Hoaxes related to huge street protests are like forest fires: they are difficult to control and can cause irreversible damages.
That is the toughest lesson fact-checkers from Spain, Ecuador, Chile and Lebanon learned this month.
But from a more optimistic point of view, debunking false news related to big riots can also be an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of fact-checking and to motivate fact-checkers to keep doing their job.
In the past three weeks, newspapers and TV shows around the globe have highlighted how people from at least four different countries took to the streets to protest their governments or another central power, including in four big capitals.
Ecuadorians were the first to protest. Between Oct. 3 and 13, they stopped the country in a national strike that aimed to pressure president Lenin Moreno not to implement the austerity plan he had presented.
In 11 days, the streets of Quito saw many tear gas bombs and cars in flames. Fact-checkers verified, for example, that protesters hadn’t controlled all the water sources in Quito and rated as false the “piece of information” that alerted Ecuadorians to the fact that the city would face a terrible water shortage at any moment.
On Oct. 13, as panic spread, Moreno backed out. He’s now in talks with protesters to find a middle ground for his reforms.
Catalans came next, taking to the streets of Barcelona to criticize the Spanish Supreme Court for having sentenced to jail a group of independence leaders.
From the Catalans’ point of view, the sentences imposed by the court in Madrid were too harsh (they varied from nine to 13 years in prison) and represented a clear attack on the separatist movement — a good reason to go out and protest.
So far, Spanish fact-checkers have flagged as false a post that claimed a 5-year-old boy had died because the protesters didn’t let an ambulance get to him and some hoaxes regarding the relationship between the riots and the stock market performance.
Protests in Catalonia are ongoing, and can even interfere with the presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 10. In that part of the world, fact-checkers haven’t had a break.
Beirut, in Lebanon, and Santiago de Chile recorded almost simultaneous high-intensity street riots last week. Gathered in front of the Parliament, thousands of Lebanese claimed that Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri acted against what they thought was a corrupt political elite.
Amid the protests, a hoax saying the Minister of Interior had resigned circulated fast. The minister himself publicly denied it.
Chileans began complaining about a rise in the subway ticket price a few days ago but suddenly turned against President Sebastián Piñera’s policies in general.
Fake WhatsApp chains and out-of-context videos and photos proliferated, like a false video that “showed” a group of protesters “entering to loot” a hospital.
During crises, the amount of content to be fact-checked grows fast. This means extended work shifts without breaks.
Maldita.es in Spain, Ecuador Chequea in Ecuador, El Polígrafo in Chile and The Maharat Foundation in Beirut, all told the IFCN this week that disinformation has played — and still plays — a fundamental role in the political crises their countries are going through. And all of them said that Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are the main diffusers of false news and do little to combat them.
“We already have many extra hours of work on us and few weekends,” said Clara Jiménez Cruz, co-founder of Maldita.es. “But we know that this is a particularly sensitive moment for Spain and that it is important to continue working. So we continue.”
In the 11 days of the national strike, three journalists of Ecuador Check published 66 verifications. They believed that, right after the end of the protests, the number of false posts would drop. But they were wrong.
“Much of the misinformation that exists now is focused on hindering the dialogue process between the government and the representatives of the indigenous movements,” said Gabriel Narváez, editor of Ecuador Chequea. “Another challenge is to reveal the real figures about the number of dead, wounded and missing people, besides the material effects left by the protests.”
And misinformation takes advantage of opportunities like these to capture clicks.
“What we see here in Chile is that false news migrates from one platform to another,” said Cecilia Derpich, founder of El Polígrafo. “They make a screenshot of what circulates in one network and publish it in the other, multiplying misinformation.“
But let’s not forget that street protests and misinformation related to them also represent a great opportunity.
“What is happening in Barcelona has given fact-checking a new level of exposition. It has made it clear that Maldito Bulo is necessary and that Spain has a misinformation problem,” said Jiménez. “It has also made our team feel more useful because they see that their work is indeed necessary. And, finally, we have also seen journalists who previously questioned the need for a fact-checking platform recognizing our value.”
“During the national strike, we gained more than 1,000 followers on Twitter and more than 1,000 followers on Facebook. Now, on Facebook we reach about 100,000 people,” said Narváez, from Ecuador. “We went from 800 to 1,000 subscribers on our YouTube channel. Our website, which has an average of 4,000 page views every week, achieved about 14,000 for 10 days.”
So much exposure, however, demands an extra level of care. Jiménez, for example, has begun to explain in her fact checks which part of an allegedly false claim or video her team has really checked. By doing so, she wants to keep readers from having any doubt about the rating Maldito Bulo applied in a fact check.
Narváez, on the other hand, has strengthened his methodology to select which piece of false content his team would verify. With a reduced staff, he started to evaluate more frequently two criteria: virality and the importance of the content Ecuador Chequea received. He is proud of having addressed that, too.
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 email@example.com.