‘Safety in numbers’: Philippine fact-checkers team up to debunk election misinformation

On a Monday, Maria Ressa celebrated the launch of a new collaborative fact-checking project. Two days later, she was arrested on “cyber libel” charges.

In the Philippines, that’s the risk journalists like Ressa, CEO of the news site Rappler.com, take when they report on people in power. Tsek.ph is trying to change that.

Tsek.ph, which means “check” in English, launched Feb. 11 in anticipation of the May midterm elections in the Philippines. Eleven news organizations and three universities, including Rappler and fact-checking site Vera Files, are involved in the initiative, which will publish fact checks during the election campaign. The project will rate claims based on a scale similar to Snopes’: Accurate, False, Misleading, No Basis or Needs Context.

“This is exactly the ideal situation when the guardians of fact, the newsgroups, actually all come together to make sure that truth is protected and that lies are debunked,” said Ressa in a press release before she was arrested Feb. 13. She was freed on bail the next day.

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“Because of Tsek.ph and other consortiums of journalists and media organizations that have resulted from government’s hostile attitudes toward Philippine media, they are responding more courageously and more openly and more publicly to attacks on the media,” said Yvonne Chua, co-founder of Vera Files. “So in many ways, this would kind of ease the fear.”

“I’m not saying we’re not going to be afraid. But hopefully, it will assure the partners in Tsek.ph that we will come to your aid.”

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Chua, who also teaches fact-checking at the University of the Philippines, said the collaboration is unprecedented for Philippine media.

“It’s been a while since the suggestions to do collaborative fact-checking have been tossed around,” she said. “But it was always like the newsroom felt, ‘Why should this other newsroom take the lead? Why should this other fact-checker take the lead?’”

The golden ticket was granting individual organizations a certain level of autonomy, Chua said. Instead of forcing fact-checkers to come to a consensus on ratings before publication, Tsek.ph will let each publish their own findings with the option of contributing to the greater collaboration.

“The newsroom environment here, they’re really competitive. They don’t like working with each other if they belong to the same platform … so this is a big step,” Chua said. “It’s highly consensual. We agreed not to impose any conditions on partners if it’s not something that all the partners would buy into.”

Tsek.ph comes amid a global rise in collaborative fact-checking projects around the world.

In November, CrossCheck Nigeria united 24 publishers to verify information about the February general election. It was the third iteration of First Draft’s election verification model, following Comprova in Brazil last fall and CrossCheck France nearly two years ago. And this spring, European fact-checkers are teaming up to verify claims about the upcoming European Union elections.

Those projects have been lauded for their consensus-building and ability to partner with platforms like WhatsApp, where misinformation often goes viral. But in the Philippines, whose press Freedom House has categorized as “partly free,” media houses collaborating on election coverage takes on a new meaning.

“Some of them wanted to come together given the current state of the media,” Chua said. “Right now we’re under attack. We think we ought to put up a united front in the face of attacks on media. We also thought there would be safety in numbers.”

Ressa’s arrest, which several journalism nongovernmental organizations immediately denounced, is the latest in a long string of aggressive actions against the news media in the Philippines.

In the past decade, 44 journalists have been murdered in the country — 37 of whom are suspected to have been killed by the government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. President Rodrigo Duterte has used the term “fake news” to try and delegitimize the press and has even been accused of publishing misinformation himself. In 2016, he said that many slain journalists deserved to be killed.

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More recently, the president’s communications apparatus publicly protested when Rappler and Vera Files joined Facebook’s fact-checking partnership in April. The program enables fact-checkers to flag false posts on the platform, decreasing their future reach in the News Feed. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)

Then there were the usual internet trolls, which helped spawn the negative reaction from the government. For months after they joined Facebook’s project, Vera Files and Rappler were repeatedly harassed and threatened online. Both had to issue statements defending their work.

And during this spring’s election campaign, the partisan attacks are unlikely to stop. Tsek.ph has already received comments from trolls through the website’s submission form.

“On the day that we launched, we got trolled,” Chua said. “There was one nasty troll who called us biased, said we were an instrument of the elite, communists, etc.”

Being harassed and threatened online last year was scary, Chua said. But as a coalition, journalists participating in Tsek.ph should be more prepared for the attacks — because it’s harder to bring down a coalition of fact-checkers than a single fact-checker.

“If you do fact-checking, the trolls won’t be far behind,” Chua said. “It’s really a test for us — how much should we fight?”

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