*This story has been updated.
The 13th Congress of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), held from June 28 to 30 in São Paulo, saw the launch of a new Brazilian initiative that aims to tackle a big problem in the current media environment: misinformation provoked by the online spread of rumors or fraudulent news, called "fake news,"in the context of the October general elections.
For the Comprova (Prove) project, journalists from 24 media outlets will partner to cross-check content heavily circulated in Brazilian social networks that is related to elections.
"It is very rare in the news industry to have collaboration between competing companies, which is what we are," Fernando Rodrigues, founder and director of Poder360, told the Knight Center. "It's a collaboration that’s almost unheard of, very unusual. It seems positive to me that competing outlets, while retaining their characteristics, each with its own editorial purpose, are coming together in a project whose objective is to provide accurate, well-investigated information."
The most notable aspect of the Comprova initiative is the partnership between 24 media outlets, from large communications groups like Band, with its TV and radio stations (channel Band, channel BandNews, Rádio BandNews FM and Rádio Bandeirantes), channel SBT and the UOL group; major newspapers such as Folha de S. Paulo, Estadão and Jornal do Comercio; to digital native sites like Nexo Jornal and Poder360. In addition to these, AFP, Channel Futura, Correio do Povo, Exame, Zero Hora, Gazeta do Povo, Gazeta Online, Metro Brasil, Nova Escola, NSC Comunicação, O Povo, Piauí magazine and Veja are also participating.
Comprova will not check official communications or public statements from politicians or other authorities, but rather statements, speculation and rumors that are gaining momentum on the internet, according to the initiative's website.
Journalists will actively search for this type of content and will also receive suggestions from the public via WhatsApp. Fact-checking must be validated by two other media in the network, then published on the website and on the initiative’s profile on social networks, and also replicated in the pages and profiles of the partner publications.
Comprova was announced by researcher Claire Wardle, co-founder and director of First Draft, a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University in the U.S. The initiative is inspired by other projects implemented by First Draft around the world, such as CrossCheck, carried out during the French elections in 2017, and partnerships with fact-checking agencies in Germany and the United Kingdom during the same year.
"Brazil is a fascinating country to work in," Wardle told the Knight Center. "It's such a large, diverse country with a vibrant media scene, but is also very polarized, has high social media and WhatsApp usage and so misinformation is rife. We wanted to see if the model we used in France could work in Brazil."
All professionals enrolled in the initiative underwent training in the methodology developed by First Draft. Until August 6, when the project is official launched, Comprova will run in beta for internal testing and to give the participating journalists a chance to become familiar with the platform, according to Daniel Bramatti, president of Abraji, which is coordinating the project.
Tech giants supporting the project
Abraji decided to coordinate the project after an internal debate among the board of directors about the initiative’s novelty, according to Bramatti.
"Abraji has never been involved with any kind of production, editing or content evaluation. It is the first time we are doing this, it’s an area we haven’t explored,” Bramatti told the Knight Center. “There was an internal debate about whether or not we should join, but due to the scale of the problem and the need for action, we felt that it was important to participate."
The initiative is supported by Projor - Institute for the Development of Journalism, the Google News Initiativeand the Facebook Journalism Project. The latter two are also funders of Comprova and are providing tools and training to leverage the use of their platforms, according to the project’s site.
The Knight Center asked Facebook about how its algorithm, which in January of this year began to give more relevance to personal content as opposed to posts shared by companies –such as media outlets, which appeared less on users' timelines– , could limit the scope of Comprova’s checks on the social network. Through its spokesperson, we were directed to look at Comprova’s site, which states that Facebook "will contribute to the promotion of posts from Comprova’s page on the social network."
WhatsApp, which belongs to Facebook, also helped the initiative to establish a WhatsApp Business channel, an application developed for companies, according to Comprova’s site. In addition, according to Claire Wardle, the project will have "advanced access which means we'll be able to create an easier workflow as we'll be able to computationally manage the messages coming in." Comprova can also send messages to thousands of contacts in the application, instead of the 256 per list permitted for regular users.
The idea is that people who want to get Comprova’s content through WhatsApp can subscribe, so the initiative can send their checks directly to the public in formats that are friendly to in-app sharing, Abraji’s president explained.
According to Wardle, the biggest diference between Brazil and France, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Germany, countries where First Draft has already worked with fact-checking projects, is the use of WhatsApp. In these countries, the application is used as an SMS service, she said, while in Brazil there is a culture of sharing links and content in groups with tens and even hundreds of people. "So, for Comprova we're having to develop a WhatsApp dissemination strategy, involving local ambassadors/influencers."
Other institutional partners of Comprova are the National Association of Newspapers (ANJ), RBMDF Associados, Harvard University Office in Brazil, Torabit, Ideal H + K Strategies and Twitter.
Concern about ‘giving oxygen’ to rumors
A delicate issue that is already being debated by participants of the initiative is the decision around when erroneous information shared on the internet should be checked and its truthfulness challenged by Comprova.
The concern is "to assess case by case if, in exposing that rumor, it is being prevented from spreading or giving oxygen to it," Bramatti said. "If a rumor is too restricted to a certain group or niche, it's best that it stays there. But when you start to see it spreading to multiple platforms, going to WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, we're going to try to give it a ‘vaccine’ with the check,” he said.
"This tipping point, the time to do it, is very difficult, because it does not have a metric," said Rodrigues, of Poder360. "What if it's a post with 10,000 likes? Oh, okay, 10,000 yes. What if it’s 9,500 likes? What if it's 50,000? It's difficult, it's human activity. For this very reason, journalism is done by human beings, not by robots. We'll have to evaluate very carefully."
For the president of Abraji, Comprova is "a great experiment."
"We are entering into this with the public good in mind. We know there is a problem and we will try to help. We do not know to what extent our initiative will have a great effect or if it will have a marginal effect. Our intention is for it to be meaningful," Bramatti said, adding that the impact of the project will be measured after its closure, after the second round of elections scheduled for October 28.
Despite uncertainty about the project’s impact in the fight against disinformation in the elections, Comprova’s potential is supported by the diversity of participating outlets, which reach audiences with varied interests and habits of information consumption.
"Everyone will publish, 24 small, medium and large outlets, that’s what we can do," said Rodrigues. "We cannot fix the whole world. One phrase I love is that 'great is the enemy of good.' What we are doing is more than good, it is very relevant, very comprehensive. If that is not enough, it's a pity, but it's within the scope of our possibilities."
*The story was updated to include comments from Claire Wardle.