April 22, 2021

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. Sign up here to receive it on your email every Thursday.

It feels true, but…

The Atlantic’s Tom Bartlett put a spotlight on an issue the CoronaVirusFacts database has been tracking throughout the infodemic — false claims about an increase in the rate of suicides.  Bartlett’s piece highlights some of the ways journalists have either misrepresented data or used incomplete statistics around suicides as a way to tell otherwise compelling stories about individuals’ mental health struggles during the pandemic.

Fact-checkers have seen variations on this falsehood used in political arguments debating the merits of pandemic lockdowns. Spanish fact-checking organization Newtral.es submitted the first iteration of this claim in March 2020 when a 2019 video was repurposed to falsely claim people stuck in Spain’s COVID-19 lockdown were dying by suicide. Fact-checkers in India, Hong Kong and Brazil debunked similar false claims of individuals or families taking their lives after either contracting the virus or suffering from the economic downturn that accompanied sweeping pandemic lockdowns.

The pattern of falsehoods around individual instances of suicide shifted to the misleading use of statistics when German fact-checking organization Correctiv confronted a claim in May that compared the number of COVID-19 deaths to the number of suicides to downplay the severity of the pandemic. A similar claim in June falsely alleged Berlin’s suicide rate had increased by 300%. In both cases, the falsehoods had either used incomplete data or taken the information out of context to criticize pandemic health measures.

Fact-checkers at the Irish media outlet theJournal.ie faced backlash for their September fact check of a claim by a local political activist who used misleading suicide statistics to criticize the country’s lockdown policy. A group of the activist’s supporters protested outside theJournal.ie’s offices after his claim received a fact check label on Facebook.

Correctiv’s May 2020 falsehood popped up in Brazil in January, when fact-checking organization Agência Lupa published its fact check of a nearly identical set of misleading statistics translated into Portuguese. This false sentiment has become a political weapon in Brazil. In a March 11 Facebook Live video, President Jair Bolsonaro read the letter of a person he claimed died by suicide because of COVID-19 restrictions. The video has since been labeled for sensitive content.

Washington Post Fact Check editor Glenn Kessler, who Bartlett references in his piece, warned in his fact check of President Joe Biden’s claims about increased suicide rates that we don’t have all the information yet. Kessler rated Biden’s claim “verdict pending” while we wait for a more complete picture of the impact of COVID-19 on rates of suicide.


Interesting fact-checks

Photo by Africa Check

  • Africa Check “No, South African university not for ‘whites only'” (in English)
    • This check added context to a misleading headline that gave the false impression a private Afrikaans-speaking university was “whites only.” While Afrikaans is the language predominantly spoken by white South Africans, Africa Check pointed out the law in South Africa prohibits racist admissions policies.
  • FactCheck.org “Democratic Spin on Bipartisan Support for American Jobs Plan” (in English)
    • Members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet have been touting partisan surveys to demonstrate bipartisan public support for the president’s proposed $2.7 trillion American Jobs Plan. FactCheck.org noted that while independent surveys have shown some bipartisan support for aspects of the bill, the overall bill remains unpopular with Republican respondents.

Quick hits

From the news: 

From/for the community: 

  • Persian-language fact-checking organization Factnameh celebrated a rare retraction from Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after two of its fact checks about his statements on Iran’s economy went viral.
  • The fact-checking and artificial intelligence company Logically outlined its investigation into how QAnon influencers have been able to use Patreon to monetize their disinformation.
  • The International Fact-Checking Network announced Monday the community would meet in person for the first time since the pandemic began in Oslo, Norway, at Global Fact 9 in June 2022.

Events and training

Promotional photo by PolitiFact

  • April 22 — Truth & Denial: Searching for Information in the Digital Era: The University of California Berkeley is hosting a panel on objectivity, disinformation and the construction of truth on the internet. Panelists include New York Times reporter Kevin Roose, Francesca Tripodi, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science, and Sun-ha Hong, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and author of “Technologies of Speculation: The limits of knowledge in a data-driven society.” Sign up here.
  • May 10-13 — The United Facts of America Festival: PolitiFact announced this week that Christiane Amanpour will join the list of speakers participating in its weeklong fact-checking festival. Other speakers include Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. Get tickets here.

If you are a fact-checker and you’d like your work/projects/achievements highlighted in the next edition, send us an email at factually@poynter.org by next Tuesday.

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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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