Factually: Spain’s fact-checkers become a target

Sometimes it feels like the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” was invented with fact-checkers in mind. This week, it applies to the ones in Spain.

Not long after WhatsApp decided to limit message-forwarding in an effort to stem the spread of misinformation, supporters of Spain’s right-wing Vox party started a campaign of digital harassment against fact-checkers from Newtral.es and Maldita.es.

The WhatsApp move to limit forwarding – viral messages can now be forwarded to only one “chat” at a time – had nothing to do with fact-checkers or any content they debunked. It was designed, as the Facebook-owned platform said in announcing the decision, to cut down on the spread of falsehoods about the coronavirus. Forwarded messages on WhatsApp are seen as a vector of misinformation, and the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the problem.

So how did fact-checkers in Spain end up getting blamed for it?

Both Newtral and Maldita are part of the (Poynter-owned) International Fact-Checking Network, which (in full disclosure) recently received $1 million in support from WhatsApp, and another $1 million from its parent Facebook, aimed at helping fact-checkers develop and expand projects focused in the battle against misinformation related to COVID-19.

But that support had nothing to do with WhatsApp’s decision about forwarding. The fact-checkers were just a convenient target. As Carlos del Castillo put it in eldiario.es on Monday: “Independent content verification methods have become some of the most troubling elements for politicians who base their messages to the public on false data or unverified information.”

The campaign against the fact-checkers included personal intimidation on social platforms, coordinated attacks on forums and other false claims that would easily go viral, del Castillo wrote.

The situation in Spain is extreme, but not unique. Just as in Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary and the United States, elements of the far right are highly suspicious of the media in general, and fact-checkers in particular, and quick to blame them – and the platforms – for what they say is “censorship” of their views.

But in Spain the situation got so tense over the weekend that WhatsApp had to release a statement Monday clarifying that its decision had nothing to do with the fact-checkers.

Newtral and Maldita also defended themselves with thorough debunkings, calling the campaign false on its face, and thus easily exposed. Perhaps it’s another sign of the times that fact-checkers must now debunk false assertions about . . . fact-checkers.

– Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • Wealthy tech company founders like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are often the subjects of conspiracy theories. The BBC reported on one that combines the two men.

  • Writing in the journal Nature, misinformation researcher Joan Donovan of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center said social media platforms must do more to take down false content and “flatten the curve of misinformation.”

. . . politics

  • President Trump is the most cited politician in the CoronaVirusFacts database — and this isn’t just because he has been caught spreading misleading content. It has to do with the fact that there are also a bunch of falsehoods about him all over the world.

  • The New York Times on Monday published a long article about how Russian President Vladimir Putin has promoted health disinformation against the United States in the last decade.
    • Putin’s agents, wrote longtime science reporter William J. Broad, “have repeatedly planted and spread the idea that viral epidemics — including flu outbreaks, Ebola and now the coronavirus — were sown by American scientists.”

    • Myth Detector, a fact-checking organization in Georgia, released a detailed report on Wednesday showing how pro-Russian websites have been promoting COVID-19 misinformation in the region. Cloned versions of the CNN and the BBC websites were registered in Russia in the last couple of months, with IP addresses placed in Saint Petersburg.

. . . science and health

  • With attention focused on claims about hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to treat COVID-19, The Washington Post FactChecker on Sunday published a three-minute video carefully debunking the idea that the medicine cures the virus, as some politicians across the globe have been preaching. On Tuesday, the video already had more than 500,000 views across all platforms.

  • The pandemic has fueled media literacy projects in the United States, India and Brazil, Poynter’s Harrison Mantas reported this week. A number of different fact-checking organizations have managed to offer online and even live workshops.

False news regarding crimes and deaths related to COVID-19 have become a trend in India. Just this week, fact-checkers from BOOM debunked two horrible falsehoods of this kind.

On April 10, a video showing a man jumping off  a building went viral in India with a caption that falsely suggested he killed himself because he had lost his family to the new coronavirus. BOOM spent some time on it and concluded that the video had actually been recorded in Philadelphia, back in 2015. It didn’t have any connection with the pandemic.

Three days later, the same team examined a hoax about a woman who had drowned her children because she was unable to provide them food during the Indian lockdown. Fact-checkers contacted the police and published an article debunking the story. According to the investigation, the woman killed her five kids due to marital discord. The family had enough food.

The hoaxes might be getting traction because of actual instances of suicide in India connected to the spread of the new coronavirus. The first occurred in February, in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, as reported by The Telegraph. The second was in Delhi, in mid-March, and was reported by India Today.

What we liked: Debunking these falsehoods isn’t  easy . BOOM fact-checkers had to examine graphic images and read terrible details about the kids’ deaths while trying to find the truth. It’s an indication of the  emotionally charged work fact-checkers have to do these days.

— Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN

  1. Here is a list of three unbelievable zombie-falsehoods about the new coronavirus — and how people can help fact-checkers stop them.

  1. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has published a new report on how people in six countries access and rate news and information around the coronavirus. For a good summary, here’s a Twitter thread from the institute.

  1. Dangerous coronavirus conspiracy theories targeting Muslims are spreading in India, The Guardian reported.

  1. Three U.S. senators, all Democrats, have asked domain name registrars and hosting sites to combat scams and misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  2. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been running her own debunking operation on Twitter. She knocked down a hoax saying she signed an executive order on coronavirus distancing in the close presence of several people. (It was an old photo). In another case, she had to clarify that her order did not ban the sale of children’s car seats.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. And if this newsletter was forwarded to you, or if you’re reading it on the web, you can subscribe here. Thanks for reading.

Cristina and Susan

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