Collaborative fact-checking project in Latin America builds platform on coronavirus to help journalists

The current pandemic highlights the need for journalists to work together as the coronavirus, as well as disinformation surrounding it, crosses languages and borders. For this reason, an existing network of fact-checkers in Latin America decided to undertake a project to verify information, gather and update existing checks in Spanish about the coronavirus and produce an informational database of measures taken by governments in the region to combat the virus.

The Latam Chequea Coronavirus project, which currently unites 28 fact-checking organizations from 16 Latin American countries and Spain, aims to help journalists and checkers to cover coronavirus so they can find reliable information more quickly and simply.


The Latam Chequea Coronavirus platform (Screenshot)

Planning for the initiative, coordinated by the Argentine organization Chequeado, began in early March among members of the Latam Chequea network. An email was sent inviting organizations to participate –not everyone in the network was able to join immediately.

“Latam Chequea is a network that we formed in 2014, with Chequeado's leadership, to join the organizations or media that were beginning to verify discourse in Latin America. Now there are more than 30 in 16 countries,” Laura Zommer, director of Chequeado and founder of Latam Chequea, told the Knight Center.

About 15 days after the call by email, the project platform was on the air. As of April 15, more than 850 notes had been published. According to Zommer, the coronavirus project is the fruit of the network.

“Over the years Latam Chequea was building trust in the allies. The truth is that this project could be put together in two weeks for that reason, because we know each other and we know that, even with a subject as sensitive as that, what a colleague is doing has the same standards as us,” Zommer said.

When starting the collaboration on the coronavirus, the group wondered what could be done to facilitate coverage, without it meaning additional tasks for the teams, already burdened with the pandemic.

“Unlike other collaborations, it is a site designed to improve coverage of the pandemic. We want everyone who is already working on the subject to bring more and better information to their own audiences. And each of the checkers in each country knows its audience better. So what we want is to have the raw material for each organization to use as best suits them and in a timely manner for their time and audience,” Zommer said.

The platform has two main tables: one with the checks and the other with the measures taken by the governments of the region. The first is based on verifications in Spanish and Portuguese done for a global fact-checking collaboration, the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, created in January and coordinated by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). The alliance brings together more than 100 organizations, from 70 countries and with verifications in more than 40 languages.

The first task of the project was to include Latin American organizations that were not already part of the global alliance, but were part of Latam Chequea, into the IFCN collaboration. As a result, it was possible to strengthen the global network and expand Latin America’s presence in it. These organizations would now contribute their own verifications to the IFCN global database  and to the Latam Chequea Coronavirus platform.

The second step of the project was to select all checks in Spanish from the global database –those that are in Portuguese, about Brazil, are translated. Then, each organization committed to updating its content.

"Since [the global database] was not being updated, it could have a verification that, with the dynamism of the pandemic and the new WHO recommendations, could be old," Zommer said.

Thus, the work of Latam Chequea Coronavirus is complementary to that of the global alliance, it does not overlap, Zommer said. In addition to separating, publishing, translating and updating the verifications, the project also organizes search filters for verifications, which do not exist in the global database.

Verifications are classified according to the most common types of disinformation, such as false cures and treatments, origins of the virus, forms of contagion and measures by the authorities. “Every day a team at Chequeado updates the verification database, taking the verification from the global database and adding it to the regional database. And we added details, with columns, that allow us to analyze the type of disinformation a little more,” Olivia Sohr, coordinator of Latam Chequea Coronavirus and coordinator of special projects at Chequeado, told the Knight Center.

A major differential of the project is the second table, which is not composed of verifications, but a list of measures already taken by governments in the region. The table includes a summary of the decision, the date, the country and the link to the official document. Categories were defined for the measures, such as borders, transport, economics, quarantine, schools, among others. With this, the journalist can also filter decisions by type and country, in a search. This material is also constantly updated.

"When a new measure appears we do not delete the previous one. We put the current measure, so that it is visible, but in the end we explain: before that there was another one, etc. And thus a history of the measures remains," Sohr said.


Chequeado team (Courtesy)

As coordinator, she says that it is also part of her job to add organizations who want to join the project every day. For this, it is necessary to check if the new members follow the same principles and protocols.

"And in that we are quite careful because this is an alliance that works by trust. I can take what a checker did in Colombia or Mexico because I trust their work and I know that they did the whole process so that the information is checked. So we add allies while maintaining that basic quality,” Sohr said.

One of the differences in this collaboration, among the many others that have already been done by the Latam Chequea network, is the urgency of the theme. Sohr said journalists are working under a lot of pressure.

"There is a permanent urgency and a feeling that we are always late, that makes it all that more intense and stronger. The good thing is that all the checkers are responding with a speed that we cannot have in normal times,” Sohr said.

Natália Leal, content director at the Brazilian fact-checking agency Lupa, told the Knight Center that she is impressed with the amount of lies about the coronavirus. "I have never seen so many pieces of disinformation circulating at the same time. In the 2018 Brazilian elections, there were a lot, but in general they were the same subjects, reheated. Now there is something new every day," she said. Lupa has done about 60 checks for the alliance so far.

According to Leal, it has been interesting to participate in a coalition in which the content is in Spanish. At first, she had doubts whether the collaboration would be productive, due to linguistic and cultural differences.

"Then we understood the importance of positioning ourselves as a bloc of countries, this greatly strengthens the community of checkers in the region. It was really cool to realize that our content, even in another language, has a lot of value for the bloc, because exchanges between the countries are very large. There is a flow of people and products at the borders, import and export, economic issues, all countries are trade partners with others," she said.

This was one of the reasons why the group decided to make the information table on the measures taken by the authorities in the region. At the same time, they identified that this type of disinformation was one of the most common.

As the goal is not to reach readers, the platform is designed only for the desktop and not for mobile. In addition to journalists and checkers, the project can also be used by researchers, academics and human rights activists, Zommer explained.

Information exchange between members

In addition to the platform helping in coverage, avoiding rework by the checkers, they usually highlight the exchange of information as one of the best aspects of collaboration. Gathered in a WhatsApp group, it is common to ask for sources and talk about rumors.

"For example, a checker asks: 'this video is circulating and says that it happened in Venezuela. Is there someone here from Venezuela?' And another responds: 'Yes, I saw it, it is not from here.’ And someone from the Dominican Republic says: 'actually that video is from here because you see this place,’” Sohr explained.

Pablo Medina, director of Colombiacheck, says that this exchange allows them to know what is happening in other countries and to anticipate it. ColombiaCheck has already done 106 verifications for the coalition.

“The members have been very active in the WhatsApp group that we set up and we can see how the information is moving in other countries. For example, someone from Peru asked if they were counting the doctors infected and killed by coronavirus and that was something we had not seen in Colombia. One or two days later, unfortunately, we saw the first death of a doctor in Colombia and we were already prepared,” he told the Knight Center.

Medina also believes that collaboration should continue after the coronavirus, as the same rumors circulate in several countries at the same time. "There are many themes in common in the region, and I believe that we can learn from this experience to go on together somehow later," he said.

Latam Chequea Coronavirus is funded by Google, and the amount is divided between participating organizations. Some, because they have more tasks, receive a larger share of the funding. This is the case of the website El Surtidor, from Paraguay, which will produce graphics and data visualizations to be used by the entire alliance, and Salud con Lupa, which will make explanatory texts focusing on science and health.