Drinking seawater is bad for you, and other horror stories from the front lines of science fact-checking

October 15, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Get this: One of Maldita’s most-read and most controversial fact checks this summer weighed the merits of drinking seawater.

Maldita.es is a Madrid-based fact-checking platform where I will be embedded as an IFCN fellow for three weeks to study how its fact-checkers build a relationship with readers.

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: Please don’t drink seawater. It’s not good for you.

But why did Maldita decide to do this seawater fact check? Because a few readers asked for it — it’s as simple as that. Maldita.es, especially Maldita Ciencia, is intrinsically focused on answering rumors and questions coming from its online community.

“Maldita Ciencia, which was one of the first (projects) we set up, had to do with the fact that we realized we were receiving a lot of questions and a lot of misinformation around science, health and food,” said Clara Jiménez Cruz, co-founder of Maldita.es. “Because of how science journalism is done (in Spain), we needed a specific journalist on science issues.”

Since it was launched, Maldita Ciencia is up against online communities that believe in pseudoscience. And it ain’t pretty.

“We got a bunch of people responding to us – complaining. ‘Why are you saying drinking seawater is bad? It works well for me!’”

Groups such as La Dulce Revolución (The Sweet Revolution) shared Maldita’s fact check, saying the debunk was part of a bigger conspiracy. People who believe in drinking seawater “like a religion” commented on Maldita’s work with outrage, said Bea Lara, Maldita’s community coordinator.

Blog posts alleged that Maldita was financed by big pharma — the farmafia, as commenters called it.

To be clear, Maldita is financed by grants and individuals’ donations, not advertising. There is no farmafia behind it.

And since Maldita doesn’t need viewers’ clicks to get money, fact-checkers can publish their work directly onto whatever social platform the hoax is spreading. This even allows Maldita to test some formats, like very long headlines.

“We know, as fact-checkers, that many people only read the headline,” Jiménez Cruz said. “So you want all the needed information to be there. If it’s the only thing that people are gonna read, we need to get it all there.”

Hence, the headline about drinking seawater was: No, drinking seawater is not safe and it can dehydrate you.

Maldita’s team spends a couple of hours per day trying new formats like Instagram stories, Whatsapp audio message debunks and TikTok videos to spread its debunks further. Lara mentioned inspiration from The Washington Post’s TikTok account.

A recurring challenge, however, is tracking Maldita’s reach. Because so many of Maldita’s fact checks live in video and social media format, there’s no one tool to efficiently measure likes, reactions, shares, comments, page views, newsletter forwards or, most importantly, encrypted Whatsapp messages where debunks are shared.

“In many cases, the hoaxes are shared in groups in which we can’t get to,” Lara said. “A lot of our (Google Analytics pageview) traffic is ‘direct,’ meaning direct links, and really, many people are seeing our fact checks as a result of links on WhatsApp groups.”

Jiménez Cruz said Maldita has built a conversation tool that collects data on WhatsApp that tracks both traffic to Maldita and the spread of hoaxes. The team hopes to use it to track Maldita’s debunk success, study how hoaxes go viral and decide which hoaxes to fact-check based on the trajectory of the claim.

“Up until now, we were like, ‘We feel that this is going to go viral because we’ve received it a bunch of times throughout the day,’” Jiménez Cruz said. “Now, we’re going to install this tool so we can actually say if it’s been received X number of times in Y period of time; that’s the point at which we’re going to debunk it.”

But Jiménez Cruz said Maldita has yet to define those parameters.

Jiménez Cruz and Lara said they think fact-checkers need to focus in on answering readers’ questions. By doing so, Maldita may be able to widen its audience.

“When we started talking to our community, we realized that there were a lot of issues that we didn’t find ‘journalistically worthwhile’ from our elite position, but that people had questions about,” Jiménez Cruz said. “Questions around health, or migration or how political systems work.”

By answering questions that Maldita at first didn’t find worthwhile, the newsroom cast a wider audience net. Jiménez Cruz said the now larger and more diverse audience started to interact with all Maldita projects: Dato (political fact-checking), Hemeroteca (an “archive” of past political statements and a flip-o-meter-type assessment), Bulo (debunking rumors and hoaxes online), Migración and Feminismo (fact-checking hoaxes about migration and women’s issues).

“The big brand, Maldita.es, has been kind of diluted within the whole conversation,” Jiménez Cruz said. “It depends on the strategy you’re doing. We’re trying to encourage the brand Maldita.es as itself right now, but I don’t think it’s a huge issue.”

Maldita leaders say they are satisfied when readers arrive at their debunks after they’ve seen hoaxes. And if fewer people become sick drinking seawater in the process, that’s a success story.