May 22, 2019

Election verification projects are very in right now.

Last summer, 24 newsrooms in Brazil joined forces to fact-check misinformation about fall’s presidential election. In November, First Draft expanded its CrossCheck project to Nigeria, where 16 news outlets worked together to fact-check the election. In March, 19 fact-checkers teamed up to debunk falsehoods about this month’s parliamentary elections in the European Union — followed closely by Comprobado, a project to fact-check last-minute elections in Spain.

So far, 2019 has been the year of collaborative fact-checking. And now a new project in Argentina has set the bar even higher.

Last week, more than 80 media outlets and technology companies united to form Reverso (“reverse,” in Spanish). The collaborative fact-checking initiative will debunk misinformation leading up to Argentina’s general election in October.

“One of the most interesting things is that we have many different media in terms of size but also in terms of ideology,” said Laura Zommer, executive director of Chequeado, a Buenos Aires-based fact-checking site that’s backing the project. “That’s special, I think.”

The Agence France-Presse, Pop-Up Newsroom and First Draft are also helping to coordinate Reverso, which will publish fact checks on a dedicated website between June and December. Fact-checkers from partner newsrooms will weed through potentially false claims in speeches and social media posts and then publish their work on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp.

In addition to publishing fact checks, the project will host 12 verification training sessions in 11 Argentine provinces over the next two months. The goal: consolidate, improve and amplify fact-checking in South America’s third largest democracy.

“(Chequeado is) not going to ever have the possibility of working in all the country. We need a new model, perhaps working in partnerships with the media,” Zommer told Poynter via phone from a workshop in Posadas, a city in northeast Argentina. “I’m not sure we’re going to stop misinformation, but at least I don’t feel so poor in terms of what the challenge is.”

Behind the scenes of Europe’s biggest fact-checking collaboration

Zommer said that to create the initiative, she and her team picked the best parts of other projects and then incorporated them in Reverso.

They want their fact checks to be viral like Verificado, an election verification project in Mexico last summer. Like Comprova in Brazil, they want to shed light on misinformation circulating on WhatsApp. And they want to have the capacity-building chops of CrossCheck in France.

With more than 80 organizations involved, Reverso is by far the largest collaborative fact-checking project launched in the past few years. When First Draft introduced CrossCheck — the first initiative of its kind — in 2017, it brought together 37 newsrooms to help cover the French election.

“It is worth acknowledging the increasing number of organizations who are willing and open to joining an initiative of this scale,” said Jenni Sargent, managing director of First Draft, in an email. “Since we first tested this method with CrossCheck France in 2017, we have repeatedly seen the value of taking a ‘strength in numbers’ approach and the most obvious gain, particularly around elections, is that the voting public are able to access quality information from the sources that they already turn to for news.”

The newsrooms involved with Reverso include BBC Mundo, Clarín (the largest newspaper in Argentina) and La Nación. The benefits of having so many newsrooms on board are myriad and somewhat obvious: more fact-checkers, less duplication of effort and a wider reach, Sargent said.

But it also poses a challenge.

“We’re not used to working with so many people,” Zommer said. “At least these eight years in Chequeado, we have a small team — really professional and specialized — and we take care of all the details. And then obviously the challenge is how we come and maintain that level of precision.”

To maintain the quality of fact checks, especially among media outlets that haven’t previously dabbled with the format, Reverso is implementing a two-tiered partnership system: producers and diffusers. The former will take an active role in the fact-checking process, helping Chequeado produce original content, while the latter will simply redistribute fact checks created by producers.

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

Zommer said she expects about 30-35 media partners to be producers. And aside from sheer volume, more fact-checkers means more perspectives.

For all of our projects to date, we have witnessed what feels like the most important, and yet under-reported, benefit of these collaborations, which is shared responsibility and accountability between partners regarding what should be reported, and how those reports should be presented,” Sargent said.

That process is just one of the components of Reverso that makes it unique among collaborative verification projects. Zommer said the initiative will include elements of Chequeado’s automated fact-checking tools, which automatically send writers potential claims to check, as well as elements of offline promotion, such as celebrity endorsements.

In addition to the newsroom partners, Reverso is receiving assistance from tech companies like Facebook, Google and WhatsApp.

Zommer said those three companies are giving the three coordinating organizations behind Reverso $80,000. Luminate, an initiative of the Omidyar Network, is also lending some financial support.

Google will train journalists on how to use tools like trends, advanced search and reverse image search. Facebook will take the project’s fact checks and use them to reduce the reach of false posts in the News Feed. And WhatsApp is giving Reverso access to its Business API, which lets users field misinformation tips on multiple devices instead of a single phone.

For Comprova in Brazil, the last tool was essential for debunking misinformation at scale.

Since WhatsApp is encrypted, the only way fact-checkers can find hoaxes and distribute their debunks is by asking users to send in potential rumors and then forward resulting fact checks to their groups. Having multiple fact-checkers manning that tip line was key for Comprova, which was the first project to experiment with the WhatsApp Business API, to catch potentially far-reaching rumors.

“There is no way the Comprova team could have addressed the almost 70,000 tickets on a single phone, so the WhatsApp API was critical to the ambitions of the project, which was to inform the Brazilian electorate,” Aimee Rinehart, partnerships and development director at First Draft, wrote on Medium in November.

Trying to quell the tide of misinformation on social platforms is an obvious goal for Reverso. But when asked what her ideal outcome for the project would be, Zommer was quick to give a more lofty answer.

“The thousands of people know more about this (misinformation) phenomenon and build more awareness,” she said. “Perhaps the voters get more info — not necessarily about a piece, but about what this mess is and what this problem is and how they are involved in it, perhaps without knowing.”

Disclosure: Being a signatory of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network code of principles is a necessary condition for joining Facebook’s fact-checking project.

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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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