By Dylan Baddour
In a saturated and rapidly evolving digital media landscape, discerning truth from fallacy has proven to be a challenge for readers, especially in the case of government discourse. In response to a growing demand for trustworthy and accurate news, the practice of fact-checking has emerged as a practice that allows journalists to hold public officials accountable for their statements.
One such fact-checking operation, an Argentinian project called Chequeado (Spanish for “checked”), is pioneering an effort that would look to crowd sourcing to fund its operations. With over 66,000 followers on Twitter, the website is using social media and other online campaigns to generate the financing needed to distance themselves from large donors. Instead, Chequeado wants individuals, those they are looking to serve in their work, to fund their fact-checking.
Chequeado executive director, Laura Zommer, says that fact-checking represents a return to the basics of journalism, where anyone can use available online tools to combat misinformation.
“The leadership isn’t going to stop using facts strategically – everyone is going to use facts to tell the story that suits themselves most. That’s not going to change,” Zommer told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “Now the community can choose not to tolerate this intellectual trickery, when the leaders say whatever they want to.”
Fact checking is not new, but Chequeado is now looking to public support to fund the work. When more than 50 groups from around the world met at the Poynter Institute’s Global Fact-Checking Summit in London last June, Chequeado was featured as a case study due to its unique and diverse sources of revenue. In 2013, an estimated 37% of the income of the eight-member fact-checking team came from small donors.
It is a success that has largely been attributed to an approach adopted by CEO Laura Zommer, who was hired in 2012 with the goal of making Chequeado independent of its founders, who launched the site with personal assets in 2010. In an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Zommer said that she didn’t simply want to replace large donors with other large donors.
Most fact-checking sites represented at the Global Fact-Checking Summit rely on funding from philanthropists, media houses, or companies following corporate social responsibility guidelines. Such donors can unexpectedly revoke funding, Zommer said, which is one risk in depending on such sources, but their support also raises the eyebrows of many readers who question their potential influence in reporting.
In Argentina, where the field of politics is sharply polarized, and with government supporters and opposition largely relying on separate, partisan media, fact-checking that is independent from high-dollar donors holds the potential to positively impact public perception of the media and its reporting.
“It makes Chequeado legitimate for one side as much as the other,” Zommer said. “When we post a ‘false’ on the president, the opposition uses it and they publicize it. When we give a ‘true’ to the presidency, then the ministers or government supporters will use it.”
Since 2010, the site has gained a substantial following across Argentina, where Zommer says that politicians cite its fact-checks and that people have started to use the website as a verb – asking though Twitter if an officials’ statements have been “chequeado.”
Fact-checking operations have had similar effects elsewhere. PolitiFact, founded in 2007, was among the first to draw major attention to the practice, especially when it became a national franchise in the United States in 2010.
“Fact-checking has been a disruptive force in American politics,” PolitiFact founder, Bill Adair, told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “Politicians often cite our fact-checks and they are often more careful about what they say because they know we are watching.”
Last year, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab, which currently operates under Adair’s direction, began compiling a database of fact-checking operations and found 44 organizations currently active around the world.
“Our research shows that fact-checking is growing and empowering democracies around the world,” Adair said. “We’ve found fact-checking sites in some unlikely places such as Ukraine, where fact-checkers are providing people vital information against political misinformation and propaganda.”
Chequeado has run a crowd-funding campaign much in the style of the ice bucket challenge. Under the hashtag #NoMandenFruta (literally “don’t send fruit” but also an idiom for “no bull”), social media users post videos of themselves eating a lemon and nominate friends. The idea, Zommer says, is to raise awareness about the importance of the public’s role in holding officials accountable.
“Right now there are organizations in Argentina that work with crowd-funding, but they are mostly ‘green’ issues, working on whales or forests. Those are more tame than our issues,” said Zommer. “There is no culture [in Argentina] of publicly supported organizations that work on accountability. We are changing that.”
So far the site has raised over $5,000 from 94 donors through an IndieVoices crowd-funding campaign, though ten days remain to hit a target of $10,000 and a total of 200 donors.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.