Experts discuss at Summit how disinformation impacts democracy, migration, health, and gender issues in Latin America

Addressing disinformation from a transnational perspective, finding the actors and business models behind the phenomenon, and developing strategic communication plans to reach the most vulnerable audiences are some recommendations for journalism to combat disinformation, according to some panelists at the 2023 Global Summit on Disinformation.

The phenomenon of fake or misleading news is present in all Latin American countries. That is why it is important to understand how this type of information circulates among countries and the common patterns that exist in the region, said Olivia Sohr, project coordinator of the organization that specializes in fact-checking and data journalism Chequeado, from Argentina.

"In our day-to-day journalism, we tend to think that what is happening around us is something unique and peculiar to our country. Actually, when we zoom out a bit, we realize that it's very similar to what's happening elsewhere," Sohr said. "We saw it very clearly during the pandemic, but we also see it during elections."

Sohr was one of the panelists at the Summit's opening session, "Unmask disinformation with journalism," alongside Daniela Mendoza of Verificado (Mexico) and Jaqueline Sordi of Revista Questão de Ciência (Brazil). The event was held virtually on Sept. 27 and 28, with panelists from Latin America, the United States, Spain, India, England, and Turkey.

Screenshot of the the web version of an investigation by Mexican news media Verificado.

Daniela Mendoza, from Verificado, presented a collaborative investigation on the actors and the business model behind disinformation on migration issues in Mexico. (Photo: Screenshot from verificado.com.mx)

During the first session, panelists presented journalistic projects developed this year as part of the "Disarming Disinformation" program of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in which  grants were awarded to carry out cross-border research to try to find the individuals or organizations that finance disinformation campaigns in the Americas.

"If we understand these trends and who are the actors behind [disinformation] and what their motivations are, and the way in which they have a business model or an influence agenda, it can really help us develop better strategies to combat disinformation," Sohr said. "We believe taking a regional look is necessary to understand the issue and to see how disinformation circulates. If those who disinform are coordinated at the regional level, we also need to do so to combat disinformation more effectively."

Sohr presented the research project "Gender disinformation: How groups that spread falsehoods on the subject in Latin America are coordinated," carried out by Chequeado, in alliance with La Silla Vacía (Colombia), Lupa (Brazil), Agencia Ocote (Guatemala), and OjoPúblico (Peru). The report, published in June of this year, revealed how strategic networks of organizations offer so-called training scholarships and hold international events as a strategy to promote disinformation campaigns on gender issues.

The media outlets involved in the project discovered that different associations have transferred more than 40 million dollars to Latin American countries to promote their objectives, which include disinformation campaigns.

"We know that disinformation in general tends to take advantage of all sensitive topics to expand," Sohr said. “Any topic about which there are prejudices or which is a sensitive topic of social discussion is going to be taken advantage of by disinformation [campaigns] and gender is no exception. And we just see how there are many topics linked to gender issues where misinformation multiplies.”

The media outlets behind the investigation found that in their respective countries false or misleading information was systematically circulating on gender issues such as sexual education, abortion and sexual and reproductive rights, transgender people, or alleged policies States were supposed to be implementing, such as making the use of inclusive language mandatory.

"Those kinds of issues trigger irritation towards gender issues," she said. "Our idea is precisely to be able to identify and expose them, and show how they work and how they coordinate amongst themselves to circulate this disinformation."

Mendoza, for his part, spoke about the feature story "The disinformation trap: The business of deceiving migrants," also published in June of this year by the Mexican digital news outlets Verificado and Conexión Migrante, and the U.S. journalism organizations The Associated Press, Data-Pop Alliance, and PolitiFact.

The investigation uncovered a business model used by human smugglers and fake legal advisors or recruiters who swindle migrants in exchange for false legal advice, purported work visas, political asylum or ways to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

For the investigation, the team canvassed directly among migrants located in shelters along the border to find out what type of disinformation they were experiencing. They then investigated on social media how this disinformation reaches migrants. They found that there is a vast network of people involved in spreading false information about migration procedures and that these are always tied to an economic component.

"There are business models of different people who disinform about the migratory issue to obtain resources," Mendoza said. “This disinformation, in addition to weakening people who lack formal status in Mexico, obviously keeps them away from official resources, because they don’t request help or support from authorities.”

Health is another topic most prone to be the object of disinformation campaigns in Latin America, as shown by the feature story "Empresas lucram vendendo falsas curas naturais na internet" [Companies profit by selling false natural cures on the Internet], published last July by Revista Questão de Ciência and Revista Veja Saúde.

Sordi presented the project, which detailed how through aggressive digital marketing, an influential health platform in Brazil spreads fake health news and profits from it. The investigation found that the businessmen behind the platform also have companies that sell dietary supplements, which are recommended through misleading content implying that certain diseases such as diabetes or Alzheimer's are reversible.

Promotional poster of the Disinformation Global Summit.

The Global Summit on Disinformation 2023 was organized by the Inter American Press Association, Proyecto Desconfío and the Fundación para el Periodismo. (Photo: Courtesy of the Global Summit on Disinformation)

"Our investigation sought to uncover who was behind that company, what their interests were and who was funding this major health disinformation network," Sordi said. “We discovered that it's a much bigger network than we imagined.”

To better understand how the network operates, Revista Questão de Ciência and Revista Veja resorted to data scraping, a data journalism technique that consists of extracting information from unstructured sources through software and organizing it in databases. In this way, they were able to know which were the treatments most recommended by the alleged disinformation company and the terms most used in the fake content.

"In their newsletters, the words most often mentioned were 'diabetes,' 'Alzheimer's, [and] 'cancer.' And words like 'supplements,' 'cure,' 'reversal,' although those are diseases that have no cure and cannot be reversed," Sordi said. "We estimate that this is a network that turns a profit of more than 72 million reais [U.S. $14.2 million]. They have more than one and a half million followers on social media, and their YouTube videos have more than 52 million views, so you get a better idea of how large this disinformation network is."

Voting disinformation, a threat to democracy

Argentine journalist Silvio Waisbord, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, said that identifying disinformation flows and actors is also fundamental to combating disinformation during elections.

Waisbord participated in the panel "Voting disinformation, a threat to democracy," along with Daniel Dessein, president of the Association of Journalistic Entities of Argentina (ADEPA, by its Spanish acronym); and Sérgio Lüdtke, editor in chief of Projeto Comprova (Brazil).The panel was moderated by Ricardo Trotti, then-director of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).

Disinformation is a threat to democracy when it gathers strength and becomes viable in politics and organized opinion, Waisbord said, as happens in moments he called "peaks of attention and disinformation," such as during elections.

To curb the consequences of disinformation, Waisbord proposed designing a strategic communication plan based on the characteristics and threats of each case. But he said that some fundamental elements of this plan are to provide media literacy to the population, especially the most vulnerable audiences, to offer validated and verified information within the digital flow where disinformation circulates, and for digital platforms to provide strategies and transparency.

However, he added that journalists and media seeking to combat disinformation must ask themselves questions such as whether their efforts against false information are really reaching the most vulnerable audiences, whether the appropriate channels are being used to reach those audiences and whether the motivations by which these audiences might agree to modify their information consumption habits are understood.

"In order to change information habits, we must understand what motivates certain audiences to consume false information. Without understanding this, it’s very difficult to change information habits. That is, the motivations for certain vulnerable audiences to use or consume credible information," he said.

In this regard, Dessein said that, although there are multiple journalistic projects to attack disinformation, these are not enough.

"The problem is still there, the problem is getting bigger, [and] the risks are quite wide. Many of these projects are like drops of fresh water in the sea, and our attempts to desalinate them into drinking water are clearly insufficient. The [digital] platforms - it has been said several times today - have an enormous responsibility," Dessein said.

Journalists Ricardo Trotti, Silvio Waisbord, Daniel Dessein and Sergio Ludtke speak during a video conference.

Ricardo Trotti moderated the panel on electoral disinformation, integrated by Silvio Waisbord, Daniel Dessein and Sérgio Lüdtke. (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube)

He said that digital platforms have absorbed a large portion of advertising funds that in previous decades was the operating fuel of traditional media. That, coupled with copyright disputes over the use on digital platforms of information from traditional media, are other factors that put journalism at a disadvantage in the struggle to clean those platforms of false information.

"We believe we have to decontaminate that ecosystem. We always say that journalism on the one hand is a preventive vaccine against these evils, but it’s also a therapy," he said. “When the damage has already been done, the way to attack it and clean it up is with good journalism.”

Dessein highlighted some projects in the region that seek to strengthen journalism in the face of the hegemony of social media, such as Google's News Showcase. This is an initiative that remunerates member news producers when their content is displayed on the news platform of the technological giant. In Latin America, the initiative has signed agreements with media in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

Although Google News Showcase sets an important precedent in the quest to right the scales for journalism, Dessein believes it’s not enough.

"It doesn’t move the needle too much, but we do acknowledge this is a good option because in general they have signed on with media that produce quality journalism," he said.

For Lüdtke, social media have transformed citizens into "forced readers," by showing, through algorithms, appealing stories based on each person's interest. That, said Comprova's editor-in-chief, contributes greatly to disinformation, especially during election time, as demonstrated during the electoral process in Brazil in 2019, in which Jair Bolsonaro was elected president.

"That content is selected by algorithms that choose the most appealing stories, those that have the greatest potential to spark emotional reactions and engagement," he said. "We know that lies are sexier than the truth. So disinformation is also fed by the public agenda. [...] They [digital platforms] want to tap into your ephemeral interest in a hot topic, but they don't necessarily want you to pay too much attention to what they post. All they need is engagement.”

Another disinformation lesson from Brazil's electoral processes is that polarized elections such as the 2022 one, in which Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won by less than two percentage points over Bolsonaro, are decided by a relatively small number of voters, who are easy to convince through disinformation, Lüdtke said.

The risk to democracy, he added, becomes evident when electoral opinions are formed on the basis of disinformation and when decisions are made on the basis of biased or misleading information and emotional reactions triggered by fabricated content.

"The illusion of truth can be far more dangerous than lies," he said. “In polarized elections, disinformation can break the tie. It  just needs to be eloquent, provoke strong emotional reactions, and meet the requirements to gain attention. And again, disinformation that algorithms choose to boost or disinformation that circulates without barriers or containment at the speed of messaging apps causes informational clutter that can lead people to make the wrong decisions.”

Lüdtke said the role of journalism in the face of this threat is to create mechanisms to contain waves of disinformation before they take shape. Also, to be an attentive curator and avoid being used as a vehicle for disinformation. And thirdly, to practice fact-checking, even by those news outlets that don’t specialize in this type of journalism.

However, there is concern that producing false or misleading content is much cheaper than producing quality content. And therein lies a major challenge for journalism, according to Lüdtke.

“What we saw from 2018 to here [in Brazil] is that simpler content was much more used because it didn't cost as much. What worries me is that now it’s possible to produce disinformation content that seems plausible and can therefore pass for true content, and that can be produced at very low cost. This increases the cost of verification, but not of disinformation.”

This year was the third edition of the Global Summit on Disinformation, which was organized by IAPA, the Proyecto Desconfío (Argentina), and the Foundation for Journalism (Bolivia).