Fact-checking is not always easy, but when politics are so polarized that people can't agree on basic facts like the inflation rate, it can be an ordeal.
That's the climate in Argentina, which is in the throes of a bitter feud between Cristina Fernandez’s government and some media outlets, among them the powerful Grupo Clarín.
The polarization and biased information permeates many sectors of the country, making it difficult to establish a common basis for public discussion.
Enter Chequeado.com, a fact-checking service that wants to improve the public debate. In this polarized climate, it's adopted creative strategies to promote and fund its work, from a hilarious video that turns false claims into a song to a crowdfunding campaign through Idea.me, Latin America’s Kickstarter.
In the Spanish-language video, called "Paren el Guitarreo" (which is slang roughly translated as "Stop with the lies"), a young man sings a song featuring false--and sometimes plain absurd--quotes from noted politicians.
Chequeado Executive Director Laura Zommer talked with IJNet about the site's strategy. She discussed the role social networks play in data verification, how an organization can stay independent and how to make data projects attractive to the general public.
IJNet: When did Chequeado.com launch?
Laura Zommer: Chequeado’s first publication was in October 2010...and [it] was founded by three Argentines, who don’t come from the media world, nor the world of nonprofits, nor the world of politics. [The founders are: July Aranovich, PhD in physics from Stanford, Roberto Lugo, PhD in chemistry from Cambridge and José Alberto Bekinschtein, economist].
Although this might seem odd at first, it’s quite logical. They, coming from the hard sciences, have the need to have evidence in the discussion. They believe the quality of public debate in Argentina is low.... They say: if we have no evidence, and we are not discussing facts [upon] which we agree...how do we make sure that, in the context of polarization and extreme bias, we have facts that allow us to engage in a meaningful discussion?... At least let’s agree on the facts.
Chequeado is the first project of its kind to Argentina and the region...but it is not original in the world. In the U.S. you have Factcheck.org, from the University of Pennsylvania, and PolitiFact. And then there are similar projects in Germany.
[While Chequeado was inspired by factcheck.org], there are two important differences: the first is that Factcheck.org only fact-checks elected officials. And we thought that in the context of Argentina’s polarization, to fact-check [only] elected officials was taking a position that could lead people to question Chequeado’s legitimacy from the start.... The decision we made was to not only fact-check elected officials...but also other important voices in the debate: social actors, entrepreneurs, opinion leaders and the media.
The second difference is that they use a more academic language while ours is more similar to journalism. Based on the idea that social media platforms are going to be an engine and catalyst for what we were doing, we decided that the statements will have a score. The name of the person, the statement we are fact-checking and a score.... We started with “true” or “false” and now we’ve developed a list of nine categories...and all of them are described on the page.
The method we apply, which are seven steps to do a fact-check, is open to the public. Our “reading contract” with our community is a little different from traditional media. It is not “trust me because I am La Nación, Página 12...and here is the information you need,” but rather Chequeado opens data produced by others and invites you to evaluate if this data is relevant or not to the claims being made. From the start there is an assumption of a more active reader.
IJNet: How has Chequeado been received by the public? In the context of Argentina’s polarization, I imagine that in some cases it might be vital to know if a statement is true.
LZ: I think something that allows us to say that we are doing our job relatively well is that we’ve risen above the polarization. Today Chequeado is perceived as a legitimate source and is retweeted both by government officials (kirchneristas) and members of the opposing party. Obviously, a government official will not retweet something that shows that the president said something false. It will retweet a fact-check that puts a member of the opposing party on the spot. But a member of the opposing party will do the same.
Our motto is: we are not sympathizers of Kirchner nor of the Propuesta Republicana, a right-wing political party and one of the main opposing parties in Argentina].... We decided that we would not receive government funding and, following the logic of today’s political polarization, that we would not receive funding from Grupo Clarín.
IJNet: How are you funded?
LZ: We follow a strategy of diversification of funds. We have four sources of funding. The most important one is support from individuals, and we also receive donations from companies. [Since the beginning of the year Chequeado has received support from 101 individuals and 37 companies, which include both one-time donations and monthly support.] There are no ads on the page but you can see in our page what companies support us.
We have international cooperation projects, which for now are just a few, including one with UNICEF. The fourth source is revenue from other activities: income that doesn’t come in the form of donations. Our fact-checks are reposted regularly in other news outlets (including La Nación newspaper and several national radios) and we receive an income from that agreement.
And we also receive income from data journalism courses we organize for journalism students and professional journalists who want to know more about our fact-checking method and eventually use it themselves.
This is today. The hope is that by 2015 we’ll be funded only by small donors.
IJNet: How did you come up with the idea for the "Paren el guitarreo" video?
LZ: One of our main challenges is that data is boring. Except for us nerds that love data, data is not reaching the masses.... Chequeado has something that can be perceived as annoying by the general public in that it's constantly confronting people with the fact that they fell for something that was false.... Since we start from a place where we are working with rational and uncomfortable things, we wanted to use the video to move away from that. Get people involved by appealing to their feelings of empathy. And we thought humor was a good resource.
Maite Fernández is IJNet’s managing editor. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and has an M.J. in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland.
Image: screengrab from Chequeado's promotional video on Idea.me.