This is what a fake water shortage in the middle of a political crisis looks like

October 21, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Eleven days of pure tension – with no break.

Thousands and thousands of people on the streets protesting against the government. Molotov cocktails flying around and policemen using tear gas to break up the crowds. Hundreds of false videos and manipulated photos circulating on Facebook and Twitter and dozens of misleading WhatsApp chains populating family and friends’ discussions.

The scariest message, however, was the one that falsely claimed that people would run out of water soon. Panic spread. This was Ecuador just a few days ago.

On Oct. 3, after president Lenín Moreno announced he was eliminating a popular fuel subsidy program as part of an austerity package, thousands of people decide to protest against his decision and start a national strike. The fact that citizens all over the country crossed their arms to pressure the president to give up on that decision made international headlines alongside photos of huge popular protests.

For Ecuadorian fact-checkers, however, it was also the biggest opportunity they had in several years to show what they can do best: verify misleading pieces of content.

Ecuador Chequea, the most active fact-checking organization in Ecuador, is based in Quito and has a staff composed by only three fact-checkers. During those 11 days of protests, each one of them delivered an average of 22 verifications. Yes. Read again: 22.

For those who are not used to measuring the amount of work a fact-checker usually publishes (and you shouldn’t do that), here are some random numbers to be used just for a quick comparison. In September, Full Fact, based in the United Kingdom, published 24 fact checks. Chequeado, in Argentina, 48, and Agência Lupa, in Brazil, 59. All these organizations have staffs considerably bigger than Ecuador Chequea’s.

While their country was out protesting, the Ecuadorian fact-checkers were madly debunking.

“On Oct 12, multiple posts on social media claimed that protesters had taken over all the water fountains around Quito. So people started to panic and to actually run and save drinkable water in their homes,” said Gabriel Narváez, Ecuador Chequea’s editor. “After a while, in some neighborhoods in the northern part of the capital, we started to see reports of real water shortage.”

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The municipality had to jump in and release a public statement. It denied the false information and guaranteed the flow of water was protected. Fact-checkers used their tools to spread the announcement as fast as they could but many Ecuadorians didn’t believe anyway. This is what a real crisis looks like.

On Oct. 13, president Moreno decided to cancel his economic austerity package and protesters went back home. The national strike was called off and Narváez finally got a break. Three days later, in an email to the IFCN, he recognized that tough times can also be great windows of opportunity.

“Our portal has always offered a WhatsApp hotline so people can send us pieces of information they want us to fact-check. During the protests, we saw this service grow significantly,” he celebrated. “We also partnered with Wambra Radio offering them the opportunity to republish and spread our content.”

Narváez says the believes everyone learned something with this latest political turmoil. Here is his own lesson:

“Ecuadorians seem very skeptical toward not only the information they receive from social media but also from mainstream media outlets. Misinformation affected this conflict in an undoubted way and misleading messages generated a lot of noise among public opinion.”

There is obviously more room for fact-checking in Ecuador.

Narváez complains, however, about the fact that Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are hard to be contacted there. He says the fight against false news could have been much easier, with bigger impact, if these platforms had already decided to partner with Ecuadorians fact-checkers and build national strategies to fight misinformation.

“We, at Ecuador Chequea, are pretty sure this was not a once-in-a-lifetime situation. We will see other protests as big as the last one,” he said. “If I could ask them (the platforms) something it would be to start a closer dialogue.”

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa, in Brazil. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.