What a university learnt from launching a fact-checking initiative in the Philippines

Professor Rachel Khan, who coordinated Tsek.ph, explains how her institution worked with 34 partners to cover elections in 2019 and 2022
Supporters of Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. take part in a campaign rally ahead of the 2022 elections. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Supporters of Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. take part in a campaign rally ahead of the 2022 elections. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

16th March 2023

Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines in 2016. During the campaign, his party used social media, especially Facebook and YouTube, to build favourable opinions about the candidate and disseminate disinformation on a massive scale. 

Duterte’s ascent to power was hard on journalists. Media freedoms shrank and online abuse increased exponentially. Maria Ressa, Nobel Prize winner and founder of news site Rappler, was targeted with a series of lawsuits for her reporting of Duterte’s oppressive ‘war on drugs’. 

As the Philippines went through its midterm elections in 2019, journalists launched several fact-checking projects to extend their watchdog function and hold candidates to account. One of those projects was Tsek.ph, a fact-checking site launched by media companies, civil society organisations, NGOs and academics at the University of the Philippines. 

Two things differentiate Tsek.ph from other fact-checking initiatives: it’s anchored by academics and focuses exclusively on fact-checking elections. The project was launched in time for the 2019 midterm elections and it was active during the 2022 general elections too.  

In May 2022 Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr was elected as President of the Philippines despite his family’s history. Marcos’ father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr, was convicted of stealing $658m from state coffers in 1993. During Marcos Sr’s time, around 3,000 people were killed by the police and millions more lived in extreme poverty.

Rachel Kahn.
Rachel Kahn. 

Rachel Khan is an associate dean of the UP College of Mass Communication and the coordinator of Tsek.ph. I spoke with her about the initiative and why it’s had such a rough journey. A Professor of Journalism, she also edits journals like the Asian Congress for Media and Communication Journal and Plaridel Journal. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Why did you launch Tsek.ph back in 2019?  

A. I attended the Trusted Media Summit with other academics in Singapore, where we learnt about CekFakta, a project from Indonesia. We saw their collaborative model and thought that it would work here in the Philippines. We had been doing some fact-checking in the university, but only as a class project

So we started Tsek.ph in time for the 2019 elections. It was the perfect time to put together a collaboration. The only way competing media outlets were going to collaborate with each other was if a neutral entity such as a university would take the lead. We set up an initial group and the university backed us up by giving us seed money. 

Q. What does collaborative fact-checking mean? 

A. Fact-checking poses a great opportunity for collaboration. Before 2019, some media platforms and NGOs were already doing fact-checking. So many ended up fact-checking the same things. Everybody was duplicating each other’s work. 

What we liked about the Indonesian model was that they were coordinating with each other. There was no duplication. This made it possible to do more fact-checks. With the amount of disinformation here in the Philippines, we thought that was the way to go. 

Q. How does collaborative fact-checking in Tsek.ph work?  

A. Since we already had a class on fact-checking here at the university, we used that as a takeoff point to train other media groups. Mainstream media was not doing formal fact-checking back in 2019. It was a new concept, so we set up several bootcamps to train reporters.  

Once there was a particular item that needed fact-checking, we told them to look for first-hand sources to verify whether the claim was true or false or somewhere in the middle. We were training them to look for primary sources. If it is a quote, it is necessary to contact the person quoted to see if he really said that. The same goes for videos from mainstream media. They often edit the original [video]. So we have to look for the original video about what the person said and in what context. And then we use reverse image search and other tools.  

We set up a secretariat for Tsek.ph that did fact-check curation. Once an organisation or a partner had a fact-check, we would be alerted through Slack. Our curators would double-check this fact-check before uploading it on our website. Sometimes they fact-checked news coverages. For example, if a senator made certain claims, they would check the said claim.  

In some cases, when there was an error in a news report they published and they couldn’t fact-check it themselves, they bounced it off to the group and the more neutral partners [such as academic institutions] were the ones fact-checking. Media did not fact-check other media, but academia did. 

We partnered with Google, Meta and the nonprofit Meedan. With the help of Meta, we were able to use AI to monitor the Facebook pages that were considered sources of misinformation and disinformation. 

Q. What would you say are the biggest challenges of collaborative fact-checking? 

A. In 2019, Tsek.ph started as an experiment. We didn't really know how to go about it. We couldn't launch earlier because we had to work out how to get competing media outlets to work together on a new initiative. We had to make them see this was not going to affect their bottom line. We needed them to understand we were not trying to take credit for something they did.  

We started in 2019 with only 11 partners. But we didn't have these problems in 2022 because news outlets already knew how we worked and recruitment was easier. We grew our partnerships and worked with 34 organisations. That included TV and radio stations, legacy newspapers and other academic institutions [such as Minda News and Philippine Press Institute].

With funding from Meta and the Google News Initiative, we hired dozens of curators and were able to work faster than three years before. We published 2-3 fact-checks a day. 

We only recruited credible news organisations. If they were biassed, if their news reporting was not objective and didn't do due diligence such as reporting all sides of the story or toeing the government line, we did not invite them to join. We only invited organisations that upheld journalistic values. Some outlets do have reports that seem pro administration, but they do strive to uphold objectivity. If they were tainted, they were not invited.  

We still had an uphill task. Candidates were able to buy out influencers, who already had followers. We knew about these inauthentic, coordinated efforts, but we didn't realise how big the spread was or how social media platforms could be the enemy. Some influencers were not paid for by campaign managers, but put out misinformation just to gain followers. 

A particular piece of disinformation was debunked, but then it would reappear on another site or would be spread by influencers. If a lie is repeated, people think it’s true. 

Q. How do you assess the success of Tsek.ph?

A. As early as 2016, we realised that there were Facebook platforms that were used for disinformation, and that candidates were attacking mainstream media and causing a lack of trust in mainstream media. We realised this was going to happen again in 2019, so we started Tsek.ph only to fact-check immediately before and during the elections. 

We started two months before the elections. But these disinformation campaigns were around for six years so [people pushing lies] had a six year lead. There was only so much we could do. But we wanted to offer a platform to those who were still looking for the truth. 

In 2022 our project was expanded. Civil society organisations working in education saw we were reviving Tsek.ph and they asked to join us. Three non-governmental organisations that started fact-checking during COVID-19 joined us too.  

The 2022 presidential elections were all about historical distortions [Marcos Jr wanted to whitewash the image of his family] and ABKD, an NGO that works with historical distortions, wanted to be included. But Marcos’ campaign was huge. I don't know how effective we were because we didn't have the same financial capacity as those spreading disinformation. 

The results of the election suggest fact-checks made little impact compared to the impact of disinformation. But at least it got people to have a fact-checking state of mind. For us, that is already a victory. Hopefully, it will train them to fact-check their own sources of news in the years to come.

Q. What is the future of Tsek.ph? 

A. Partners want to continue even in between elections. But we can’t lead on this because it is not exactly compatible with the university’s mandate. We are a state university after all. We can do stuff on a project basis, but to establish it as something permanent is not possible. Since we only operate 10 months a year, what do we do in the remaining period when we have no students to help run it?  

We’ve told our partners that they have to run it by themselves without us. That is making it hang a bit. We did meet with them recently. But at the moment we can only keep on coming out during elections.  

I see our role as a university more in the field of media literacy than in this kind of firefighting that we are doing in Tsek.ph. In the longer run, that is what we are going to focus on and we hope that others take up the cudgels of the firefighting. 

Q. What do university students take away from this?  

A. A lot of the fact-checkers working in Filipino media organisations are actually alumni of our university. As soon as they graduate, they get hired as fact-checkers because they are already trained. News organisations don’t need to train them.  

Many of our former students are now taking the lead. For example, all of the journalists working at VeraFiles, which is part of the International Fact-checking Network in the Philippines, are alumni of our university.

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