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Disinformation, elections, fact-checking and beyond: the view from Latin America (Demo)

This is a translation of the original article.

The creation and distribution of inaccurate information – what some refer to as “fake news” – is nothing new. Generating propaganda and distributing false information to favour a particular government or political movement is not exclusive to the digital era. It is, however, clear that the rise of the Internet and the resulting connectivity between millions of people around the world over different channels and platforms allows for magnification of this type of content at a time – and in a way – that is unprecedented.

As noted by researchers Julie Posetti and Alice Matthews in A Short Guide to the History of ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation, “misinformation, disinformation and propaganda have been features of human communication since at least the Roman times when Antony met Cleopatra.” Posetti and Matthews describe a series of world-impacting falsehoods that have been generated throughout history for the express purpose of creating an environment of disinformation among citizens.

The difference today is that easy access to digital platforms, large audiences eager for new content, the sophistication of certain methods of information generation and a lack of digital education, complicate the process – not only with respect to detection of disinformation, but also its neutralisation. People are exposed to a huge amount of information, and can find it very difficult to determine where the news originates, its quality, and its overall characteristics – including whether it is truthful or accurate.

According to information in an MIT study entitled “The spread of true and false news online”, false political news is shared more often on Twitter than other types of false information, reaching “more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than other types of false news reached 10,000 people.” Truthful news, on the other hand, takes six times longer to reach 1,500 people, and false news stories have a 70% higher probability of being retweeted as compared to accurate stories. 

Another daunting fact is that those most responsible for the dissemination of false news are people, not bots.

In recent years, political events during which so-called “fake news” has been disseminated broadly over social media and digital platforms have had a major impact on the public. The Brexit results in the United Kingdom, the presidential election in the United States that saw the election of President Donald Trump – and the subsequent Cambridge Analytica scandal – the negative result in the Colombian peace accord referendum, and the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are among many events that have sparked growing concern about the impact of misinformation and disinformation on democratic development, and on society in general.

What is certain is that these actions – some of them orchestrated by groups that are experts in creating disinformation, and others generated spontaneously by indiscriminate sharing of dubious information – have taken society, including governments, the media, journalists, academics and researchers, by surprise. There are widely diverging opinions about their real impact.

A 2018 European Commission report states that instances of disinformation have had transformational societal and political impacts on a worldwide scale. A recent study on disinformation on the Internet during election periods in Latin America and the Caribbean, authored by a group of prominent Latin American civil society organisations including the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC) in Argentina, the Karisma Foundation in Colombia and the Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales in Mexico, however, noted that in spite of the large number of examples, there is still no conclusive evidence that disinformation campaigns influence election results.

What is known is that in countries experiencing a high degree of political polarisation, disinformation appears to accentuate and support previously entrenched positions.

Experience gained during earlier events in Latin America may make it possible for countries with political processes taking place this year to strengthen their defences and better anticipate issues.

Many dimensions need to be taken into consideration when searching for solutions to this complex problem. No one single formula will address disinformation. Every country, with its culture, its ways of consuming information, and its levels of technological penetration, is different – and these distinctions have to be taken into consideration. Digital platforms, the media and civil society in general are organising themselves to implement initiatives to deal with disinformation in a context where all actors play a key role.

Global and local alliances to verify and counteract misinformation and disinformation

Information of this type can affect the democratic right to make informed choices, affecting citizens’ decision-making during election periods.

Within this context, and based on the experiences of countries throughout the world during election periods, various actions have been taken to counteract the effects of misinformation and disinformation in Latin America. Organisations, the media, and digital platforms have formed alliances, with the goal of creating awareness and checking false, erroneous or dubious information disseminated not just on social media, but also by media outlets. IFEX members, including Verificado (Cencos and ARTICLE 19 in Mexico), Comprova (ABRAJI in Brazil), Colombia Check and Ecuador Chequea (Fundamedios), and currently Reverso (Argentina) and Verificado (Cainfo in Uruguay), have participated in a number of these initiatives. The latter two initiatives are taking place within the context of presidential election campaigns taking palce in Argentina and Uruguay in October and November of this year.

Costa Rica and Colombia are especially interesting, as they are home to initiatives that are being undertaken by governments themselves.

In Costa Rica, in addition to the DobleCheck and No Caiga programmes developed by the media and universities, the government has, strikingly, developed its own information verification platform called Gobierno Aclara (The Government Clarifies). They point out that they do not verify information produced by the media, journalists or other actors with an established record, but rather anonymous content circulating on social media.

In Colombia, the #VerdadElecciones2019 (TruthElections2019) strategy was organised by the Electoral Registry in alliance with media, universities, and political parties committed to clarifying when false information is being circulated. The strategy combines the use of technology to detect and monitor content, with verification work carried out by specialised media. The main digital technology companies (Google, Facebook and Twitter) have joined in this effort to mitigate the dissemination of false information.

These alliances working to verify information in the public discourse have been the most notable and prolific alternative instruments developed in Latin America in the fight against disinformation.

In Argentina this year the 100 por cierto (100 percent) joint action was undertaken by IFEX member the Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA), along with Chequeado and the Thompson Foundation. The organisations will work together for 30 months, conducting an investigation into the disinformation situation in the country, including an analysis of its impact on professional journalism and ways in which audiences obtain information, as well as the manner in which fake news affects decisions made by citizens. The project will also explore interdisciplinary and progressive solutions to the issue.

At the global level, initiatives such as First Draft have been developed. First Draft was created in 2015 to focus on investigating disinformation and providing education on the issue and ways to neutralise it, as well as undertaking information verification activities with allies from various countries and different types of organisations. It developed as an alliance between technology companies, universities, the media, and journalists seeking to detect false information, in particular via the CrossCheck verification method. Over the years they have investigated and accompanied the electoral processes in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil and Nigeria. In 2019 they will be providing support to journalists and organisations during the elections in Uruguay and Argentina.

The Trust Project (TTP) is another interesting global initiative being developed with an interdisciplinary focus. The project, created in 2017, proposes a re-evaluation of the truthfulness of news items using transparency standards that help audiences easily assess the quality and credibility of the journalism. It comprises a consortium of 125 media outlets based throughout the world, in addition to academics and members of civil society, who adhere to a statement of principles and display a TPP logo, called the Trust Mark, on articles that have been produced applying the TPP’s standards.

Indispensable technological solutions

After having received ongoing worldwide criticism, suffered enormous economic losses, and had its credibility damaged by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook is developing various technologies to confront these issues. Just recently it announced the Deepfake Detection Challenge (DFDC), which, in association with Microsoft and universities, seeks to neutralise the impact of fake videos that have been modified using artificial intelligence technology. Facebook is also working on the creation of a library of gestures of so-called “deepfakes” so that investigators can develop new detection tools.

A while ago Facebook also added a feature to news feeds that circulate on its platform. This “Context Button” provides additional background on news items so that users can decide if it is reliable information to share.

Meanwhile, Google has reported that it is adjusting its search engine algorithms to adequately, and with increasing accuracy, filter out suspect information disguised as news, while increasing and prioritizing search engine results for relevant content from reliable sources. In addition to its search engine, Google has implemented measures on YouTube to increase the prominence of videos from higher quality sources.

Knowing that in countries like Brazil fake news circulated freely via WhatsApp during the last election campaign, as of January 2019 the messaging platform began limiting users to forwarding messages a maximum of five times  in an effort to combat the proliferation of false information.

Education, an unlimited and enduring resource

Several projects are focusing on education. In Latin America, the most important technology platforms, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, provide economic and technological resources, as well as specialists to train a variety of actors who have been impacted by disinformation, including journalists, educators and government officials. These are the companies paying the most attention to demonstrating that they are concerned about the impact of disinformation, and are joining efforts to develop educational tools for verifying information, among other things.

But education is where governments must play a key role during this explosion of disinformation. In Brazil, they have been providing “media education” as a subject for six years in schools, in addition to the classics like math and history, in an attempt to teach students how to identify fake news and to refrain from sharing content from unknown sources.

Despite the fact that it is believed that young people experience the most exposure to false information due to the amount of time they spend online, they are not the only ones who require training. Older adults are also susceptible, as noted by French journalist Robin Andraca, who points out that his experience in the Libération daily’s Checknews initiative demonstrates the problem is not with millennials, but with their parents and grandparents, who blindly trust all the information that is disseminated disguised as news.

The education route – at different levels and for all ages – is a slow process, but one with transformative possibilities in the long run. This is especially important as the phenomenon of disinformation is not expected to end, but rather to change, with the emergence of new formats and platforms. It is hoped that these types of initiatives, similar to those being carried out in Europe, will be replicated throughout educational environments in Latin America.

With respect to government action, there are those who hope that solutions in the fight against disinformation will be approached from a regulatory perspective. Experience, however, indicates that intentions to regulate with the aim of combatting false news can create more risks than solutions – and may threaten freedom of expression. The regulatory option always seems to conflict with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The previously mentioned study on disinformation on the Internet during election periods in Latin America and the Caribbean points out that different legislative proposals at the regional level have ended up being simplistic and restrictive of the right to inform and be informed, and have failed to provide significant solutions.

Multi-sectoral experience and commitment is indispensable in the fight against disinformation. Different actors, including journalists and the media, civil society, academics and researchers, digital platforms and states and governments, all have responsibilities. And it is clear that the solutions must include a variety of approaches, embracing technological developments, research and news verification. But education, via digital literacy and critical analysis training, is especially important. Within this context, emphasis should be placed once again on the value of professional and high quality journalism. It is also important to continually call for transparency from the digital platforms with respect to the algorithms they use for displaying and prioritising content since the processes for disseminating false news will become more sophisticated on an ongoing basis and will continually adapt to the arrival of new platforms and changes in users’ habits.


This is part of a series IFEX is producing on regional experiences with the global problem of information disorder, and what people are doing to counter it. While accusations of ‘fake news!’ still take up enormous bandwidth, the term is vague at best, and easily manipulated. Following the important work of Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan, we consider three aspects of “information disorder”: disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information. Disinformation is information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country. Misinformation is information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm. Mal-information is information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, social group, organisation or country.

We hope this will help broaden understanding and encourage dialogue about the problem of information disorder as well as the repercussions countermeasures may have on civic space and on our right to freedom of expression and information.

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