January 31, 2019

“Can we know what is fact-checkable here?” Chequeado editor Matías Di Santi asked developer Mariano Falcón, pointing towards a transcript Falcón had scraped from a Youtube video of a speech by Argentine president Mauricio Macri.

“Yep, that’s the idea,” he replied.

“This is incredible. Do you realize the amount of time you have just saved me? This is the industrial revolution, brother,” Di Santi declared.

Fact-checkers around the world have reason to join his excitement. The technology that can identify fact-checkable statements from that video transcript could soon deliver fact-checkable statements to the rest of us, too.

That’s because Chequeado, a fact-checking organization based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is starting to share Chequeabot’s code with the public on GitHub. As a result, anyone with some programming know-how will be able to use the technology in their newsroom, down to the dashboard that displays statements to fact check during their Monday editorial meetings. The team also plans to share the software with which they scraped closed captions from Youtube videos, facilitating the transcription process.

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Chequeado began its work on automation after the Tech & Check Conference at Duke University in 2016. It kicked into high gear when its editorial innovation director, Pablo Martín Fernández, visited one of its pioneers at Full Fact, a fact-checking organization based out of London, with a fellowship from the International Fact-Checking Network later that year.

I visited Chequeado’s office in Buenos Aires on the same fellowship, with the purpose of learning about the changes automation had brought to its newsroom, as well as what I could bring back to PolitiFact, where I’m a staff writer based out of Washington, D.C. As it turns out, a lot.

Chequeado’s bot is an Argentine creation that could have international implications. Right now, it collects checkable statements from Argentina’s top national and regional media outlets as well as transcripts posted by the Argentine Congress and executive branch. Using machine learning, it recognizes numbers, percentages, keywords and other elements that lend to a statement’s checkability.

It will take some tinkering to make the bot collect statements for media outlets in different languages, but thanks to Chequeado’s public code, no one has to reinvent the wheel, particularly in Latin America, where no Spanish automation tools existed.

Adapting it to another Spanish language organization should be simple, Fernández said. They are working on a Portuguese version. English adaptations won’t be too troublesome, thanks to their extensive collaboration with Full Fact (which has been working on similar technology in the United Kingdom). Chequeado’s continued cooperation with Full Fact makes it so that their efforts will not overlap, either.

“The challenge (fact-checkers face) is so infinitely big and complex that to not share the tools that are useful to us seems silly,” said Laura Zommer, Chequeado’s executive director. “We’re sharing our findings with the best people in the industry, which means that sooner or later their feedback is going to benefit us, too.”

Of the roughly five claims Chequeado chooses to fact check each week, one starts with a suggestion from the bot, Fernández said. The rest come from reader requests and social media platforms, like Facebook or WhatsApp. The top statement the bot suggested the first week of December, when I visited, claimed 99 percent of people shot and killed in Argentina are shot at the hands of civilians. The claim was misleading, according to the fact check Chequeado published next day.

The app has been instrumental to Chequeado’s mission, Zommer said.

First of all, because it saves hours of manpower previously used to scan articles, interviews and speeches for statements that need fact-checking before the verification work even begins. Second, because it picks up phrases that journalists may gloss over because of implicit biases.

“One problem journalists around the world face is that they tend to be more center-left and more educated than most people,” Zommer said. “That makes certain phrases and speakers stand out to us that may not stand out to the rest of our readers.”

By scanning newspapers from all over Argentina, Di Santi said the bot brings to their attention claims from outside the capital they wouldn’t have heard or read otherwise, as the main newspapers and television outlets in Buenos Aires predominantly cover news from Buenos Aires. Chequeabot allows Chequeado to hold to account politicians from all over Argentina and dig into issues with relevance to citizens spread throughout the country.

Chequeabot isn’t the only resource delivering checkable statements to the newsroom at Chequeado. The bulk of the remaining fact-checks originate from readers, WhatsApp and Facebook.

Chequeado Colectivo is an online platform through which readers can suggest fact checks and track the results of their requests: The page displays, in different colors, the status of a suggested check. Green is true, red is false, yellow is a mixture, grey is uncheckable and blue is in the process of being fact-checked. A reader actually suggested the same statement about gun deaths Chequeabot picked up. The verdict? Yellow.

Readers can also send in claims through the messaging app WhatsApp, and expect a reply: Reporters scan their messages every day and respond with whether the claim is checkable. When it is, and they decide to pursue it, they send the petitioner the final fact check. In return, the reporters ask that the reader forward the fact check to whoever originally shared that claim with them.

Gearing up for Argentina’s presidential elections in 2019, Chequeado expects a lot of dubious claims to circulate on Whatsapp, as they did in Brazil. So the innovation team is working with WhatsApp to make it easier to feed into Chequeabot the WhatsApp messages it receives from readers.

Finally, Chequeado has joined dozens of other fact-checking organizations in partnering with Facebook to rate the veracity of stories Facebook users flag as being potentially misleading. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)

On my visit to Buenos Aires, I was surprised to see Chequeado is eager to help even potential competitors by sharing tools like Chequeabot. But facilitating access to information for everyone — including competitors — is central to Chequeado’s mission.

“From the beginning, we knew the limits of fact-checking were clear,” Zommer said. “The objective of Chequeado was designed as a space to improve public debate; not just a journalistic initiative for which producing good content would suffice.”

That’s why Chequeado opens up its fact-checking to the public. During live fact checks of debates and presidential speeches, the journalists invite experts to their newsroom who normally assist journalists over the phone, as well as other journalists and alumni of their fact-checking courses. Collaboration not only makes their journalism more efficient, but more transparent.

This year, Chequeado combined its passion for collaboration and automation to deliver the first-ever automated live fact check. Chequeado paired up with Full Fact to generate a live transcription of the historic Senate debate over the legalization of abortion in Argentina. The newsroom then used Chequeabot to identify checkable statements in the transcript, and got to work in their verification process — saving hours of transcribing and claim-searching.

The combination of all these tools will be integral to fighting misinformation in the 2019 elections in Argentina and giving the public a full set of tools to pick its next president. And thanks to the outward-looking mission of Chequeado, the benefits will not be limited to Argentina.


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