinformation seemingly settling down, allowing us to look back at what happened and list 10 lessons from our experience that might be useful to fact-checkers elsewhere in the world.

1. Images and memes are the new black in the misinformation world

False news producers in Brazil have realized that mobile users need good internet connections or a lot of cellphone data to access URLs. Fake images and false memes are easier and cheaper to build and to share. WhatsApp texts fit that criterion too. Get ready for this tsunami.

2. Live fact-checking is hard — but worth it

Political debates on TV are still very popular. Organize your team, your databases, your digital strategy and live fact-check politicians whenever you can. Think about partnering with nongovernmental organizations that are specialized in specific topics such as public security, education and health so you can be faster and more accurate. Consider inviting digital influencers to follow you and live your experience for one day.

3. We do change political speeches

At least three former presidential candidates corrected themselves after Agência Lupa fact-checked them. Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), Henrique Meirelles (MDB) and Guilherme Boulos (PSOL) adjusted numbers they were misusing on TV debates and interviews after receiving negative ratings from our team (we ordered pizza to celebrate the fact that our mission was being accomplished!).

One example is Bolsonaro’s data on custody hearings before and after being fact-checked by Lupa. Others include Boulos’ unsupported data on homeless families before our fact checks and Meirelles’ data on how long it takes to open a company in Brazil before we rated it as exaggerated.

4. We do scare them

This is funny. At least three politicians — Fernando Haddad (PT), Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB) and Kátia Abreu (PDT) — mentioned in interviews they had to be very careful with what they were saying because they knew they were being fact-checked by Agência Lupa and they didn’t want their claims to be tagged as “false” the next day.

5. We could have done more anyway

Election season is extremely busy for fact-checkers. But, even though we left our bodies and souls in our newsrooms, we could have done much more.

Think about all those false news stories we didn’t even have time to debunk. And all those cool formats we didn’t have the opportunity to A/B test on social media? Of course, we did a lot in Brazil. But fact-checkers are still behind, playing catch-up in the war against disinformation.

6. Haters gonna hate — but be prepared

It doesn’t matter what you write or say. There is always going to be a person hating you, your team, your work, your company, your brand and willing to be aggressive with you and even threaten you and those you love. Get ready for political hate.

First, talk about it with your team. Go over tough questions like: Can fact-checkers have public opinions on social media? Create a protocol for you company: Will you answer the haters? How? Then, think: Who are you going to call if you receive a death threat? Please, don’t think this only happens to others. Get ready for different reactions in your staff, if you are the boss. Overall, be human.

7. Be super, ultra, over-transparent about what you do

Have you thought about hiring an ombudsman? At Agência Lupa we turned to Fernanda da Escóssia for 10 weeks and it was quite inspiring. She was responsible for writing two weekly columns — one public and one private — pointing out our mistakes and our hits. Following her criticisms, we made corrections and invested in some stories we weren’t seeing.

8. When journalism and facts are under attack, unite

There should be no competition when journalists and journalism are under massive attack, when freedom of expression is under fire. Media companies should collaborate more to fight misinformation. On Oct. 27 and 28, the last weekend before the election, eight verification platforms in Brazil worked as a team and debunked 50 hoaxes in 48 hours. An amazing experience built in less than six days, with only a shared Google Doc and two WhatsApp groups.

9. Feel the loneliness of the frontlines

Don’t count on powerful people to publicly support fact-checking or fact-checkers during elections if you are in a polarized country. During the campaign, neither large media outlets nor political parties nor election authorities will feel comfortable to embrace you and your work. From August to October 2018, it was very easy to point out Brazilians who were totally against fact-checking (because they didn’t like to face facts) and those who were completely quiet. Cherish the support of your peers inside and outside the country.

10. Platforms could always do more — including talk more

Facebook created a third party fact-checking project and is making improvements. The project could be bigger and more transparent, but it works. Google supports news literacy movements. It could do more — and I hope they will soon. Twitter hasn’t talked much to fact-checkers in Brazil, but is widely used by fact-checkers on live actions, for instance. And it works, too.

Now, what about WhatsApp? During the Brazilian election, they remained distant from fact-checkers even though we tried hard to contact them. In a joint op-ed on The New York Times I asked the company to take three temporary measures in order to slow down the spread of false news. For three months, however, the app was widely used for political disinformation and remained in silence — a silence that hurt.