Comprova, a Brazilian collaborative project that brings together 24 media outlets in the country, started what it calls a special phase to verify information about the new coronavirus.
The project was created in the context of the 2018 presidential campaign, to combat disinformation in one of the most polarized elections in the country's history. From July to December 2019, Comprova entered a second stage, focused on checks of federal public policies.
According to the journalist and editor of Comprova, Sérgio Lüdtke, the organizers were already preparing to start the third phase, within a few months, to follow municipal elections. The plan was to carry out checks on public policies and on broad themes that arose during the campaign, in addition to promoting training courses and consultancy for local journalists who would cover the elections.
"That was our initial idea, it was not discarded, but it was somewhat buried at the time by the coronavirus," Lüdtke told the Knight Center. The journalist has been organizing, since the beginning of March, to launch the new stage, which started on the 25th and had already produced at least 10 checks as of April 1.
"We had planned to restart the more intense work around June, due to the municipal elections, but First Draft invited its partners around the world to reactivate the projects to combat disinformation at this time and we accepted the challenge, as well as the member newsrooms of the consortium," Marcelo Träsel, president of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji, for its acronym in Portuguese), the entity that coordinates Comprova, told the Knight Center.
For him, combating disinformation during the pandemic can, "more than ever, save lives.” The journalist mentions the statements made by President Jair Bolsonaro, who constantly minimizes the disease, calling the new coronavirus "gripezinha” (a minor flu). The president has criticized the social isolation measures, encouraging Brazilians to leave home. Bolsonaro has also blamed the media for, according to him, spreading panic in the population, and has been touting an alleged cure with hydroxychloroquine, a drug that is being tested and that has not been proven effective.
"Disinformation can lead people to expose themselves to the new coronavirus, or to use dangerous treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine. In Brazil, above all, we are dealing with lies created or divulged by the President of the Republic, who has a lot of influence on the population. It is time for all journalists and fact-checkers to come together to avoid a humanitarian tragedy," Träsel said by email.
Träsel and Lüdtke say that the current Brazilian context is fertile ground for the spread of fake news. According to Lüdtke, who has been monitoring social networks on the topic, disinformation has grown a lot in the last three weeks, what he calls "pandisinformation."
Träsel stresses that Brazilians "are subject to the most irresponsible government in the entire world at this time of crisis." "In addition, reports and even testimonies from former allies have already shown the existence of a team dedicated to informational guerrillas on social networks, subordinate to the president. These two factors, associated with the low level of education of Brazilians and the commercial strategies of telephone operators, like the zero rating for apps like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, create an environment in which disinformation thrives more than cattle in deforested areas,” Träsel said.
Within this context, Comprova can have an important impact, according to its organizers, because it is very widespread. The 24 outlets, spread over several regions of Brazil, reach different audiences, Lüdtke said. "We have a very large distribution capacity. Last Wednesday, for example, [the TV channel] SBT ran in the evening news program, this reaches 15, 18 million people. We have UOL, which is a huge site, Folha , Estadão…," Lüdtke said.
Another thing that differentiates Comprova is its methodology. The checks are placed in a shared document and several journalists from the coalition start working on the check at the same time. There is an area of discussion, in the document itself, where journalists define the tasks: who will look for what information, who will answer a certain question.
"Each one collaborates with what they can. Even outlets that are competitors help each other a lot, they exchange sources. I have the last word being the editor, but everyone edits," Lüdtke explained. When the check is ready, it’s opened for cross-checking. To be published, the content needs to be verified by three other outlets that did not participate in the original check.
"Every outlet who cross-checks puts its logo on the verification. So there are always at least 6 people involved in each check. It is common to have two or three journalists working on the verification and another 15 doing a second check. It is a luxurious team," he said.
Lüdtke recognizes that the rigorous methodology also takes more time. "It is a slower process than in the checking agencies, but it gives us this guarantee of practically making no mistakes. To date, we have not had any errors since 2018.”
For this reason, Comprova does not fail to carry out verifications when they have already been carried out by fact-checking organizations. Lüdtke said that this is justified because Comprova's methodology is different, and the checks will reach other audiences. The journalist also argues that Comprova seeks the original sources, responsible for publishing the rumor for the first time, to listen to these people. With this, they often get the user to publish a retraction or simply delete the false information.
To coordinate the coalition, Comprova has a central nucleus, with three people, who work part-time on the project. The creation of the team, in addition to the special phase against the coronavirus, was made possible by funding from Google News Initiative (GNI), Facebook Journalism Project, First Draft, WhatsApp, and by the support of the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation (FAAP).
The nucleus is responsible for maintaining the website and social networks, as well as organizing the workflow. First, the core journalists perform a scenario analysis and monitoring on social networks, to identify topics and profiles that may be the target of fake news or producers. They also do active searches and use a variety of tools, such as a monitor from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, which follows open WhatsApp groups. "We only check what is going viral or what we understand has the potential to cause very great damage," Lüdtke said.
The nucleus has also helped in the checks, because, according to Lüdtke, the newsrooms are increasingly smaller and already overloaded with coverage of the coronavirus. "It is to help outlets and increase manpower, because many of them were not prepared for this new phase of the project and are unable to dedicate a professional to do this work,” he said.
At the same time, the demand for checks has been enormous. Lüdtke said that there is already a long line of checks, and the team is unable to answer all the suggestions that arrive through WhatsApp and the project's website. In just one day, the second of the special phase, there were 300 messages.
There is also an expectation that the Comprova cycles will leave a legacy for Brazilian journalism, Träsel said. "It is the greatest example of collaboration between newsrooms in the history of Brazilian journalism. We hope that, in addition to fulfilling the immediate objectives of Comprova, the project will serve to generate lasting relationships between participating companies and encourage new collaborative projects in the future.”