A message allegedly written by Bolivian President Evo Morales on his Twitter account congratulating drug traffickers Joaqín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and Pablo Escobar on the occasion of Teacher’s Day on June 6 went viral in the country.
“A fraternal greeting to those who were my guide and inspiration to industrialize the sacred coca leaf; thanks to their teachings we are achieving it,” read part of the message, which was also accompanied by a photograph in which Morales allegedly appeared alongside these drug traffickers.
The tweet was fake. Morales had not written that message, but one of congratulations to all teachers. This fake message distributed on Facebook was the object of one of the first checks done by Bolivia Verifica, a recent data verification project in Latin America that launched on June 1 with the purpose of monitoring the presidential elections that will take place on Oct. 20 and thus “fight against disinformation and improve democratic participation,” according to its site.
“As a result of the work of analysis and permanent observation carried out by the Foundation [for Journalism] on the challenges of journalism, the need to work on the theme of verification was noticed because there was already an appreciation of what occurred with the famous false news in the United States, in Brazil, England, and the initiative to create a news verification observatory in Bolivia to monitor the general elections emerged,” César del Castillo Linares, general editor of the project, told the Knight Center.
The Foundation’s idea echoed in international organizations that supported it not only with the technology necessary to carry out the verifications, but also with funding that permitted the training of the team that is part of the project, Del Castillo explained.
In the 45 days prior to the start of the project, the team was trained by the site Chequeado of Argentina, a reference in the region in this type of journalism. “We apply the Chequeado method appropriate to our circumstances, to our reality but under the parameters that they operate and that have already served as experience also in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia,” Del Castillo said.
In addition to Del Castillo, the team is completed by Javier Castaños Galarza, who directs the project, and Gabriel Díez Lacunza, second editor. They are accompanied by a group of journalism students from the country's universities that are allied to Bolivia Verifica through the Catholic University of Bolivia and the Franz Tamayo University.
To select the content to be verified, the team uses parameters similar to those of other verifiers, such as the content viralization rate, and especially those publications that appear to have been made by a media outlet and that circulate on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
“We do verifications of publications that in many cases have a journalistic format that is intended precisely to surprise users and make them believe that they are true news when they are misleading or false content that affect candidates or parties that are currently in the electoral race,” Del Castillo explained.
President Morales, who is again a presidential candidate for what would be his fourth term, and Carlos Mesa, the candidate running second in the polls after Morales, are the most frequent targets in the publications that Bolivia Verifica has checked, the general editor said
In addition to these publications, the project also verifies proposals from government programs, as well as the political discourse surrounding the explanation of these proposals and “the reasons why they are requesting or requiring the vote in their favor.”
“We are turning to certain tools that are already public knowledge, commonly used in the field of verification to try to select and do as accurate a job as possible,” Del Castillo said.
Bolivia Verifica knows that the information checked does not travel as fast as the false bit of news: “It is one of the most difficult verification challenges,” Del Castillo explained. That is why much of their effort is in the distribution that for now has been focused on their Facebook account (which has almost 2,000 followers), and the different platforms of the almost 20 media allied to the project that include print, digital, radio and television outlets.
The project also produces a weekly summary with the most relevant verifications, either because of how viral they are or their impact on politics, Del Castillo said. This summary is sent as a newsletter to a database that the Foundation for Journalism has of almost 8,000 people.
For now the project is scheduled to end in late October. If a second round of elections is needed (scheduled for Dec. 15), it will be extended until then. However, the team aims to be able to do a good job and maintain it as a permanent verification project that permits not only verification of information relates to politics and elections, but of all kinds.
“I believe that the need for a site and a verification service is a reality [in Bolivia] and it is being discovered and evidenced with the work that we are fortunately able to do,” the general editor said.
“Hopefully we can, after completing this verification work of the elections, prolong alliances with some funders. But also incorporate and add more effectively to the media so that verification – as support for the quality of journalism – will be present, and that would also be a pledge of guarantee for freedoms because in several Latin American governments there are intentions to affect freedom of information and expression by all means,” Del Castillo said. "Then a verification system can be a good pledge of guarantee to preserve the freedom of information, of expression and therefore the quality of democracy.”
By November 2018, the Center for Economic and Social Reality Studies (CERES) based in Cochabamba, noted that Bolivia lacked a project focused on the verification of data despite the fact that general elections were approaching.
It was for this reason that CERES began a process of determining what made up the current ecosystem of false news in the country, and in February 2019, pilot tests launched as part of Chequea Bolivia, a data verification site that currently focuses on the general elections that the country will have on Oct. 20.
“Our methodology has been worked on on the basis of international experiences around the issue, we have worked a lot with Chequeado of Argentina, Verificado of Mexico and several organizations that have been in this for a while. And we have adapted them to a methodology that responds to our needs in the country,” said Juan Soruco, director of Chequea Bolivia, to the Knight Center.
Juan Carlos Uribe, project coordinator, works alongside Soruco, as well as two journalists in charge of verification and journalistic investigation, and two other people who work in the digital part to detect so called ‘fake news.’ This team of six people perform between four to six checks per day.
For Soruco, the project has a “novel aspect” that has to do with the union of three areas that do not always work together. One is the academy, with CERES in order to systematize the knowledge produced by the verifications; the work of journalists with their investigations; and finally the area of new technologies to uncover false news.
“Then there is a process, a very interesting experience that we hope that in addition to achieving the fundamental objective that is to help people, citizens, to detect false news [...] [it permits] an academic advance that may give important working material to the new formation and analysis of reality,” Soruco said.
In addition to publishing verifications on its portal, the team also seeks to make them go viral through its Twitter account, but in particular on Facebook, the social network most used in the country, as Juan Carlos Uribe, coordinator of Chequea Bolivia, explained to the Knight Center. Their most popular verifications have been shared between 9,000 and 12,000 times.
However, one of their biggest concerns is the role that the messaging application WhatsApp plays in the distribution of disinformation. According to Uribe, by figures from other countries, it is the platform through which fake news circulates most and that “not even WhatsApp itself can verify it.” That is why they are planning a strategy to combat disinformation on there as well.
“What we want is for people to be able to send us the news for us to verify. We are still in this process of working on this strategy as the main distribution tool,” Uribe said.
Chequea Bolivia also has some media outlets at the national level as allies that have shared its verifications, the coordinator said.
Uribe knows that they are about to start the "toughest" time of work. In these months, Chequea Bolivia has seen how false images, videos and alleged news items are shared on the networks largely driven by the polarization that the country is experiencing.
According to Soruco, this polarization has even created groups that specialize in making false news items. They are both people who sympathize with the ruling party and those that are against it.
The lack of transparency by the State also helps the spread of misinformation, Soruco believes.
For example, information recently circulated about the possible bankruptcy of the country's state oil company. For Soruco, verifying information was complicated because the official databases are outdated and when requests for information are made, they are not quick to provide it.
Chequea Bolivia has the financing to be able to work for a whole year thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), as well as CERES. Its objective is to be able to obtain the necessary financial support to continue with its verification work, a job that also seeks to help the general public to learn to differentiate this false information.
“The most important thing is public awareness, self-regulation of social networks is the only thing that can help to minimize them. I think there is no other way,” he concluded.