In early October, Argentina’s Public Defender’s Office announced the creation of a new department whose mission would be to fight the spread of online hate speech and false information. Dubbed Nodio (a combination of the Spanish words for “no” and “hate”) the new office received immediate pushback from professional broadcast and journalistic organizations as well as some members of the public.
Some decried the move as an effort by the government to control public discourse. Others made erroneously comparisons between Nodio and Argentine fact-checking organization Chequeado.
Nodio is not and will never be like Chequeado or any other of the more than 300 fact-checking agencies that exist worldwide, according to a census published earlier this week by Duke University Reporters’ Lab. Many aspects differentiate them, such as their ties with the government, their object of analysis and their funding.
Will Nodio work on media literacy, including communication campaigns and educational materials to warn about disinformation and its problems, or will it be a police officer that, with its reports, will restrict critical voices, like some organizations have suggested and denounced? The resolution concerning the creation of Nodio has not been released yet, so there is no way to know its reach, and it would be premature to conclude whether it would help citizens to be better informed or not. However, international precedents of governments trying to restrain disinformation are not necessarily promising.
Chequeado is the main project of Fundación La Voz Pública, created by three disappointed media users — a doctor in physics, a doctor in chemistry and an economist. It is an initiative of this civil partnership, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization launched in 2010 that does not receive funding from any Argentinean government or political party. Its work method, team and diversified funding are transparent and can be checked by anyone on its website.
Chequeado’s mission is to improve the quality of public debate to strengthen democracy with more open and verified current data. Chequeado wants to reduce intellectual impunity and increase the cost of lying by making more information available. It does not have the authority to hand out sanctions.
On the other hand, Nodio is a project of the Public Defender’s Office, an autonomous public organization that depends on Congress that was created by Law 26,522 (also known as “the Media law”) in 2009. Specifically, it depends on the Bicameral Commission for the Promotion and Monitoring of Audiovisual Communication, led by the former journalist and current national representative of the Frente de Todos, Gabriela Cerruti. The head of the Public Defender’s Office, Miriam Lewin, was elected last May with nine votes in her favor (from the governing party) and six abstentions (from the opposition, which complained about not having enough information available on time).
The objectives of the commission include “receiving and handling queries, claims and complaints from the public related to radio and television and other services regulated by this same office”, acting on its own motion, having hearings, and proposing changes to public regulations and policies. As a public agency, the reach of its legal conduct is established by law. For that reason, one of its main critiques is that digital platforms are not considered within the framework of the Law on Audiovisual Communication Services. Neither are graphic or digital media outlets.
Since the launch of the International Fact-Checking Network, Chequeado has to go through an evaluation once a year conducted by an assessor (an unknown Ph.D., whose name is only made public after the evaluation), who reviews whether the organization is compliant with the Code of Principles. This code establishes that, besides having a transparent method, team and funding, the organization has and complies with a corrections policy, and treats all actors the same, whether they are public leaders (from the governing party or the opposition), labor unionists, businesspeople, journalists or media outlets.
Will Nodio focus on media outlets and platforms, or, like Chequeado and the other independent fact-checkers in the world, will it tackle disinformation originated by public servants and governments?
Bad international precedents
The current situation in Argentina and other Latin American countries reminds us of what happened in Asia at the end of 2019: Governments created official instruments to try to control disinformation. Moreover, according to the European Commission, they did it while the basic concept of “disinformation” had not been established yet.
Since 2018, the IFCN has maintained a database that includes all the policies adopted by 60 countries to tackle disinformation. A thorough review of this material clearly shows that laws and fact-checking agencies created by governments — with examples in Thailand, Indonesia and India — can only result in censoring, self-censorship, fear and imprisonments.
In Latin America, Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched in Mexico a fact-checking unit within the official newswire service Notimex; in Brazil, the Senate passed an “anti-fake news bill” that, without providing clear definitions regarding this problem, created a board (that included police officers) that shall create strategies to reduce fake news.
The context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the acknowledgment of the World Health Organization that, besides fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, during the pandemic we must also tackle an infodemic, drive these kinds of policies from governments. However, we need to be extra careful. Verifying public discourse is extremely important, but it has to be done with transparency, methodology and non-partisanship. Any attempt that does not comply with those three guidelines can get dangerously close to censorship.
*This article was originally published in Spanish by La Nación.