Brazilian fact-checking agencies are targets of virtual attacks after partnering with Facebook against false news

Two Brazilian fact-checking agencies and their collaborators have been targeted by virtual attacks due to a newly launched partnership with Facebook against the spread of false news. Personal attacks on journalists and criticism of the honesty of the agencies have come from right-wing groups accusing the agencies and journalists of attempting to censor and acting with a leftist ideological bias, according to BuzzFeed News.

On May 10, Facebook and agencies Lupa and Aos Fatos announced the launch of the social network’s news verification program in Brazil. The initiative was launched in December 2016 in the United States and has since been implemented in several countries, including Mexico, Colombia and India, in partnership with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). IFCN, part of the Poynter journalism institute, certifies agencies based on criteria such as being non-partisan and transparent in sources and funding.

In Brazil, Facebook has invited the two agencies to check posts that network users flag as false. If the content is indeed considered false by the checkers, they will have their organic distribution reduced and can not be boosted. Pages that repeatedly share content that is considered to be false will have their reach diminished and will not be able to advertise to increase their number of followers.

When they try to share content considered to be false, people and page administrators will also be notified that their truthfulness has been questioned by the agencies. The text with the check may also be associated with the questioned content, so that it reaches the users timeline accompanied by the verification that flagged it as false. Facebook claims that in the U.S., this method has reduced the organic distribution of news that is considered false by verification agencies by up to 80 percent.

Since May 14, Lupa and Aos Fatos have checked Facebook posts and published the results on their respective pages. On May 15, a social network user posted in a comment to a post from Aos Fatos a montage with prints of posts and photos of agency collaborators, removed from their personal profiles, accusing them of being “gender-ideology, pro-abortion and villification militants.”

As reported by BuzzFeed News, profiles on Facebook and Twitter from right-wing groups and public people linked to these groups have accused agencies and their professionals of trying to censor the right. In the criticism, there are no references to the checks themselves, but to a supposed inclination of the agencies and their collaborators to a leftist ideological bias.

Also according to BuzzFeed News, these groups allegedly produced a 300-page document in which they claimed to have "checked the checkers" from journalists' posts in their social networking profiles. Some pages of the document were posted by a user on their Facebook profile and show the ideological classification of journalists between "left," "extreme left" or "undefined" and question the agency's work based on that classification. In addition to Lupa and Aos Fatos' collaborators, journalists were also listed from Agência Pública, which has Truco, a fact-checking initiative also checked by the IFCN. (Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, is also included in the list because he is a member of Pública’s advisory board.)

Journalist Leonardo Sakamoto, president of Repórter Brasil, has also been targeted. In an article in his blog, he claims that posts on social networks have stated that he was hired by Facebook to censor content on the platform. "I'm sorry to disappoint the haters, but this is false news about false news," wrote Sakamoto, who believes he was associated with the initiative because of a recurring rumor that he owns Agência Pública - which is not even part of the program launched by the social network.

Cristina Tardáguila, director of Lupa, told BuzzFeed News that "it's too naive to believe that fact-checking is being created to demolish some side of the political spectrum." She said the agency has already received criticism from people of the left and right for identifying information that is wrong in statements by politicians from both camps. "This is the game, but I have never seen the volume of criticism before the fact as it is happening now," Tardáguila said.

Tai Nalon, director of Aos Fatos, said that "there is no censorship or attack on freedom of expression." "What exists is more context and access to the contradictory versions," she told BuzzFeed News, adding that the agency’s journalists "do not participate in partisan politics, ideological or social movements" and are directed "not to issue opinions on certain topics." "If you cover a topic, your opinion doesn’t matter, but the facts do."

Journalist Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the IFCN, published an article in newspaper Folha de S. Paulo on May 18 in defense of fact-checking and the agencies and their collaborators. According to him, the attacks "are more aimed at the initiative of fact-checking than actually the result of this work." He also cited an episode in 2017, when one of the groups from which the current offensive to Lupa and Aos Fatos emanated attacked a Truco reporter from  Agência Pública. At the time, after being asked about the source of information published on its page, the group sent the photo of a penis to the reporter, accompanied by the phrase "Check this!", according to Pública.

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji, for its acronym in Portuguese) has issued a statement rejecting the attacks on journalists. "For Abraji, criticism of the work of the press is valid and necessary. By inciting, endorsing or practicing hate speech against journalists, however, those who disapprove of checking initiatives promote exactly what they say they are fighting: impeding the free flow of information."

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.