July 25, 2019

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Teaching fact-checking in Bolivia

One of the greatest strengths of the fact-checking community is its commitment to collaboration and knowledge-sharing across borders.

Such was the case last week when Miriam Valverde, a fact-checker covering immigration for (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact (and Daniel’s colleague), traveled to La Paz, Bolivia, to teach fact-checking skills to journalists. Organized by the nonprofit Fundación para el Periodismo, she helped lead multi-day sessions on the methodology of fact-checking and how anyone can debunk hoaxes online.  

For Bolivian journalists, it’s the perfect timing for such training. Bolivia Verifica, a website dedicated to fact-checking political statements and hoaxes, launched in June ahead of the October presidential election. And hoaxes on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp pose a big challenge for journalists trying to report credible information. 

We wanted to know more about Valverde’s experience, so we reached out with a few questions via email. This Q-and-A has been shortened for clarity. 

What is the misinformation environment like in Bolivia?

Bolivian journalists said it is common to see false or misleading images and videos circulating on social media platforms, particularly on Facebook and WhatsApp. Some of the false information includes viral images or statements about health issues and political candidates. 

What was your biggest challenge teaching fact-checking to journalists abroad? 

One of my main goals was to share with them PolitiFact’s methodology for fact-checking, emphasizing the vital importance of accuracy and transparency. While I’m familiar with the type and sources of data available in the United States, I wasn’t as familiar with the way data is compiled in Bolivia, or by which agencies. I also wasn’t as familiar with the context of some claims or political issues.

It was a two-way learning experience, with Bolivian journalists learning more about PolitiFact’s fact-checking process, and me learning more about the pressing issues in the country.

Teaching journalists fact-checking skills in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. (Photo/Miriam Valverde)

What are the biggest challenges facing journalists and fact-checkers in Bolivia right now? 

Journalists said that limited and unreliable data is a big challenge in their reporting process. They also expressed concern about not having many or a wide range of experts available to independently comment for their stories. Given the pressure of daily deadlines, they also said they wished they had more time to focus on fact-checking claims, and more journalists devoted to the practice. 

What do you think your experience says about the growth of fact-checking worldwide? 

The Bolivian journalists I met with were greatly interested in spending more time fact-checking claims, valued the importance of fact-checking and believed it was something that their audiences would really appreciate. This experience reinforced the important role that fact-checking plays in public discourse and the growing need and interest for it worldwide, especially during elections.

. . . technology

  • Facebook’s new Libra currency hasn’t even been introduced yet, but The Washington Post found a bunch of fake accounts purporting to sell or represent it. This is not good news at a time when the company is trying to build trust in Washington, the Post noted.
  • HuffPost analyzed more than a dozen major YouTube channels that produce conspiracy theory videos and found they keep churning out disinformation despite the company’s recent algorithm tweaks. “The harm that’s been done in many cases can’t now be undone,” a former Google engineer told HuffPost writer Jesselyn Cook. Here’s the story.
  • Two police officers in Louisiana were fired after sharing a fake news story about U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). One of them insinuated in their post that the congresswoman deserved to be shot. Snopes debunked the post that led to their arrest.

. . . politics

  • Writing in USA Today, Cindy Otis, a former CIA operative who now works in cybersecurity, laid out a theme we’ve been hearing more of lately: Domestic misinformation could be a bigger threat in 2020 than Russian meddling. On the other hand, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is concerned, telling Recode’s Kara Swisher that “the tech companies aren’t ready” for a wave of disinformation expected to hit the 2020 election.

  • In giving credence to the assertion that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was “married to her brother” President Donald Trump amplified “an unfounded accusation which started in fringe corners of the internet,” Mother Jones reportedThe Daily Beast tracked how the allegation made its way from fringe internet platforms to the president, and PolitiFact spoke to the Minneapolis Star Tribune about what it knows — and doesn’t — about the accusation.

  • The United Kingdom has a new prime minister. Full Fact published a brief history of the Boris Johnson claims it has fact-checked in the past.

. . . the future of news

  • The Knight Foundation is distributing grants totalling $50 million to research the relationship between media and democracy. A number of the recipients say they will establish programs to study and combat misinformation, including a new research institute at George Washington University, which is partnering with Poynter and PolitiFact to “better understand the misinformation landscape of the 2020 elections.”
  • The New York Times Research & Development team has launched a new effort to be more transparent and help counter the spread of misinformation. The News Provenance Project will “experiment with product design and user-facing tools to try to make the origins of journalistic content clearer to our audiences.”
  • The IFCN has released its annual State of the Fact-Checkers report, in which it takes stock of the structure and budget of fact-checking organizations worldwide. Of note: More fact-checkers are adopting for-profit models, 98.7% are predominantly online and there’s still an upward trend in the launch of new projects.

As France wrestled with a heat wave this week, misinformation about water threatens to wreak even more havoc on the capital.

The Guardian reported that Paris authorities were forced to address a rumor that tap water in the city “had been contaminated with harmful levels of the radioactive isotope tritium.” In fact, it’s perfectly safe to drink.

The rumors were prompted by the publication last week of a study from the Association for the Control of Radioactivity in the West, Le Monde’s Les Décodéurs reported. It found tritium in the water of 268 French municipalities.

But those findings don’t mean the water is unsafe to drink, the fact-checkers wrote — even though tritium levels are higher than usual due to human activity.

What we liked: Les Décodéurs did a good job of debunking the primary misinformation at hand (that water containing tritium is unsafe to drink) while also providing context about the radioactive substance and its effect on humans. The organization published its check in a Q&A format with questions that readers might be most likely to ask themselves. Including a brief phrase that summarize its findings right below those questions makes it an accessible read, too.

  1. One America News Network, a news source sometimes cited by Trump, employs a Kremlin-paid reporter, the Daily Beast reported.

  2. The Guardian profiled Moonshot CVE, a London-based company whose anti-extremism detection technology is being adapted to counter the spread of anti-vaccination conspiracies.

  3. Ana Pastor of Spanish fact-checking outlet El Objetivo has a new media literacy initiative that aims to teach citizens fact-checking skills.

  4. The Organization of American States came out with a list of best practices for governments grappling with misinformation ahead of elections.

  5. Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Daniel took a look at the origins of conspiracy theories about the historic event — and how social media have given them a new life.

  6. First there was the controversy over “fake news” shirts at Bloomingdale’s. Now there are similarly themed Forever 21 bike shorts, a product that has caused at least one journalist to raise objections on Twitter.

  7. Data & Society is looking to hire a one-year, full-time outreach lead to share its research on disinformation and media manipulation with newsrooms and media leadership.

  8. Craig Silverman’s latest piece for BuzzFeed News has a few tips for young people who are trying to manage their elders’ use of the internet — and confront them when they share false or misleading content.

  9. In an attempt to limit the spread of misinformation, a tech startup based in California is trying to educate influencers about specific products before they endorse them on Instagram.

  10. Why are there still so many people who believe there is a link between vaccines and autism? NPR explored that question in a segment on “Morning Edition.”

That’s it for this week. Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to dfunke@poynter.org or susan.benkelman@pressinstitute.org.

Daniel and Susan

Correction: This piece has been updated to correct the location on a photo caption. We regret the error.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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