A 4-cent raise on Santiago’s subway fare sparked the Chilean fact-checking ecosystem and made it flourish.
As of the first week of December, the country had 17 active fact-checking organizations fighting mis/disinformation in different ways and with different strategies. Journalists see this as a great achievement coming out of the latest political turmoil.
At the beginning of October, after President Sebastián Piñera announced a 30-pesos raise in the price of Santiago’s subway ticket, groups of students started protests that spread all over the country.
The movement impacted Chile at various levels, including a public agreement — made by the president — to run a referendum in April 2020 regarding a new Constitution.
One of the most relevant consequences of this political turmoil was the spread of mis/disinformation through messaging services and social platforms. At the same time, there was a proliferation of fact-checking initiatives in traditional media outlets, universities and also among groups of independent journalists.
The mainstream media organization that took the first step toward fighting the latest tsunami of misinformation was newspaper La Tercera, which began publishing on its website two daily editions of verifications. The content was also available on its newsletter and on the paper’s printed version.
Juan Manuel Ojeda, the journalist in charge of this project, doesn’t have a team of fact-checkers to work with. He has been counting on the experience some journalists have covering specific sectors to produce fact checks.
“Given their high management of sources and specialized knowledge, they can verify pieces of content quickly and reliably,” said Ojeda.
Other mainstream media followed the lead, taking the same steps toward making fact-checking more robust.
El Mercurio, with its already established section El Polígrafo, published fact checks on its printed version and maintained a paywall for its online content. “Meganoticias,” a well-known TV show, distributed fact checks on its website. Biobiochile, a famous radio station, 24 Horas Data, part of a newscast television program and El Dínamo, a national online newspaper, followed the same path.
The biggest challenge for all these organizations is to regain and retain credibility. Protesters are calling on people to distrust media and to “turn off their television.”
Ojeda said one example is the fact check La Tercera published regarding a left-wing conspiracy theory. The story was debunked, but many readers kept insisting on its veracity.
Fabián Padilla, the founder of FastCheckCl, said he sees this political crisis as an opportunity for independent projects.
“We don’t have money, but we can provide new methods to contribute with a more critical society, so the readers trust us,” he said.
FastCheckCl fact checks are published only on social media platforms. On Instagram, in about a month, it gained more than 80,000 followers.
“Disinformation generated a lot of chaos and fear, creating a toxic and very dangerous collective mood,” said Padilla.
He said this is the motivation that propels a team of seven volunteers in FastCheckCl. Through a WhatsApp meeting every morning, they decide what piece of content they will verify. The article is usually delivered hours later or at night.
For independent initiatives, building a community of readers is vital.
When protests started, Rodrigo Agurto, founder and host of the dark humor podcast Fake News Report, together with Fernando Mejías and Víctor Bascur, decided to change their social media profiles into something more serious and started to publish fact checks.
Agurto said it is “terrifying” to see that, among protesters, there are some people that can’t see the watchdog role played by journalists in representing their voices. Instead, he said, some protesters see journalists as a microphone being used by and for politicians and businessmen.
FastcheckCl and Fake News Report have something in common: Their leaders have been working hard to build a relationship with their audience. And they do so by asking readers/listeners to contribute with stories, pieces of content that can be fact-checked, reliable sources and expertise.
“While big media does not talk much with their users, we work with the input our community brings us,” said Agurto.
Universities have also become a haven for fact-checking projects.
“Universities handle a different logic than the media; we are not market-oriented. Our rhythms are different. We work for the community. We don’t need to publish first. We care to publish well,” said Carlos Franco, professor and director of the Observatory.
With a similar mission, Carlos Basso, an academic at University of Concepción, created Chequeando, a website that, besides fact checks, also publishes articles to educate the public about the disinformation phenomenon.
“The most positive consequence of these projects is that their very existence makes visible the problem of fake news and many people who recently believed everything that appeared in their Facebook Newsfeed or in a WhatsApp group today have doubts about contents,” Basso said.
Valentina de Marval, at Diego Portales University, and Guillermo Bustamante-Pavez, at Finis Terrae University, started fact-checking with their own students. The problem, however, was that, because of the protests, students were not attending classes — so they called volunteers and had the team working remotely, through WhatsApp groups.
De Marval celebrates the fact that her students now know that fact-checking is not a subject for geeks but a social need.
“We are very aware that fact-checking in Chile has just begun and can be stronger. This is not just an experiment. It should become a daily practice,” said Bustamante-Pavez, who created the website Verificado.cl.
Project leaders in Chile agree that in the current situation, one of the biggest challenges ahead is to obtain information with official sources, such as the government and the police. Access is getting more difficult every day since these entities seem saturated with requests. But there is also a lack of credibility on the data they offer.
According to fact-checkers, it’s common to see powerful people refuse to give direct statements, which shows the relevance of fact-checking projects to contribute to an emerging culture of accountability in the country.
Enrique Núñez-Mussa is the editor-in-chief of FactCheckingCL. He teaches and researches about fact-checking at the School of Journalism of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.