Fact-checking around the world: Inside Colombiacheck

by Ana Luisa González
Oct 30, 2018 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation

This is the seventh installment of our series "Fact-checking around the world," which highlights organizations fighting against misinformation worldwide. You can read the rest of the series here

Over the past year, efforts to weed out fake news have boomed. In 2016, during the peace agreement talks between the government and The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Consejo de Redacción (CdR), a journalist association that promotes investigative journalism in Colombia, launched the first online fact-checking media organization in the country devoted to verifying public discourse.

Modeled off Chequeado, an Argentinian nonprofit fact-checking organization, Colombiacheck — initially funded by the Open Society Foundation — started an uphill battle against the spread of fake news on social media before the referendum on the peace agreements.

In the fall of 2016, Colombians voted against the peace agreement with FARC rebels by a margin of less than one-half of one percent. After the astonishing referendum result, a prominent politician admitted to deliberately misleading the public with “distorted messages” on social media ahead of one of the vote.

That was a starting point for Colombiacheck, and they began to think about a strategy to reduce the proliferation of fake news. “We believe, as well as the academics, that the [referendum] results were due to the huge amount of fake news,” says Dora Montero, an investigative journalist and co-founder of Colombiacheck. “The referendum was the first call to get an overview on misinformation and create a strategy, which we are still working on.”

After this first phase, Colombiacheck worked on verifying public speech during the presidential election campaign and now they will be focusing on the regional elections. They hope to create more alerts when fake news is shared, and to inform citizens on how to recognize fake or misleading information on social media. They also want to conduct in-depth research.

Since its creation, Colombiacheck set up a solid methodology that is similar to Chequeado but they have adopted certain details that change regionally. As part of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), they are certified and follow the network’s code principles.

The team of five journalists and one intern have a strong data analysis method. Miriam Forero, the data editor says, “Colombiacheck has identified that the data analysis component is very strong and very useful for applying the fact-checking methodology, since it gives precision to the verifications.”

Expanding their reach

CdR, which has more than 120 associated journalists around the country, offers training on topics such as fact-checking methodology and verifying information. Last year, they conducted three workshops across the country for local media outlets and will teach three more workshops this year.

Since Colombiacheck is part of the network, they are constantly taking courses to improve their accuracy and data analysis skills, and learning new technological tools. For instance, Twitter Check, which is a database search tool that allows them to track down trending searches.

Despite the efforts, Colombiacheck will not take responsibility for ending the trend of fake news because it is difficult to stop disinformation. Montero says, “If a fake news spread out 10,000 times on social media during one hour, when we publish the fact-checking reports, we won’t reach even the one-third part of the audience that it has already reached.”

This year Colombiacheck collaborated with other media outlets including El Colombiano, La Patria, Semana and Pulzo in order to republish their fact-checking research and gain a larger audience. Also, they provided fact-checking training.

Today Colombiacheck is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, Deutsche Welle Akademie and Facebook, which recently took a significant role in combating fake news. The social media platform is working with certified fact-checkers to verify information and its veracity on their platforms.

Colombiacheck is one of the 24 fact-checking organizations that works with Facebook to reduce the amount of fake news on the social network. “Now with the agreement with Facebook, we help them to fact-check the information in their search platform,” says Montero. “Then Facebook can report who is publishing fake news and and block them.”

In an effort to reach larger audiences, they are receiving queries posed by their readers.

Forero, says, “Our readers suggest topics or requests to verify information that they get from other media.”After they evaluate the request, they might investigate their readers’ queries and publish the fact-checks online.

Now the challenge is adopting new formats such as automatic search for providing instant fact-check statements as well as being more effective disseminating their work.

“We need to effectively venture into new, innovative formats and use the same channels that are being used to spread fake news [with] clear and convincing language,” says Forero.

But the challenge is not just for Colombiacheck. The spread of misinformation across social networks has posed additional challenges to mainstream media.

According to Montero, having fact-checkers on staff is rare, even at mainstream publications. Except for La Silla Vacía, a media outlet that seeks to debunk fake news on WhatsApp, there are very few editorial teams that include fact-checking practices.

“The media doesn’t have training or knowledge for applying the fact-checking methodology,” says Montero.

Colombiacheck opened up a new chapter for the factual accuracy in public speech in the country. “When we started, we constantly published fact-checking reports but fake news was unstoppable,” says Montero. “Now the capability to suspend media outlets for publishing or sharing fake news on social media will create a new type of check and control [on fake news].”

Photo CC-licensed by Unsplash via Arthur Osipyan