How fact-checkers are fighting coronavirus misinformation worldwide
Cristina Tardáguila is the Associate Director of the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN), a unit of the Poynter Institute created in 2015 and dedicated to promoting basic standards and bringing together fact-checkers worldwide. Tardáguila recently talked with our Journalist Fellows on IFCN’s response to the global pandemic. “It’s amazing what the mixture of panic and the lack of good data can do to our brains and to our capacity to sort fact from fiction. COVID–19 is the biggest challenge fact checkers have ever faced,” she said.
Tardáguila, who comes from Brazil and is based in Florida, is one of the coordinators of the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, a global network of researchers and journalists fighting misinformation on the outbreak around the world. More than 100 fact-checkers from 45 different countries have already joined so far.
The project started in late January with a shared Google Sheet. Today it has issued more than 1,500 fact-checks on the pandemic in 15 different languages. Every fact-check is available in this searchable database.
Tardáguila coordinates with her colleagues through Slack and publishes weekly reports. The most recent one points out that some fact-checkers are overwhelmed by an unprecedented demand during the coronavirus outbreak. “In the last elections, we received via WhatsApp an average of 600 requests per day and about 900 on peak days. Now we receive between 1,500 and 2,000 per day,” said Clara Jiménez Cruz, co-founder and editor of Maldita.es, a Spanish fact-checking news organisation.
“Time zones are a big struggle for us,” said Tardáguila, who gets messages from fact-checkers at any time. “This is not politics. We have to work fast because health issues can really cause harm. When you debunk something related to politics, half of the country doesn't care about what you say. But when you talk about health, everybody cares. So the pressure for us to be fast is very high.”
Tardáguila and her colleagues received a request to debunk if pure alcohol was good for COVID–19. At first she thought it was a ridiculous claim. But then, a few days later, she saw that dozens of Iranians had died from drinking pure alcohol. “This is how tense and intense this moment is,” she said. “You can’t believe the kind of things people believe.”
Misinformation about COVID–19 is global. The same hoaxes travel very fast from country to country and follow the spread of the virus. According to Tardáguila, these hoaxes come at least in five waves:
- The origin myths. These kinds of false stories claim that the virus was created by Bill Gates or by someone who wants to kill the anti-vaccination movement.
- People falling down. The second wave was shaped by videos of people falling down in China, allegedly as a result of COVID–19. These people were actually either drunk or suffering heart attacks.
- False cures. The third wave dealt with fake remedies and unreliable vaccines. Fact-checkers have debunked stories claiming that the pandemic can be cured by drinking bleach, very hot water, garlic soup or a special kind of tea.
- Supremacist claims. The fourth wave focused on claims that certain religions or races didn’t get infected.
- Testing and lockdowns. As people are forced to stay at home, the fifth wave deals with claims related to testing and quarantines.
Fact-checking has been successful in fighting against most of these waves. However, the one about false remedies is proving much more difficult to kill. This is the reason why Tardáguila and her colleagues hesitate when asked to debunk a politician on this topic. “As a Brazilian, we are having a hard time about this but we have to be very careful,” she said. “You have to focus on what’s really important. We have so much content to debunk every day that the ethics of those decisions are heavy. Are you going to fact-check a politician saying something stupid or a false cure? When you get so much potentially deadly information out there, it’s important that you debunk those claims first.”