The Internet in Venezuela comes as fast as it goes. There are no reliable public databases available. And people are getting quite used to days without electricity. But against all odds, a generation of young fact-checkers is flourishing in Caracas.
Espaja.com premiered on the web in the second week of October this year. It is the sixth fact-checking unit to be launched in Venezuela, after Cotejo, Efecto Cocuyo, Observatorio Venezolano de Fake News, Cazadores de Fake News and Observatorio Venezolano de Desinformación.
Espaja.com was born with financial support from the European Union and Transparency Venezuela. It has a team of three journalists and already receives an average of 60 requests from its readers every day. They usually want to know about untrue rumors about operations at military headquarters, false announcements of minimum wage increases and fake stories about pacifiers made with drugs inside.
The group of journalists said they are willing to verify not only pieces of content that go viral on Twitter and WhatsApp chains, but also what is said by members of Nicolás Maduro’s government and by representatives of his opposition.
Last week many Venezuelans wrote to Espaja worried about the “fact” that the Superior Court of Justice (TSJ) had authorized landlords to charge the rent in dollars.
In Venezuela, payments are usually made through bank transfers or by debit cards. In some cases, gold is also accepted. Bolívares are rare. Dollars, very scarce. For this reason, people got anxious about the idea that the Justice had authorized landlords to collect rents in the American currency.
Espaja.com explained the article being shared on social media and WhatsApp channels was misleading. The headline published by Diario 2001 had been poorly chosen. The TSJ had ruled about one specific case, not about the entire country.
Carlos Correa, director at the NGO Espacio Público, said that young Venezuelans do not know what it really means to be well informed. He said that there is an information desert in his country and welcomes the launch of fact-checking units.
“What we need is a long-term project,” Correa said. “People are in much need of quality information.”
For this reason, Espacio Público has just launched a media literacy program based on its own methodology, a five-step process that any citizen can understand.
“We propose a simple citizen fact-check method: stop, doubt, search, think and cooperate,” explained Fatima Arévalo, also from Public Space. “And we have already done four workshops with 42 people explaining how they can do it and it has worked out very well.”
Correa and Arévalo’s idea is that citizens can make their own fact checks because most of the false information circulating on WhatsApp and Twitter is reasonably simple to verify.
Professional fact-checkers would only be responsible for solving the most complicated situations. And there is no doubt Venezuela has many of them.
In May, for the first time after many years and thanks to the pressure of the International Monetary Fund, the Central Bank of Venezuela published data on the country’s economy. Young journalists, however, had never seen their tables and documents before and many didn’t know how to read them.
There were also no historical numbers that allowed comparisons and plenty of doubts about the reliability of that information.
Another challenge that Venezuelan fact-checkers will have to overcome is the shutdowns that can be imposed on their web pages at any time. According to a study conducted by the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad in 2019, there were 880 informative shutdowns in Venezuela and 68% of them came from CANTV, the state’s internet operator.
Angel Alayón, director and founder of ProDavinci, underlines that journalists who are still in Venezuela and who are willing to innovate — as fact-checkers are — must take into account four very specific factors.
“First the habituation factor. We get used to the stimuli. We normalize the chaos. Second, it is important to remember the confirmation bias. People prefer to read what confirms their ideas and beliefs. Third, journalists should remember they should take into account the emotional states of their audiences and know that it is not trivial to publish hard news in a country under a humanitarian emergency. And, finally, remember that poverty and food shortages affect cognitive functions. The body worries only about what is vital to surviving.”
Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez is a fact-checker at Efecto Cocuyo, and said it is good to have more Venezuelans fighting against disinformation and exposing the difficulties they all face to practice journalism amid blockages, persecution and censorship.
Gutierrez said he thinks that fact-checking in Venezuela is still incipient but believes it is even possible to talk about working collaboratively, as has been done in other countries of the continent.
“Any possible elections could be the necessary stimulus for this joint work,” he said.
Read the Spanish version of this article at Univision.
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.