These fact-checkers were attacked online after partnering with Facebook
The PDF file is 299 pages long. It has a table of contents, infographics and a statement of intent. And it has extensive details on 40 journalists in Brazil — including archived links and screenshots from each person’s various social media profiles.
Then, it uses all of that as evidence to classify how leftist each journalist is.
“It was very well done,” said Cristina Tardáguila, director of Brazilian fact-checking project Agência Lupa. “Graphically speaking, somebody spent a lot of time doing it.”
The document went viral among right-wing groups on WhatsApp, which has 120 million users in a country of 200 million people. Tardáguila said it racked up countless of shares, and that she alone received it at least 20 times from different friends, colleagues and family members. They wanted her to know she was in it.
“Lupa’s team was all there,” she said. “We got a lot of people visiting our personal social media accounts and some people started printing stuff that we’d published before. Some of my team were being accused of being super leftist for something they did in 2011.”
The backlash was in response to an announcement on May 10 that Lupa, along with fellow fact-checking organization Aos Fatos, would work with Facebook to limit the spread of misinformation ahead of October’s presidential election. The project lets fact-checkers flag fake images and news stories in the News Feed, limiting their future reach by up to 80 percent. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition to be a partner.)
From there, the trolling snowballed.
Several online influencers wrote about the PDF, Tardáguila said. One right-wing newspaper published a column about how fact-checkers are trying to censor information on the internet ahead of October’s contentious presidential election. A blatantly misogynistic cartoon portraying the directors of all three fact-checking organizations as pets of investor George Soros made the rounds on WhatsApp.
Then came the death threats.
“We were being threatened for real,” Tardáguila said “I got a lot of DMs saying, ‘You’re not going to see the next president of Brazil,’ ‘We’re going to get you one by one,’ ‘Beware.’”
And Brazilian fact-checkers aren’t the only ones; at least three of Facebook’s 34 fact-checking partners have been trolled, doxxed or threatened for working with the social media company. Fact-checkers told Poynter the attacks made it harder for their short-staffed operations to do their jobs — especially in countries where accountability journalism is under constant threat.
“The attacks, they were just relentless, they were persistent,” said Yvonne Chua, co-founder of Philippine fact-checking project Vera Files, which joined Facebook’s project in April. “This is not the first time these institutions or individuals have been attacked by the trolls. But this was more sustained — every day for more than two weeks, three weeks.”
‘I didn’t know what to do’
She thought about quitting.
“In two days, we received 46,000 tweets. We’re still getting them,” Tardáguila said. “It’s been very, very hard … I can’t even measure yet how big this problem is.”
After partisan trolls started attacking Brazilian fact-checkers in May, she joined a crisis WhatsApp group with Tai Nalon, director of Aos Fatos, and three people from Facebook. The goal was to unify the company’s message on the partnership and address any concerns fact-checkers might have.
But that didn’t work so well, Tardáguila said.
“That WhatsApp was crazy,” she said. “They called a virtual meeting, we did a Skype, and it was just terrible. They promised to do three things, and after a week they had only done one.”
“I didn’t know what to do, really.”
Facebook never held a press conference about its fact-checking partnership in Brazil. Tardáguila kept asking them to publish a hotline or email address that would let people access more information about the program, but they didn’t do that either.
What Facebook did do was publish two blog posts. On May 18, the company defended its fact-checking partnership and condemned the attacks against fact-checkers in a 391-word article (which had fewer than 150 Facebook engagements as of publication, according to BuzzSumo). On May 24, the company announced the addition of Agence France-Presse’s branches in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico to the program.
Then the second major crisis hit.
In early June, Lupa and Aos Fatos started getting trolled by the far-left after the former organization fact-checked an article about Pope Francis sending Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the currently imprisoned former president of Brazil, a blessed rosary in jail. Based on a statement from the Vatican, they rated the story false, downranking it on Facebook in the process.
But then the Vatican deleted its statement and issued a new one that cast the rating into doubt, causing Lupa to issue a clarification. That’s when supporters of Lula and his left-wing Workers’ Party came after the fact-checkers on social media, accusing them of censorship.
“In less than a month, we were hit by extreme leftists and extreme rightists, both with the same argument: that fact-checking is a way to censor their opinions on social media,” Tardáguila said. “The way they attacked us is very similar. They don’t attack the message, they go after the person who’s sending the message.”
It’s a playbook that Chua knows well.
After Vera Files and Rappler, a Philippine news site with a fact-checking division, joined Facebook’s fact-checking project, supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte trolled and threatened the fact-checkers on Facebook and several blogs. Within days, the government joined in, saying it would appeal the decision to include both media outlets to Facebook.
That’s when the attacks escalated.
“The reaction was immediate — we immediately came under attack from netizens, especially those who were pro-government,” Chua said. “The presidential spokesperson had called us sometimes partisan and said that we weren’t fit to be fact-checkers. The trolls also jumped in to send the same message.
People directed insults to both Vera Files’ Facebook page and the journalists themselves. They threatened Ellen Tordesillas, president of the nonprofit group, as well as Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler. Major news organizations ran columns opposing the partnership.
Both Vera Files and Rappler issued statements defending their work. Chua said one of the biggest misconceptions was that the tech company’s partner organizations could tell it which websites to blacklist.
“Of course that’s not the way it works,” she said. “We had to take pains to say that we don’t blacklist sites — we are not even in the position to recommend anything to Facebook. It was getting really, really bad.”
‘Don’t feed the trolls’
What do you do when your staff is systematically attacked by trolls online? Tardáguila tried to breathe.
“It was kind of hard because we were not expecting that kind of reaction,” she said. “The first thing we did was we shut our social networks.”
Social media posts from Lupa’s entire staff were included in the PDF that circulated on WhatsApp. Tardáguila said the creators picked posts that cast left-leaning candidates in a positive light, ignoring posts about right-leaning politicians that did the same. So they all isolated which accounts they should make private, such as Facebook and Instagram, to avoid further doxxing.
That strategy was also used in Turkey, where fact-checking project Teyit joined Facebook’s fact-checking project in late May ahead of this summer’s general election. Editor Mehmet Atakan Foça told Poynter that his team conducted a risk analysis of their personal social media profiles after seeing what happened in the Philippines and Brazil.
But since Teyit didn’t endure the same kind of attacks, the move was preemptive rather than reactive.
“Everyone wrote their risks on the paper and we actually spoke about (what) we can do if these kinds of risks emerge,” said Atakan, who has been trolled in the past for criticizing a tweet from Elon Musk. “We haven’t seen this kind of thing, but it’s Turkey … if trolls would like to find (someone), they can interfere and easily find these kinds of posts.”
If a post, photo or video was likely to inflame hyperpartisan trolls online, Atakan said his team deleted them from their personal accounts. Teyit also regularly called out its transparent methodology in order to get ahead of bias accusations.
Some of the things Lupa did to combat the attacks backfired. At first, the project would comment on every single tweet that misinterpreted the scope of Facebook’s fact-checking product.
“We spoke a lot more about it than Facebook, candidly, and that’s mistake No. 1 — we exposed ourselves when we should have made Facebook speak for themselves,” Tardáguila said.
In the Philippines, Vera Files took the opposite approach.
“We always knew that they wanted attention and they wanted the interaction and engagement. As I’ve always said as a rule, we don’t feed the trolls,” Chua said. “In the two years that we’ve been fact-checking, we’ve never taken on the trolls.”
The attacks took a toll on the Vera Files staff. In the Philippines, which Freedom House says has a partly free press, journalists are regularly jailed, sued and killed for doing their jobs. So to have the government itself come after a small fact-checking project was scary, Chua said.
But that didn’t mean they pulled any punches in their coverage.
“My team got scared, of course, with all the attacks,” Chua said. “But you lead the fact-checking team. You have to address concerns, but you also have to calm them down and tell them this is worth doing — especially in our current climates.”
‘It’s their project’
There was progress in Rome.
At the Global Fact-Checking Summit in June, Tardáguila had a heart-to-heart with Facebook staff about the fact-checking project. She detailed some of the Brazilian fact-checkers’ frustrations, including having to defend the company on a regular basis online. She thought they were close to getting more support from Facebook.
But in the month afterward, nothing changed in the way the company was addressing ongoing attacks against Aos Fatos and Lupa. And now, they’re facing legal threats.
“We have received an extrajudicial notification, a letter, by lawyers from one of those websites (that we’ve fact-checked) saying that we should not fact-check them,” Tardáguila said. “That scared us a lot because, of course, we should be able to fact-check whatever needs to be fact-checked.”
The letter came from a left-leaning site that took issue with the fact that Lupa rated one of its stories as false. The site claimed in its letter to Lupa that the fact check was tarnishing its brand, thereby restricting its ability to make money. The law office representing the site (which Tardáguila didn’t identify on the record because of legal ramifications) also defended Lula, Tardáguila said.
As soon as Lupa received the letter, Tardáguila said she contacted Facebook, which started working with the project’s lawyers to craft a response. Together, they mailed a letter to the site’s lawyers saying the debunks in question had been updated because the data they were based on had changed.
But it took a while to get the right people from Facebook on the same page in a timely manner.
“That was very hard. It is always very hard to be in a country far from the U.S.,” Tardáguila said. “Every time I have something Facebook-related, I have to reach Facebook in Brazil and then Brazil has to reach Menlo Park. So it takes hours or days (to get a response).”
Other fact-checking projects have faced legal threats over their work with Facebook. In late July, Pagella Politica (which IFCN Director Alexios Mantzarlis co-founded) received a letter from a lawyer in southern Italy representing the site Verità Nascoste (“Hidden Truths”), whose work Pagella Politica had recently debunked. Director Giovanni Zagni told Poynter in a message the letter demanded they remove their debunk and pay €1,000 for legal fees, which Pagella Politica didn’t do.
As of publication, Facebook had 34 fact-checking partners in 17 countries. The project, which Facebook has mentioned in testimonies to U.S. Congress, is perhaps Facebook’s most visible effort to combat misinformation. It’s changing the way that fact-checkers approach their work — and not always for the better.
“They need to understand that it’s their project and they need to speak out loud about it,” Tardáguila said. “We have been doing this for three years. Nothing has changed on our daily routine — the changes are being done (by) Facebook.”
A spokesperson for Facebook’s Brazil office told Poynter that they’ve maintained regular contact with their fact-checking partners in the country and have worked to defend the project as much as possible. The company is also working on additional resources to support fact-checkers who are threatened but wouldn’t share details on the record.
“Our Community Standard on credible violence aims to protect journalists and other vulnerable people or groups and we remove content, disable accounts, and work with local authorities when we become aware of content that we believe poses a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to safety,” a Facebook spokesperson told Poynter in an email. “Beyond these resources and policies, we’re actively considering additional measures to better support our fact-checking partners but don’t have specific updates to share at this time.”
But what do fact-checkers themselves want from Facebook? Tardáguila gave Poynter a bulleted list:
- Better translations of the notifications that are sent to pages whose content is debunked by fact-checking partners.
- A Facebook hotline or email address where users and publishers can ask questions about its fact-checking project.
- A primary communication channel for fact-checking partners in each country.
- Visual material on how Facebook’s fact-checking project works, translated for each country where it currently exists.
- Regular meetings with fact-checking partners to check in on how the project is going.
Chua agreed that Facebook could do a better job explaining how the fact-checking project works. But she said Philippine journalists are used to attacks from the government and fringe groups, and that it shouldn’t be solely Facebook’s job to defend its fact-checking partners.
“We knew that we were under attack, but we didn’t expect Facebook to come to our rescue,” she said. “When we entered into the partnership, we knew that it came with risks. We also have to do our share in protecting ourselves.”
“Journalism has its share of risks and fact-checking is not different.”