Crisis in Bolivia: One month of false news and at least 15 dead people

November 21, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Reading social media about the crisis in Bolivia is like diving into a deep and obscure sea of ​​misinformation. It requires time, patience and a lot of attention.

Since Oct. 20, when Bolivia held its election and former president Evo Morales won for the fourth time under suspicion of fraud, street protests in La Paz and other Bolivian cities became more violent and more frequent. So much has happened that the Army arrested at least two members of the Superior Electoral Court.

On Nov.12, in an attempt to calm down his country, Morales sought asylum and took refuge in Mexico. For 48 hours, Bolivia had no one in charge of its executive branch — until Senator Jeanine Añez declared herself the interim president.

If it was not for the work being done by ChequeaBolivia and Bolivia Verifica, two relatively new fact-checking platforms, it would be practically impossible to know — especially from far away — what’s real and what’s not.

After  30-plus days of crisis in this South American nation, fact-checkers are doing their best to filter viral content spread on social media and WhatsApp channels.

Gabriela Weiss is one of the journalists working for ChequeaBolivia. In a brief interview with the IFCN, she said that her routine has changed completely in the last month. Neither she nor her team can get to the newsroom they set up in June to work together.

“In every corner of Cochabamba there is a blockage. Vehicles are not allowed to pass by. And it is usually very dangerous to go out to the streets. So we decided to work from our homes, doing online meetings,” she said.

As the demand for fact checks grew considerably among Bolivians, her group developed a system capable of calculating how viral a piece of content is.

“We first see what our readers are asking for and we make a priority list,” said Weiss. “Then we calculate the viralization rate because we don’t publish a fact check of something that has not been viral. We want to work responsibly.”

Among the list of false news she saw recently, there is a bit of everything, from very serious pieces of fake content, which causes panic and fear, to nonsense hoaxes that can even make fact-checkers laugh.

In the first group, Weiss remembered, there was false information about a Venezuelan military plane that allegedly landed at Viru Viru’s airport to help control protests against Morales.

“It went viral very quickly. In 10 minutes, it reached almost 2,000 shares and it took us a lot of work to rectify it because we didn’t have many sources on aviation,” said Weiss. “We had to contact different pilots and even people who worked at the airport to be sure that there was no Venezuelan plane. Only later, the aviation directory released a notice denying the story.”

Another popular case was the video that showed a military helicopter — supposedly Bolivian — randomly opening fire at some houses. In the first version flagged as false by the fact checkers, the post said that the action was directly related to Morales’ departure. In the second (yes, there was a second hoax with the same video), the image had a CNN logo attached to it, just to make it look more credible.

ChequeaBolivia discovered, however, that in fact the video was recorded in 2017 in Mexico during a military operation carried out against drug traffickers in the city of Tepic.

But fact-checkers spend time on stories that people could easily figure out by themselves. That is the case regarding the false tweet attributed to the American actor Robert De Niro. An image went viral in Bolivia saying that De Niro called Morales “a dictator and a murderer” on Twitter.

CheckBolivia found out, however, that De Niro doesn’t even have a Twitter account. @RobertDeNiroUS, the profile responsible for the tweet, was created by some fans — that is easily discernible on the profile’s description.

It is important to follow Bolivian fact-checkers because they are also fact-checking what the powerful say.

Bolivia Verifica, for example, heard Morales’ interview with BBC Mundo and gave a relevant “false” to the former president.

Morales said that, before his resignation Nov. 11, Bolivia had not registered deaths as a result of the political conflict. According to the Bolivia Documentation and Information Center and the Ombudsman’s Office, however, this is not correct.

The two entities have been counting the number of people killed as a result of the conflict since Oct. 21. Before Morales’s resignation, there have been at least three.

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 ctardaguila@poynter.org.