Verificado 2018: Fighting misinformation collaboratively

Verificado 2018, a collaborative fact-checking project that took place during Mexico’s presidential election last year, was one of the country’s largest collaborative journalistic efforts to date. Thanks to its social media first approach and strong focus on audience engagement, the initiative bagged this year’s World Digital Media Award for Best Innovation to Engage Youth Audiences.

by Simone Flueckiger | November 12, 2019

Inspired by collaborative projects such as Electionland in the US and CrossCheck in France, Diana Larrea Maccise, a senior strategist for audience development at AJ+, wanted to put together a similar initiative for Mexico’s election to tackle the anticipated surge in misinformation surrounding it.

“Social media is thriving in Mexico, and this was the first election in which it would play a more important role,” she says. “So, of course, misinformation was also expected to happen on there this time around.

AJ+ Español partnered with Pop-Up Newsroom, which focuses on collaborative reporting initiatives, and Animal Político, a digital native news outlet in Mexico with vast experience in investigative journalism and fact-checking.

The initiative saw a core team of 30 journalists work together from March to July 2018 to produce debunks, fact-checks, visuals, and educational content.

For the most part, the journalists collaborated digitally, using teamwork tools such as Check (a collaborative verification platform by Meedan) and Slack, but acted as a centralised newsroom throughout the initiative. On election weekend, the team came together and worked out of a physical space.

In addition to the three core collaborators, AJ+ Español, Animal Político, and Pop-Up Newsroom, some 90 partners, including news organisations, NGOs, and academic institutions, participated in the project, ensuring Verificado was represented in 28 out of Mexico’s 32 states. Funding for the initiative mainly came from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Google News Initiative.

The project took shape during a workshop ahead of the official launch of the presidential campaigns, when 100 journalists from Verificado’s partner network came together to receive training in verification techniques, and collaboratively define metrics, roles, functions, and workflows.

Making fact-checking social media first

The bulk of activity around Verificado was led by the 30 journalists who worked on the fact-checking and multimedia desk, which were led by Animal Político and AJ+ Español respectively. Pop-Up Newsroom brought its experience around co-designing workflows and roles, and supervised verification training.

During the four-month election cycle, the team produced some 400 articles, more than 100 visuals, such as videos, loops, and social cards, as well as educational content about verification, all of which was distributed via social media and posted on Verificado’s website. The three presidential debates that took place throughout the election period were fact-checked in real-time, in an effort led by Animal Político and accompanied by original multimedia content, such as lives, graphics and surveys to the audience, created by AJ+ Español.

The team also produced several Facebook Live videos during Election Day and the days leading up to it, explaining how the initiative was born, showing viewers the Verificado newsroom, and reporting directly from the National Electoral Institute.

“I think one of the reasons that made Verificado such an impactful initiative is the fact that we made fact-checking and verification social media first,” Larrea Maccise says.

“We made verification content shareable, we made it fresh, we made it visually appealing, and took it to social media in a native way.”

This meant that specific formats were developed for the different platforms, or that content was altered and tailored to fit the environment in which it was going to be published.

At its peak, Verificado’s Facebook page had some 200,000 likes and followers, and more than 200,000 people were following its Twitter page. The website received more than 5 million unique visits.

To reach an even broader audience, the centralised newsroom distributed verified content to the partners in the network, which would then publish it via their own channels. Some partners took a more active role and produced their own fact-checks, which were verified and approved by the central team to maintain the Verificado brand’s consistency.

Audience engagement is key

In addition to collaboration among different organisations, direct interaction with the audience on social media also played a massive part in the success of Verificado, and made it stand out among other initiatives with the goal of combating misinformation.

From the start, the Mexican public was encouraged to engage with the team by submitting dubious claims, images or videos they came across for verification, using the hashtag #QuieroQueVerifiquen (which translates in English as: “I want you to verify”) on Facebook and Twitter.

Thousands of verification requests came in each day via these channels (including ones that were off-topic), with the team relying on predetermined criteria to select which ones could and would be verified.

“The hashtag was one of the main vehicles for the audience to engage with us, and it worked fantastically,” Larrea Maccise says.

Additionally, AJ+ Español set up and led a WhatsApp channel to create a one-on-one communication line with users.

An interaction between a user and a member of the WhatsApp team

Rather than opting for broadcast lists, which make it possible to send the same message to multiple contacts at once, a dedicated team of three people replied directly to users sending a message or a request for verification, because they “didn’t want to bombard subscribers with information they weren’t demanding.”

Instead, they repackaged the debunks they produced for individual users into so-called “Vertificados” (a portmanteau of vertical and verified), which were made available to the entire community via the WhatsApp status feature.

Throughout the election cycle, they produced 390 such statuses, and received 60,000 messages and fact-check requests from the 10,000 people subscribed to the WhatsApp line.

Ongoing fact-checking efforts

Even after the project had officially come to a close in July 2018, requests for verifications continued to come in via Verificado’s social media channels.

To fulfil the audience’s demands and continue the mission of the project, AJ+ launched AJ+ Verifica, a new content vertical aimed at verifying and fact-checking dubious content, and helping audiences navigate the digital ecosystem. Meanwhile, Animal Político is continuing its fact-checking efforts with the “El Sabueso” project.

Similar to the work AJ+ Español was doing for Verificado, the AJ+ Verifica team focuses on audiovisual formats native to social media platforms.

“We keep building on that and continue to find new and innovative ways of presenting these debunked stories to our audience.”

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