Overwhelmed by a local election, Norwegian fact-checkers found time to debunk international whale hunting hoaxes. Why?

September 5, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

“Fishes and whales are always on the Norwegian agenda.” It doesn’t matter if fact-checkers are overwhelmed by a local election or not.

This surprising reaction came from Faktisk’s editor Kristoffer Egeberg on Wednesday when the International Fact-Checking Network asked how his team had found the time (and the patience) to collaborate with other fact-checkers — about whale hunting, not politics — in the last weeks while also covering a huge local campaign.

In August, fact-checker Tore Bergsaker was given a task. An accusation made by one candidate against the other was trending on Norwegian social media and needed to be verified.

“One politician was saying the other would shut down all FM radios if he was elected,” Bergsaker said. “So I had to revise all the licenses that were given to the radio stations to check if that was possible or no. When I finally saw all of the papers were good until 2026 and I was about to publish an article classifying that original claim as false, I received a message from Brazil. A fact-checker in São Paulo was asking me if I could help him with something completely different: whale hunting data. So I did.”

Back then, after noticing a considerable rise in deforestation, the Norwegian government decided to suspend its financial support to the Amazon fund. The Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, counter-attacked on Twitter by posting texts and photos “showing” Norwegian whale hunting. And fact-checkers wanted to be sure Bolsonaro and his followers were spreading factual information.

Maurício Moraes, a fact-checker from Agência Lupa, reached Bergsaker through the International Fact-Checking Network’s Slack. He needed to know how many whales had been caught in Norway in the past years, how many of them were females and — something very special that was trending on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp — how many of those animals were pregnant.

“The data is all kept in Norwegian. So it was much easier and faster for me to do the search,” said Bergsaker, over the phone. “In 2018, for example, the hunting quota was 1,278 whales. Norway caught 454. This is a third of what was legally allowed. It shows a lack of interest in whale hunting in Norway. So I added this context too and I think he noted it.”

In order to find out about the animal’s gender and pregnancy, Bergsaker had to make some calls and even demand a full report from a specialist. The document, delivered to him the next day, helped to prove the data being spread in Brazil was mostly wrong.

“Brazilians were saying that 90% of the whales caught in Norway were pregnant. This is not right,” Bergsaker said. “First you have to deduct the male whales, which are obviously not pregnant. In the years 1993-2017, the male catch har been between 14% and 49%. Then you have to deduct the immature whales, which represent 27% to 43%. The right information is that 90% of the grown-up females that are caught in Norway are pregnant. This represents a big difference in the final numbers.”

But why would a fact-checker, in the middle of the tough political campaign, leave politicians and dive into a completely different topic, coming out of the blue? Is international collaboration that important?

Bergsaker went straight to the point: “Yes. Fact-checkers should help each other more often. We frequently need help from foreign colleagues. Then it is natural to help others when they are working on things related to Norway. And, of course, it was fun”.

Not only because comparisons are getting really common between politicians but also because misinformation needs to be taken down as fast as possible. By working together, all language barriers fall down just as fast as the difficulties of finding the correct data in the right database.

Bergsaker knew exactly where to go to find the numbers Moraes needed about whale hunting. Moraes, from Brazil, would have spent hours searching for it. The day Bergsaker needs information about the deforestation in the Amazon region, he knows where to call.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.

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