For years, I heard friends who are doctors talk about people who approach them in parties, concerts and even soccer games to ask medical questions or have a quick appointment. Since mid-March, when the World Health Organization declared that the planet was experiencing a COVID-19 pandemic and a tsunami of misinformation, I have empathized with doctors. I have become a sort of personal fact-checker for a huge group of family and friends, people who reach me daily on WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook Messenger, Instagram or email.
Tuesday afternoon, a friend sent me a tweet that angered him. It was a video that supposedly showed a politician violating the quarantine using an official car. “We are all at home and this guy isn’t? And he is now spending public money?” he complained.
First, I thanked him for not sharing that before fact-checking it. Then, together, we reviewed the video. It wasn’t dated so it could, therefore, be an old recording. It didn’t show the car’s license plate. So how could anyone say that it was an official vehicle?
We clicked on the link in the original tweet and landed on a website that my friend had never visited before. Many shiny ads popped up and I suggested: “Let’s see who is responsible for this page.” We navigated to the “who we are” section and, when the information loaded on the phone screen, I heard him laugh. The credibility of the video evaporated.
Days before, my mother sent me a link circulating among her friends on WhatsApp. It was about a program on an Italian TV channel that claimed the new coronavirus had emerged in China, from research that aimed to scientifically mix pre-existing viruses. “Is this really true?” my mom texted me. “This seems like a serious TV show.”
My first step was to ask Google (in Portuguese): “RAI coronavirus china program.” At least four fact-checks appeared. They were all clear: The show was produced in 2015, and the Italian TV program TGR Leonardo had already released a statement denying the connection between the 2015 episode and the current pandemic.
I have been a fact-checker for almost seven years now. I have led big fact-checking teams through two presidential campaigns, two mayoral elections and an impeachment trial — all in Brazil, my home country.
In all of these events, misinformation surged, but it wasn’t even close to what we are seeing now. Hoaxes related to COVID-19 are rampant, global and politicized. So the challenge of debunking falsehoods and making sure people understand facts has become more urgent and challenging.
That’s why I’m often trying to determine the best format for communicating with my audience, in this case, my mother and her friends. What could work better for people who are over 70? A WhatsApp audio.
I thanked them for being skeptical and explained the path I followed, reassuring them that all of them could have done it. My mother and her friends loved it. They didn’t know that fact-checks are easily Googled and hadn’t realized how many fact-checkers are working to debunk COVID-19 hoaxes.
As with doctors, who often kindly listen to people and even suggest treatment in adverse situations, fact-checkers must be willing to listen and teach during this pandemic. We can share credible databases and tools that many people are still unaware of.
The pandemic is an opportunity to expand media literacy among those who we love. It is also a chance to show that there is no magic in fact-checking. This job is much more about attention and perseverance.
Read this article in Spanish at Univision.
* Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.