What it’s like to fact-check a Mexican presidential debate

June 14, 2018
Category: Fact-Checking

MEXICO CITY — Whenever Ricardo Anaya Cortés speaks, a cacophony of keyboard clicks begins, drowning out the pounding rain outside. My laptop lights up with the frenetic flash of Google Doc cursors, hovering and jumping between sentences and links.

All eyes are on the flat-screen TV hanging from the ceiling — except for those writing down Anaya’s statements. When Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes a turn, the same thing happens at the other end of the table. And again, and again.

It all unfolded at a co-working space in the Condesa neighborhood on Tuesday night, where more than 60 journalists, open government advocates and academics gathered to fact-check the final presidential debate ahead of the Mexican election. From around 8:30 p.m. to the wee hours of Wednesday, fact-checkers transcribed claims, trawled the internet for primary sources and finalized fact checks to contextualize what each presidential candidate had said on live TV.

The third and final debate, which focused on questions from social media users, was the last time Mexican citizens will see all four presidential candidates go head-to-head before the July 1 vote.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the frontrunner and long-time presidential hopeful from left-leaning Morena Party, displayed a cool confidence while claiming that the world will experience 4 percent economic growth this year (“Questionable.”) Second-place in the polls, Ricardo Anaya of the National Action Party delivered a succinct point on how 30 percent of Mexicans do not have access to smartphones and the internet (“True.”)

“Compared with the second debate, I think that now we have more to fact-check,” Tania Montalvo, editor of Animal Poítico, told Poynter at the gathering. “I don’t know if we will publish everything, but we have many, many things to fact-check now.”

The final debate caps an important period in Mexico’s general election, after which a new president, 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies, 128 members of the Senate and local officials in 30 of 32 states will take power. It’s being called the biggest election in Mexican history — with a fact-checking coalition to match.

Tuesday’s effort was the latest showing from Verificado 2018, a collaborative fact-checking initiative that has united 60 publishers, universities and civil society organizations in 28 of Mexico’s 32 states to tackle fake news and false political claims going into the election. Launched in early March, the project pools the resources of media outlets like Animal Político, AJ+ Español and Newsweek Español, cross-posting articles from participating outlets on the project’s site, as well as its own Twitter and Facebook pages.

Verificado was inspired by a similar project that cropped up during the massive earthquake in September. It’s similar to what CrossCheck and Electionland during the most recent French and American presidential elections.

“I think Verificado has been quite effective in verifying the political discourse,” Sergio Blanco, head of the journalism program at Ibero-American University, told Poynter in a message. “As far as I know it has been the first time in Mexico when a group of fact-checkers have been verifying names, numbers, dates and sentences in political discourse. They have been sending every day the results of their research to mailing lists and to many media.”

During the debate, participants were broken up into three separate teams of about 20 people based on the topics discussed during the debate: education, science and technology; economic development, poverty and inequality; and sustainable development, health and climate change. Poynter attended the event and helped fact-check claims for the first team.

Each team was further subdivided by politician, with my group focusing on Anaya. As soon as he started speaking, we began transcribing his statements in a shared Google Doc, which we whittled down to the most promising verifiable claims throughout the debate. Once the segment on education, science and technology was over, we left the main fact-checking room to discuss which claims to fact-check.

Verificado 2018 fact-checkers
Fact-checkers from Verificado 2018's education, science and technology team meet during the third and final Mexican presdiential debate to decide which claims to verify on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Mexico City. (Photo/Daniel Funke)

At the helm was Gabriela Gutiérrez, a coordinator for Verificado. She fielded back-and-forths between different team members over which claims were the most worthy of verification. I offered up some United States census data to back up one of Anaya’s claims about the Mexican population in the country. That claim — along with three others — were greenlit for verification.

Then, long after the debate wrapped around 11 p.m., fact-checkers worked in groups of three or four to verify each claim. Using Google Docs, we collaborated to find data and write background information about each one. Finally, those fact checks were edited by Gutiérrez and Montalvo, making their way into large roundups — several of which were live as of publication.

That’s more than fact-checkers were able to cover during the second debate, during which candidates mainly espoused opinions on racial issues. Compared to the first debate, which centered on security issues (for which Montalvo said there is plenty of public data to draw from for fact checks), the night was a relatively light lift for Verificado — but not because there was a lack of claims to check.

“This one actually, I felt, was not as stressful as the other ones, probably because the first one was our first experience working with other journalists,” said Yuriria Ávila, a reporter for Verificado who worked at Poynter’s table during debate night. “It’s actually easier than doing fact-checking every day because we try to use common sense, and then if we have a question we contact someone who might help us. But here the experts are right there and they know it before we try to solve it.”

Verificado 2018 fact-checkers
The education, science and technology team of Verificado 2018 fact-checks statements during the third and final Mexican presidential debate on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Mexico City. (Photo/Daniel Funke)

In total, Montalvo said about 40 claims were chosen for verification on Tuesday — 13 more than from the first debate. Most will appear on Verificado’s website by the end of the week.

“We know that all this week will be about the debate — we will find other claims,” she said. “For the 40 claims that we have now, we know it will be almost impossible to fact-check everything tonight. So the rest of the week we’ll have that.”

“The next week, we’ll focus on the fake news about the debate — that’s very common — until the election day.”

And so far, Verificado’s audience has responded in droves.

Jorge Ramis, the growth editor at Animal Político, told Poynter in a message that Verificado had more than 2.5 million Twitter impressions around the third debate and a reach of 1.2 million on Facebook. One fact check alone racked up thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter and Facebook, and that kind of buzz has translated into more than 250,000 pageviews this week.

“(The) post-debate days have had our highest pageview numbers,” Ramis said. “I believe it is very possible that the third debate will be our most-visited day.”

Verificado’s debate coverage paints a more traditional picture of fact-checking than its original intention let on. What started as a collaboration to debunk fake news going into the Mexican election has transformed into more of a political fact-checking engine in the final weeks of the campaign, Montalvo said.

“At the beginning of Verificado, we focused on fake news because we have a lot of fake news,” she said. “After the first debate, people started asking for more and more fact-checking. I think that things are changing because the election — the polls — are saying that Andrés Manuel is 20 points (ahead of) the others, so people are asking a lot to fact-check Andrés Manuel and debunk some fake news about him.”

Verificado has monitored that shift over the past few weeks by using resources like Facebook’s fact-checking program. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition to be a partner.) The tool — which Animal Político gained access to in mid-March — allows fact-checking projects to find and debunk stories that users have flagged as potentially false, decreasing their reach in the News Feed.

Montalvo said the tool has been helpful for monitoring misinformation Verificado might not have seen before. But at the same time, she previously told Poynter that it’s useless when it comes to addressing fake images and memes that have attracted widespread attention because Animal Político hasn’t been granted access to the feature, which was announced in February.

That limitation is coupled with the challenge of fact-checking on WhatsApp, which Montalvo said is now the main source of misinformation about the election. The platform is like a black box where no one can see what’s going viral, and Verificado has been soliciting potential hoaxes from readers in order to distribute debunks in kind.

“We find some fake news that we don’t see on other social media,” Montalvo said. “That fake news is more violent, the lies are much bigger, but not exactly absurd.”

The media coverage of Verificado has been mostly positive, but it does have some limitations.

In contrast to the journalists fact-checking political statements and fake news, some of the organizations and people doing background work — such as the co-founder of Data Cívica, a non-govermental technology organization — are explicitly partisan. While at a glance disconcerting for an independent fact-checking project, Montalvo said that the think tanks and nonprofits involved often serve mostly as sources for the journalists and fact-checkers.

“For the think tanks, it’s easier to be part of the debates — it’s what they’re doing at the time. They help us when we look for them for sourcing,” she said.

In terms of distribution, there’s also the question of whether or not Verificado is reaching the people who need its content most. Gabriela Castillo, a lawyer for Article 19 — a press and free expression advocacy nonprofit — said that a broad swath of Mexicans don’t have access to smartphones or the internet, making it hard for them to access Verificado’s fact checks.

“When we talk about fake news on the internet, we lose view of these people,” she told Poynter at Article 19’s office in Condesa. “There are a lot of people who live in this poverty.”

In less than three weeks, millions of Mexicans who are registered to vote will decide their country’s political future. Invariably, a broad swath of those voters will have never heard of or read an article published by Verificado.

But at least it’s trying.

“There are a lot of false accounts in social networks, and it’s a big election and a big country,” said Alejandro Cárdenas López, who coordinates Ibero-American University’s participation in Verificado, in an email to Poynter. “They can’t cover all, but they are doing a great effort.”