In Spain, Maldito Bulo’s mission is clear: to answer reader questions.
So when they sent in a graphic video that showed the frozen corpse of a boy in an ice box with a caption that referenced Chinese organ transplant crimes, staffers knew they had to get to the truth.
But no one spoke or read Mandarin.
It was time to call upon the superpoderes, a database of readers with unique expertise who are committed to swooping in and helping Maldito Bulo save the world — at least from false information.
During two weeks of my fellowship, I watched reporters seek the help of the superpoderes system more than a dozen times. Twelve expert volunteers emerged in just those two weeks, once in as little as 7 minutes. (I tracked the superpoderes with the help of the Maldita newsroom here.)
About a year ago, Maldita.es began collecting volunteer superpoderes, translated to English to mean readers with superpowers, by asking its audience to fill out a personal profile about themselves and their areas of expertise. On its member site, Maldita says: “Help us debunk rumors with your superpowers: Among the malditas and malditos there is so much vital and necessary knowledge for debunking.”
The result is a database of 425 people with varying skill sets.
This ground-breaking approach to crowdsourcing is adaptable to other fact-checking outlets the world over. Here’s how they did it.
The superpoderes get their start
Clara Jiménez Cruz, Maldita.es co-founder, said the concept crystallized in September 2018.
“If you can crowdsource your community and see if there’s anyone who’s a political expert, who’s a new voice, that has a different expertise than what you’re getting every day, maybe we can tell new stories in a different way,” Jiménez Cruz said. “We get everything from doctors to teachers to experts in development to people who speak different languages to a nun who could help us understand religious matters.”
They use a customer relationship management tool to organize volunteers by superpowers. It’s the same system that manages reader emails, subscriptions and donations.
Maldita lead programmer David Fernandez said it has taken diligence and development to maintain the system and keep it serviceable for use within the newsroom.
“Every week, we’re looking at ways to develop the product,” he said.
For example, reporters were looking for ways to search for superpoder skill sets, but the customer relationship management (CRM) didn’t effectively surface, for example, “Mandarin translation.” Fernandez added an internal tag system that allows Maldita’s team (usually Maldita community coordinator Bea Lara) to review superpoder profiles and add more searchable tags.
All collaborations of Maldita with the superpoderes are then stored in the CRM and are searchable by email, date or department.
“For me, it’s another way to understand journalism,” Lara said. “Of course, practicing journalists have formal training and education in how to vet experts and find resources. But giving the opportunity to readers to participate enriches the process.”
By directly involving readers in the fact-checking process, the superpoderes program closes the gap between readers and journalism. Maldita.es tells all their superpoderes to go forth and spread the gospel of debunking and fact-checking — something the organization calls a larger “embajadores” (ambassadors) efforts among their readership.
The system in action
Fact-checking the context behind a boy frozen in a box meant first finding out more about the video before hitting up the database.
It’s a moment that debunkers know well: a possibly out-of-context clip from a foreign culture with a grim connotation. Before reaching out for help, reporter Yuly Jara wanted to find the origin of the video.
“We reverse google image searched the images, and another Spanish publication had published something similar (about organ harvesting),” Jara told me during my last week as an IFCN fellow with Maldita.
Because fact-checkers work in primary documents, and the scene in the video is from Guangzhou province, China, Jara eventually found the first news report on the video in Mandarin language. While Google translate sometimes works, Jara felt that she needed more context.
Jara emailed a Mandarin-speaking superpoder who called himself Alejandro B.M. On Whatsapp, Alejandro chatted back and forth with Jara, sending screenshots and voice recordings. Together, they began trying to break down the facts behind the video.
Maldito Bulo’s work found that this was a real image of a boy who had tragically drowned at his uncle’s house 300 kilometers away from home. His body had been transferred back to his family in a box with ice to preserve his corpse for burial.
Jara said Alejandro helped not only with translation, but also understanding the trustworthiness of the news source, and more about the media landscape in China.
“It’s really exciting to work with someone who knows (a culture) and can help debunk hoaxes that have a language barrier,” Jara said.
Here’s the side-by-side comparison that Alejandro provided in his Whatsapp messages with Jara:
Snopes had a debunk on the organ trafficking claim as well, and found no criminal activity associated with the event.
Between their own research, other sources and help from Alejandro, Maldita.es was able to publish a fact-check with more context to the video.
Other uses of the database
Maldita Bulo coordinator Laura Del Río recently edited a fact-check about Barcelona protests in which the newsroom called on a superpoder to see whether police were using materials to stoke a street fire. Superpoder Xabier García Casas, who listed a degree in physical engineering, confirmed that the metal materials the police officer moved toward the fire in the video couldn’t further stoke the flames — it was simply a way to clear the road for a car to pass, not a subversive action.
“We had, immediately, a person that knew about this,” Del Río said. “We didn’t have to go looking at universities or institutes; we could start writing right away and we didn’t waste time seeking an expert.”
Later, the reporter sought other experts on the event.
Del Río said the superpoderes feel as if they’re contributing to a project that’s important and combating disinformation.
“It makes it possible that we have a larger quantity of experts that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Del Río said.
The first official use of a superpoder from the database was June 26, 2019, when the group needed an expert in ophthalmology. That same month Del Río contacted a fluent Russian speaker for help clarifying certain aspects of the mysterious and completely false charge that a local man was attacked by a bear.
What’s next for the superpoderes program?
While Maldita is dedicated to transparency of sources as an IFCN signatory, sometimes experts from the superpoderes database aren’t fully identified.
In the case of Jara’s check about the frozen body in China, the superpoder who helped with translation and cultural context wanted only to be referred to as Alejandro B.M.
Del Río said another limitation is when a superpoder doesn’t respond immediately to an interview request from a reporter. In her experience, they’ve usually responded right away.
“But (a delayed response) is something that could happen with any expert or government agency or official source,” Del Río said.
There isn’t a concrete way to identify perfect translations or expert knowledge. The Maldita team always cross-references what they receive from superpoderes, but in the case of a cultural explanation, there is a certain amount of trust the reporter is placing in a superpoder, just as a fact-checker would with any expert.
“To publish as a media outlet, it’s necessary to vet the credibility and experience of the experts consulted or quoted,” said Montserrat Domínguez Montolí, associate director of El País, one of the most prominent newspapers in Spain. “In (the Barcelona fire materials fact-check), Maldita also went to a professor and the police, which is the right thing to do.”
Domínguez Montolí said the superpoderes program is a great idea to reinforce community while at the same time creating a network of experts.
“With the speed of social media, this is a fabulous tool to help focus information,” Domínguez Montolí said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of reporter Yuly Jara’s name. We regret the error.
Josie Hollingsworth is PolitiFact’s audience engagement editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.