Fact-checking under pressure: How Vera Files has dealt with the Duterte regime

December 17, 2018
Category: Fact-Checking

When Facebook rolled out its third-party fact-checking program in the Philippines on April 12, its initiative to scale up the fight against disinformation quickly ran into a firestorm of protest, including from the government of Rodrigo Duterte.

Controversy erupted as soon as Facebook named Rappler IQ and VERA Files as its third-party fact-checking partners. Diehard Duterte supporters, digital influencers and trolls launched a fresh round of attacks on the two organizations, which by then were no strangers to the stream of invectives, threats and unfounded accusations of political bias, corruption and unpatriotism.

Rappler and VERA Files have been fact-checking on a regular basis since the 2016 presidential election, a year that saw an escalation of disinformation in both traditional and online platforms. In 2017, they qualified as signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles, a selection filter the social media giant adopted for its fact-checking program.

This time, though, their detractors added a new charge against them: partisan censorship. An online petition and an open letter urging Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to cancel the partnership with Rappler and VERA Files — “a mistake,” they said — were initiated. This was accompanied by a call to boycott Facebook and move to its Russian counterpart, VK, which did not quite prosper.

The government then stepped into the picture. Through the presidential spokesperson and the Presidential Communications and Operations Office, it protested what it described as Facebook’s “unacceptable” partnership with Rappler and VERA Files, and demanded a meeting with Facebook executives over their choice of “partisan” and “anti-administration” fact-checkers.

This government’s opposition to fact-checkers should come as no surprise. Rappler and VERA Files are news organizations that also undertake investigative reporting, a journalism genre guaranteed to get on the bad side of a government that is openly hostile to journalists. The two are members of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. As fact-checkers, Rappler and VERA Files not only verify online disinformation; they also engage in more contentious political fact-checking.

At the height of the controversy over the Facebook partnership, a government official cited Rappler’s report on the problematic acquisition of two warships for the Philippine Navy and VERA Files’ analysis of Duterte and his daughter’s bank accounts as examples that the two newsrooms were partisan and anti-Duterte.

“Investigating reporting coupled with fact-checking is like a double whammy,” said Gemma B. Mendoza, who leads Rappler’s fact-checking initiative. “I’m not saying it’s bad, but that’s why we became more of a target (of attacks).”

Since becoming president, Duterte has threatened a number of newsrooms and journalists, including Rappler, which he branded a “fake news outlet” early this year. When Facebook announced its Filipino partners, Rappler was contesting in court a government order canceling its corporate license arising from the sale of depositary receipts to the Omidyar Network foundation. Rappler was recently charged with tax evasion over the transaction.

Like American President Donald Trump, Duterte is known for skewing the facts, especially in defense of his brutal war on drugs. The president is VERA Files’ most fact-checked public figure, accounting for 55 percent of its fact checks since his election. False or misleading statements from his spokespersons (he has had three since becoming president) and of officials and the news agencies of the Presidential Communications and Operations Office have also become staple fare in VERA Files Fact Check.

The Philippine government’s protest prompted Facebook to reassure it that more fact-checkers would be considered as partners when they earn the IFCN badge (Agence France-Presse became Facebook’s third partner in the Philippines weeks later). The tech company updated its press release on the partnership in the Philippines to include this reassurance and to also explain how fact-checking operates on its platform amid misperceptions that third-party fact-checkers can take down or recommend the deletion of Facebook pages. Facebook also supported the visit to Manila of IFCN director Alexios Mantzarlis to meet with Filipino public officials, journalists and academics.  

As for Rappler’s and VERA Files’ response, on the very day government officials issued statements against them, Rappler released a lengthy editor’s note and VERA Files sent newsrooms a terse text message declaring their independence, neutrality and transparency as fact-checkers, citing how they passed IFCN’s rigorous scrutiny. A couple of days later, VERA Files published a fact sheet on how the partnership with Facebook works.

Instead of picking a fight with the government, both organizations decided to step up their efforts to explain and advocate for fact-checking to different sectors, including with media, schools, civil society organizations and local communities. They discuss their methodology in detail, enough to get people started on fact-checking. Even before it partnered with Facebook, VERA Files had already developed and uploaded to its website a do-it-yourself guide to fact-checking.

Greater awareness and understanding of fact-checking appear to be on the rise. Comments about fact checks are a good gauge. Negative reactions get countered by positive ones, including those coming in the defense of fact checkers.  

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte's evolving stance on 'endo'

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Candidate Rodrigo Duterte, when asked during the final round of presidential debate in Pangasinan April 2016 how he would address “endo” (end of contract), the practice of labor contractualization in the private sector, vowed to end it the moment he takes office.Two years after, the promise remains a promise.#verafilesfactcheck #factcheckph #verafiedph

Posted by Vera Files on Monday, April 30, 2018

Rappler and VERA Files, however, approach the most virulent criticism differently. VERA Files believes in the social media dictum of not feeding the trolls. Rappler engages when it feels the need, its position being “never to let broad lies go unchallenged,” Mendoza said.

While the dream is to see more Filipinos take up fact-checking, the reality is fact-checking has its share of risks. Being an online publisher can invite more than just trolling and lawsuits.  

There are many other risks journalists are only too familiar with.

The Philippines remains one of Asia’s deadliest places for journalists. A total of 164 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since democracy was restored in 1986. Since Duterte came to power, 12 work-related killings have been recorded. The Philippines tops the world’s list of unsolved murder cases involving journalists. Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index for the Philippines has fallen six notches to 133 out of 180 countries.

Because of these, a slew of measures has been in place for years to aid Filipino journalists under fire — local and international mechanisms to monitor and document the attacks, human rights lawyers who lend their support and services, a legal fund created in 2003, physical and digital security training, and alliances with international networks of press freedom advocates. Rappler, VERA Files and other newsrooms are familiar with these.

But many of these protection measures are beyond the reach of fact-checkers, especially non-journalists. It’s time something is done about that.