October 9, 2019

Deja vu is one way of putting it.

Spain is holding national elections Nov. 10, a mere six months after April elections, when President Pedro Sanchez and his center-left party won the most seats in the Parliament but then failed to form a government. This is the fourth national election in four years in Spain.

Deja vu extends to election hoaxes, as well.

“They’re circulating hoaxes from the last election to this election,” said Laura del Río Leopoldo. She’s the coordinator of Maldito Bulo’s, the hoax-debunking arm of Maldita.es, the fact-checking platform where I will be embedded as an IFCN fellow for the next three weeks.

For both the April election and the November election, Maldito Bulo saw (and continues to see) Whatsapp chains about secret pacts between different parties. One example is a false plan among the parties on the left to reduce pensions after the election.

Now Maldito Bulo is checking nearly the exact same claim, but this time, hoaxes say the reduced pensions will come from political parties on the right: Partido Popular, Vox and Ciudadanos.

That is to say, the claims are pure “bulos” or rumors, and completely baseless.

Where are these hoaxes primarily? Very often unchecked on Whatsapp until innovative fact-checkers such as Africa Check, Maldita, Newtral, and Chequeado have swooped in with careful strategies.

What’s different this election? 

“We’re seeing that misinformation is starting sooner,” Del Rio said of the differences between April’s national elections and the upcoming ones.

It has to, some suppose. The official campaigning period for the parties has been shortened from 15 to eight days for this election and will be Nov. 1-8 ahead of voting on Nov. 10.

Maldita has also started producing more true-rated fact-checks. Why?

“To give one politician more true ratings than another, we didn’t know how to explain our choice,” said Julio Montes, co-founder of Maldita.es.

“We only give true ratings when there is controversy. If two politicians are sparring, and one says something is true and another says it’s false, we (as Maldito) want to show what’s true.”

If there isn’t controversy over a true claim, Maldita doesn’t fact-check it.

Nacho Calle is the coordinator of Maldito Dato, the political fact-checking arm of Maldita.es. Calle says Maldita is seeing some parties change their tactics.

“Some campaigns are… providing more generic claims,” Calle said. “We’re seeing fewer declarative statements and the campaigns are using words like ‘almost,’ ‘practically,’ ‘I think,’ making claims harder to check.”

As a response, Maldita hopes to give context to the more vague claims with explanatory pieces closer to the November election.

“As a project, we feel more comfortable (going into this election season),” Montes said. “We’ve got our databases set up, we’ve got points of contact with all the campaigns in order to speak with them quickly about particular claims we want to check.”

Maldita, along with Spanish fact-checker Newtral, live fact-checked April debates for Television Espanola (TVE) on public television. This is on the docket for November debates.

Maldita’s goals for the election remain the same. 

“Above all, we provide political explanations to the citizenry,” Montes said.

The co-founder says any person can change their opinion, because we’re human..

“But if you, in elections, have said something or done something and later you change your opinion, we want the politicians to explain themselves to the voters,” Montes said.

For the next month, Maldita Dato’s goal is to detect the most number of false statements by politicians and fact-check them in time so that Spain can have the cleanest campaign possible.

“We don’t want claims that dirty, we say, political discourse and could negatively influence the electorate,” Calle said.

On Election Day, Maldito Bulo plans to form an emergency team to respond to readers with debunks and answers to their questions about misinformation.

“The emergency team responds directly with our debunks and tries to debunk new possible misinformation,” Del Rio explained.

What does all this mean for fact-checking? 

Fact-checkers are not flying under the radar this election, and the campaigns are well-aware of Maldita and others’ ability to verify or debunk claims.

“The campaigns have discovered our work style and noticed that we use their YouTube videos, and they’re hiding those videos,” Calle said. “They’ve discovered how fact-checkers work, and the campaigns try to make it harder to fact-check the candidates.”

Montes said he worries about the effect of the political rhetoric on the national conversation, and the spread of false or misleading information.

“The past elections were intense, with heavy topics,” Montes said. “There was a ton of disinformation about immigration, feminism. We worry that disinformation will become the focus of the campaign.”

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