Reacting to the pandemic that, as of Monday, has killed almost 16,000 in Italy, the internationally known political fact-checking organization Pagella Politica shifted part of its resources to launch Facta, a new site focused on viral hoaxes and coronavirus misinformation. The new page has been active since Thursday.
Facta was supposed to launch in late 2019, but its new director Giovanni Zagni said technical and funding obstacles, in addition to Italy’s coronavirus crisis, delayed the project even longer. Zagni said a partnership with WhatsApp helped get Facta operational in a little over two weeks.
The two companies set up a dedicated account where Italians can submit suspected hoaxes and request coronavirus fact-checks.
“The telephone number spread quite a lot, so we’re starting to receive a significant amount of messages,” Zagni said. He had been concerned that Facta lacked a self-sustaining business model, but the WhatsApp partnership and the current crisis convinced him of the need and viability.
Misinformation about COVID-19 has spread dramatically on WhatsApp. In March, the International Fact-Checking Network reported the number of coronavirus fact-check requests on WhatsApp out-paced fact-checking in political campaigns by a large margin. Fact-checker Maldita.es in Spain reported numbers as high as 2,000 coronavirus requests a day compared with 900 during a political campaign.
Also in March, WhatsApp gave the IFCN $1 million to distribute to its network to help fight misinformation. On Thursday, the IFCN announced Pagella Politica was one of the 13 recipients of the Coronavirus Fact-Checking Grants. They received $48,011, which they plan to invest in a chatbot to help Italians get faster answers to their coronavirus questions.
“We would like to very quickly become a part of how people deal with information they don’t know is true or not,” Zagni said.
Since launching last week, Facta has published 12 fact-checks, eight of which were based on requests submitted to its dedicated WhatsApp account. Pagella Politica has continued to publish fact-checks related to the coronavirus, but has limited its work to claims made by or about politicians.
For example, Facta has debunked a video claiming to show body bags building up in an Italian hospital. Pagella Politica debunked a claim that Italy’s government was following Hungary’s authoritarian example in response to the crisis.
Zagni said this model will help Italians be more receptive to coronavirus fact-checks, because the information won’t get swept up in Italian political partisanship.
“I hope Facta can become a neutral place online, where people can know whether what they saw on chat groups or on the internet is true or not,” Zagni said.