March 13, 2018

A new verification project in Mexico is uniting 60 publishers, universities and civil society organizations to tackle fake news going into this summer’s election.

The collaborative project, launched Monday and titled Verificado 2018, is drawing on media outlets like Animal Político and AJ+ Español to find and debunk hoaxes on social media ahead of the July 1 presidential contest. By borrowing from initiatives like CrossCheck and Electionland, Verificado 2018 hopes to get ahead of a phenomenon that has marred elections around the world.

“This is the first time that so many media work together in Mexico. There is no record of something similar,” said Animal Político editor Tania Montalvo in an email to Poynter. “This could be a catalyst for more collaboration among media.”

The name of the project was inspired by Verificado 19S, a crowdsourced effort to map available resources in Mexico City following a massive earthquake in September. That project drew upon 250 volunteers and several media and nongovernmental organizations to help verify information and debunk hoaxes in real time.

In a similar vein, Verificado 2018 will combine the efforts of news organizations to address election fakery.

“#Verificado19S was the response by these young people to the proliferation of false information, which only served to confuse, create fear, or divert the help that was needed,” a Monday press release sent to Poynter reads. “The conditions for an election are different, but false information has a similar impact as during a tremor: confusion, paralysis, fear. It seeks, in one sense, to undermine the freedom of the citizen to decide who to vote for. Confirmed, rigorous, precise information is key for this freedom of decision.”

While misinformation in Mexico is still relatively underdeveloped compared to other countries, it’s become a growing problem over the past electoral season. María Elena Meneses, a media and internet researcher at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, told Poynter in an email that she’s mainly noticed hyperpartisan and fake news pages on Facebook.

“From those Facebook sites I have observed the anti-(left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel) Lopez Obrador majority,” she said. “This ‘news’ follows the same pattern as in U.S. or France — it is likely right-wing propaganda.

And not all of it is published by citizens or other third-party actors.

In November, Expansion, a Spanish-language news magazine, published a story about how Mexican campaigns are increasingly using misinformation as a political tactic during elections. Meneses said that, from her observations on Facebook — which has about 50 million users in Mexico — she’s found that trend to rein true.

“Mexican candidates know that they have a weapon in the misinformation, and their strategists are using the social networks (Facebook mainly) for these purposes, which is unfortunate,” she said. “Are they going to stop manufacturing fake news and radical sites? I really don’t think so.”

Although the National Election Institute, an autonomous organization that organizes Mexico’s federal elections, is partnering with Facebook to identify fake news during the campaign and dilute it with factual information, Meneses said the agreement is flimsy at best. It doesn’t include collaboration with the media or any mechanism by which citizens can be notified if they’ve seen or shared fake news, she said.

“It seems to me that the electoral authority does not understand much about algorithms or how social networks work and the transnational phenomenon that it constitutes. They don’t know what to do,” she said.

In order to create a methodology to combat fake news, Pop-Up Newsroom — a journalism collaboration project of Meedan and Dig Deeper Media — held a workshop in Mexico City last week where representatives from participating media outlets and technology companies met to discuss Verificado 2018. Tom Trewinnard, director of business development at Meedan — a software company that runs the Check fact-checking workflow, which will be used in the project — told Poynter in an email that several key areas of collaboration presented themselves there.

“We went through a series of exercises to define all the possible ‘sources’ that might be relevant for the project, and looked at different ways of grouping them,” he said. “It became clear that we’d need different shared processes for fact-checking claims, verifying images, checking WhatsApp threads and investigating fabricated content sites — and those processes themselves were designed with the journalists participating in the workshop.”

For the three planned presidential debates, a team of journalists and policy experts will review the numbers and proposals of candidates to determine what’s fact and fiction. Verificado 2018 will also have its own editorial team, which will focus full time on monitoring social media networks for trending false information while also fact-checking statements from politicians. Articles will be cross-posted by participating outlets published on the project’s site, as well as its own Twitter and Facebook pages.

Verificado 2018’s methodology also makes a significant investment in crowdsourcng. Montalvo said that, since it will be difficult to detect every election-related viral hoax or fake news story, the project will solicit submissions from readers, partially through an institutional WhatsApp account — a platform where finding and addressing fake news is quite difficult.

“The main point of concern is that we’ll have a lot of fake news during the next few months, as part of the strategy from the political parties and candidates, using all kind of platforms,” she said. “If we all work together, media, organizations, and universities, the audience reached could be massive. So the main objective is to be together in the broadcasting of the debunked information.”

Originally a concept of Animal Político, AJ+ Español, Pop-Up Newsroom and Newsweek Español, Verificado 2018 will include several other big-name media organizations, such as Univision, BuzzFeed News and El Universal. Software companies like Slack are also lending their support.

Other key collaborators include big tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google.

"Combatting disinformation needs all of us: technology companies, media, educational institutions, and our own community,” said Luis de Uriarte, manager of strategic alliances for Facebook in Mexico, in the release. “For this reason we're happy to join Verificado, an initiative supported by prestigious media and organizations who seek to improve information quality.”

According to the release, Facebook will give participating news organizations the ability to see the most-shared stories from Mexican accounts in order to detect potential fake news. Poynter reached out to Facebook for further comment — including on whether or not it’s helping pay for the project — but had not heard back as of publication.

At the same time, Google will highlight Verificado 2018 stories in search results with the same label it applies to fact-checking organizations and Twitter will surface debunks and verified information from the account higher up in the timeline.

Poynter reached out to Twitter for comment and a spokesperson sent a February blog post about how voters have used the platform leading up to the election. While it doesn’t mention anything about surfacing verified content higher, it does reference partnerships with Mexican institutions.

“Twitter also maintains an open dialogue with the political parties, civil society, institutions and electoral authorities of the country to maintain the platform as a free and safe space where dialogue and the freedom of expression of its users prevail,” it reads.

Beyond tech companies, Verificado 2018 is deriving financial support from organizations like Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, as well as foundations such as Open Society and Oxfam. If successful, the entire operation could be a model for future collaborative projects across Mexico.

“It is an unprecedented agreement in the history of the country,” Meneses said. “In Mexico, collaboration between media is not part of the journalism culture. But such is the danger of disinformation that, today, 60 media join — which was unimaginable (before).”

Correction: A previous version of this story identified the wrong Pop-Up Newsroom in the 14th paragraph. The one that held last week's workshop in Mexico City is a project of Meedan and DigDeeper Media, not the California State University-Northridge Journalism Department, as previously reported.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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