Spain has a new government and its fact-checkers had an impact on the campaign

Maldito Bulo and Newtral coordinators reveal the backstage of misinformation fight during the last Spanish campaign

May 3, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Spain elected a new government last Sunday. But, on Saturday, the day when the law forbids campaigns and candidates asking for votes, social media (especially WhatsApp and Facebook) was completely flooded by misinformation.

Newtral and Maldito Bulo, the two verified members of the International Fact-checking Network, were there to work hard.

On the last week of the campaign, they both live fact-checked two TV debates in a row — each one of them with four candidates. One happened on Monday, April 22, and the other on Tuesday, April 23. Pedro Sánchez, from the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, got elected and is now at the La Moncloa Palace.

Joaquin Ortega, from Newtral, is ready for the local and regional elections that are coming up next month in Spain. Clara Jiménez, from Maldito Bulo, adds to the list the EU Parliamentary election on May 26.  In Spain, work will not be lacking for fact-checkers.

While he takes a breath, Ortega celebrates the fact that, besides all the articles his team published during the campaign, Newtral also managed to create a tool to compare electoral programs — which 300,000 users consulted during the election.

Clara points out the impact of Maldito Bulo’s work: Politicians seemed to be more careful with their words after receiving a “false” rating. Besides that, her platform has registered a record. According to Google Analytics, they had 1.2 million users this month.

Here is a conversation that I  had with Jiménez and Ortega by e-mail this week.

Was false news a huge problem in this Spanish general election? If yes, can you describe something/someday that called your attention or surprised you? If not, why?

CLARA JIMÉNEZ: We created an emergency team for the day before the election. In Spain, this is called the “day for reflection” and law establishes that candidates cannot ask for vote and media outlets cannot publish the results of any polls. So what happened? Well, misinformation took over social media and we debunked 11 pieces.

JOAQUIN ORTEGA: We don’t think the false news phenomenon has been a big issue in this Spanish general election. Even less if compared to Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign in Brazil or to Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016. Out of all the toxic content that was spread around the internet, only one piece managed to creep into the mainstream circuit, and it did so at a very low level. It is the case of an alleged poll by an alleged expert which granted extraordinary results to the far right. Social media was infected by some messages with false alarms and conspiracy theories, mostly linked to the validity of ballot papers.

Did parties and politicians use misleading/wrong information as often as they used to do in previous campaign or did you see they were more careful this time?

CLARA JIMÉNEZ: This time most of our politicians corrected their false statements after we fact-checked them. They didn’t do it publicly but, once we pointed out that something they were saying was false, in general, they stopped saying it. Furthermore, it has been quite surprising how every candidate has been accusing the others of lying, as if suddenly they   that it could make the other lose support.

JOAQUIN ORTEGA: We detected a systematic use of false facts clearly manipulated to intentionally create a current of opinion about the existence of an economic crisis in Spain, which is not true. This was promoted by the People’s Party’s candidate, Pablo Casado. We listed all those facts and explained how he manipulated them. Also, PSOE, the ruling party, created a website to publish their fact-checks, a decision that is qualified by itself and that we interpret as an attempt to pressure us and our work.

Did government and electoral authorities educate Spanish citizens on false news and its impact during the electoral process? How did it work?

CLARA JIMÉNEZ: They set up a shy campaign that didn’t have much of an impact. The government approached us about a month and a half ago seeking advice on how to handle misinformation throughout a campaign and what kind of things they could do to help fact-checkers. Our advice was not to do a campaign coming from the government side since it could cause a backlash: Spain is a very polarized country at the moment and a campaign from the government saying only to trust specific information could make a part of the population reject it and, in return, trust disinformation. Furthermore, we also asked them to ease our work by responding promptly and accurately to our questions so that we would work better and faster. We believe this has had an impact on how they approach our queries.

JOAQUIN ORTEGA: From the government’s part, we only know that shortly before the election they launched a unit against election disinformation. It was integrated in La Moncloa Palace, the seat of presidency, and formed, among others, by officials from the National Security Department (advisor to the president on these matters) and other officials from the Office of the State Secretary for Communication. According to sources cited by EL PAÍS, “We are just getting started. For now, there are no computer tools that can guarantee the detection of fake news. We are asking high-level companies to work on detection programs, but it is not easy”.

Do you think Spanish people were ready to fight dis/misinformation? What was the worst platform/app for false news in this campaign?

CLARA JIMÉNEZ: I think they were much more aware of disinformation as an issue. That doesn’t mean they weren’t fooled by it. As expected, the worst platform was WhatsApp. We spotted disinformation pieces there first. Then, on other platforms.

JOAQUIN ORTEGA: WhatsApp and Facebook are definitely the worst platforms for fake news. However, there has been a rise in awareness thanks to the popularisation of the term “fake news,” which even politicians use.

You both did live fact-checking on TV debates. How do you evaluate your work?

CLARA JIMÉNEZ: We’re very happy with the results we had on the debates. We had put a great deal of effort in preparing them in two ways. Firstly, we’ve been listening daily to all the candidates for over two months, so we knew beforehand which wrong data they used the most. Secondly, our data team prepared several databases that the whole team could access easily in order to check things like employment rates, which appeared the most in political debates. We also wanted our work to have the greatest impact, so we partnered with some media outlets: RTVE, eldiario.es, Cuatro, Telemadrid, besides two national radios. Since we had two debates in the same week, the second one was better than the first one. We learned from our mistakes. On the first night we basically lacked coordination/communication between the people fact-checking in the newsroom and the ones that had to go live on the TV show. On the second night we also realized we needed more visual material for social media.

JOAQUIN ORTEGA: There were two debates in a row: one on Monday, April 22, one on Tuesday, April 23. There was a fact-checking team of 12 journalists and 20 experts in several areas which followed live the statements made by all four candidates. We had done this before, in previous debates, and every week with the government’s control session. During the second debate, we focused on 80 out of the hundreds of verifiable statements. We posted approximately 30 articles. We are still working on some of them, so it isn’t a fixed figure. In many cases, we used live fact-checks that we had already carried out. Afterward, a member of our team explained a selection of these fact-checks on TV station LaSexta.

What do you consider was your biggest impact on this campaign?

CLARA JIMÉNEZ:  I think there are three. We released a beta version of our Maldita App because we felt it was our responsibility to ease some of the processes to get informed in elections regarding fact-checking and over 10,500 people have downloaded it, becoming one of the most popular apps for news on Google Play Spain the week we released it. Our audience has broadened Regarding analytics, the last week of the campaign was the best of our history and we’re closing the month with 1.2 million users. And we’ve created a model of collaboration with different media outlets that we think is crucial in order to fight disinformation but also regarding the impact that fact-checking must have. During the campaign, we had segments in eldiario.es, Onda Cero, RTVE, Cuatro, TV3, Telemadrid, COPE, IB3 and even an interview on the BBC.

JOAQUIN ORTEGA: Definitely our coverage of the debates and our online tool comparing electoral programs, so people could have better access to the political projects of the candidates and the possibility to compare them online. That’s also part of our fact-checking mission: facilitate the bond between public and politicians with better and easy info. Our team invested a significant amount of effort uploading the electoral programmes of the various political parties. This tool was consulted by 300,000 users.

And what was your biggest mistake?

CLARA JIMÉNEZ:  We have a section called Maldita Te Explica (Maldita Explains) and, in the last days of the campaign, we published a lot of pieces there explaining things related to the election. They were very welcomed by our community, but I think we failed in not preparing them with more time so we could have published them on the first week of the campaign.

JOAQUIN ORTEGA: We managed to avoid big mistakes. It is true that we had to better explain some fact-checking resolutions after the process. People sometimes didn’t understand how we get to some ratings in cases were claims weren’t clearly rated true or false. And, as Full Fact usually points out, an important number of the claims aren’t. That’s one of the abilities of the politicians: mislead the public with sentences half true or mixed, and one of the goals of the job we do to clarify public debate is confront these claims.