It was a fact-checker’s dream scenario.
António Costa, Portugal’s prime minister, was at a morning rally in Lisbon, campaigning for re-election. Suddenly, a man in the crowd approached Costa and said the leader left the country for a long vacation in 2017, while part of the nation was in crisis. Furious, Costa turned to the man and tried to punch him. Costa screamed: “I wasn’t on vacation! This a lie!”
Then, afraid of what voters would think of his impetuous reaction, Costa approached the cameras following him and said: “Polígrafo had already fact-checked that information and rated it as false.”
One year ago, Polígrafo didn’t even exist. Today this Portuguese fact-checking platform is about to celebrate not only its first anniversary but also the fact that it’s widely known by politicians and reaches over 1.1 million people on TV every week.
Fernando Esteves, the journalist who founded the initiative and now works as editorial director, won seven national journalism prizes with Polígrafo in the last 12 months and says the platform, with a staff of 10 people, has reached its break-even point. This means it is financially stable, with content being published on TV and online, and revenue coming not only from online advertising but also from Facebook’s Third Party Fact-Checking Program (Disclosure: to be a member of this program, the fact-checking organization should also be an IFCN verified signatory.)
“During this first year, we had the European Parliamentary Elections and also national elections. On many occasions, Portuguese politicians would call our newsroom early in the day acknowledging they had said something wrong and promising they would correct themselves, in public, in a rally later the same day. So we would follow these politicians to happily see them apologizing and correcting themselves,” said Esteves. “A big change.”
In the fact-checking universe, there is a word for it: impact.
“This is definitely proof that our work has an impact. Real impact. And that shows Polígrafo also made the Portuguese democracy a little more acceptable,” he added.
On April 1, Polígrafo took the step many fact-checking platforms around the world wish they could take: It appeared on the biggest TV channel in the country, SIC.
The partnership started with one appearance per week on the 8 p.m. news show. During the Portuguese Parliament campaign, it grew bigger. The yellow and black logo is already well known in Portugal, just like the rating system Esteves developed for Polígrafo.
“For three weeks, every day at 9 p.m., we had a 25-minute show about fact-checking,” he remembered. “The program became No. 1 in terms of audience with more than 1 million viewers each day and — what’s best, from our point of view — we didn’t make any mistakes. Not a single one.”
When Polígrafo was just an idea on a piece of paper, Esteves thought it would survive only with the financial support of national NGOs and foundations. He thought that he could make money by offering the truth and a path to a more transparent democracy. One year later, Esteves said he was wrong about that. He actually considers this the biggest negative lesson he learned so far.
“It is very hard to create a project like Polígrafo in Portugal by reaching out only to foundations and NGOs. At first, I was convinced that offering the truth and saying that fact-checking could help democracy would be crucial to earning support from many entities but it wasn’t. Only now, after this year of hard work, they are becoming interested in joining us.”
Since August, Polígrafo debunking false pieces of content for Facebook and the organization’s website and social media channels commonly have not just verifications regarding politicians (which are out of the scope of Facebook’s program).
In these cases, some collaboration between Portuguese-speaking platforms is common. Since Portugal has a big Brazilian community and vice versa, fact checks and debunks published by Aos Fatos, Agência Lupa and Estadão Verifica are usually republished by Polígrafo. The opposite also happens.
The goal for the second year of life is making sure fact-checking doesn’t look boring to people, which means Polígrafo will search for creative ways to approach the verification process.
“We are looking forward to finding video solutions that can help us reach an audience that is not ready for our articles — young people, for instance. This is one of the huge challenges we have ahead,” said Esteves.
The second will be to develop a media literacy program and join the long list of fact-checking platforms that already offer them as a way to combat the spread of false information.
“This project requires a big investment and should enroll not only our team, but others. We will surely do our best (to build this media literacy program for Portugal), but let’s see if this will be enough.”
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 email@example.com.