July 17, 2020

In the midst of fighting misinformation about COVID-19, some fact-checkers have begun the process of analyzing their work to this point. 

In Europe, fact-checking organizations Maldita.es, Full Fact, Pagella Politica/Facta, Correctiv, and Agence France-Presse collaborated to study the themes and spread of misinformation across the continent. The report found similar types of misinformation correlated with the virus’s progress through each European country. For example, a hoax about chemical spraying helicopters started in Italy during its initial outbreak and spread across the continent as the virus progressed. 

More surprising, said Maldita.es co-founder Clara Jimenez, were the viral hoaxes that did not spread outside each country’s borders.

“The piece of misinformation around WhatsApp and censorship that had a great impact in Spain didn’t appear at all in the rest of the countries,” Jimenez said. She theorized this was due to Spain’s comparatively heavy use of WhatsApp, and the actions of Spanish politicians spreading the misinformation.

In April, supporters of Spain’s conservative Vox party blamed both Maldita.es and fellow Spanish fact-checking organization Newtral.es for WhatsApp’s decision to limit the forwarding of private messages. A study by the Reuters Institute released that same month found that misinformation spread by public figures got considerably more attention.

Spain was not alone in experiencing country-specific misinformation. German fact-checking organization Correctiv debunked a viral hoax about COVID-19 being a ruse to allow more migrants into the country. United Kingdom-based Full Fact shot down a hoax about catching the virus from pets.

Three of the five organizations reported most of their fact-checks centered on political misinformation. Jimenez said going forward she wants to learn more about which potential groups or persons might be purposely spreading disinformation about the virus, but it isn’t her only concern.

“We are also seeing a growth in anti-scientific misinformation, which worries us a lot, and we would like to see if this is also an organized movement across Europe,” she said. “That should concern us, and we as fact-checkers should study and address it.”

Zoe Lee, a reporter for Taiwanese news organization Readr, said most of the fact-checks her team analyzed were from people sharing false cures rather than misrepresenting government actions. Readr compared the frequency of different categories of fact-checks in Taiwan versus the rest of the world. The analysis was based on 5,000 fact-checks from the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance database between January and May. In just under six months of existence the database has compiled over 7,500 fact-checks in more than 40 languages from the work of 99 fact-checking organizations in 77 countries.  

Readr’s analysis found outside Taiwan, fact-checks about government actions ranked second among all categories. In Taiwan, this category ranked fourth. Lee attributed this to daily press conferences by Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control.

“Taiwan’s CDC was very transparent. People could see what they were doing,” she said. However, Lee added the agency did little to dispel misinformation about false cures and treatments for COVID-19 like drinking hot water, garlic and medicinal soup. Readr’s analysis found Taiwan had the most fact-checks about these kinds of hoax cures. 

In Argentina, Chequeado executive director Laura Zommer said her organization will use its COVID-19 fact-check analysis to build new tools that will make it easier for fact-checkers to respond to misinformation quickly. She said this is an extension of Chequeado’s work as part of the regional fact-checking collaboration LatamChequea, which translated fact-checks from the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance database into Spanish. 

“These past few months our focus has been to help fact-checkers in the region give their audience a quicker and better response to each falsehood,” Zommer said. A LatamChequea panel at last month’s virtual Global Fact 7 conference talked about how fact-checkers shared templates of fact-check articles and graphics to better respond to the pandemic. 

Zommer said a grant from the Internet Society Foundation to support cross border investigations will aid a research partnership of at least four regional fact-checking organizations. She said the goal is to better understand who is behind the spread of misinformation and as well as what are their typical patterns of behavior. This, in turn, will help Chequeado develop fact-checking tools to detect these patterns and stop the spread of misinformation.

Zommer admitted this is a project Chequeado has had in mind for years, but added, “for the first time there’s an issue that is absolutely cross-border, and has allowed us to do this research with more interest from all our partners.” 

Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering fact-checking and misinformation. Reach him at hmantas@poynter.org or on Twitter at @HarrisonMantas

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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