Misinformation and fake news have played a significant role in Colombia's 2018 parliamentary and presidential election campaigns, but a digital fact-checking project has been finding out what was true – and what wasn't.
"Colombiacheck" is a unique Colombian digital research project based that has had journalists and students taking a closer look at issues around the election campaigns, including financing and statements made by candidates.
2018 has been an intense election year for Colombia. Voters went to the parliamentary polls in March, then again in May for the first round of the presidential election, and finally again in June for the presidential run-off. These were the first nationwide elections since the 2016 peace treaty was signed by the then-government and the leftist rebel part group, FARC.
Center-right politicians and parties won the 2018 elections but not with an overriding majority. Presidential candidate Iván Duque Márquez of the conservative Centro Democrático party and opponent of the peace agreement, won the run-off and was sworn in as president in August. But his rival, Gustavo Petro of the leftist party Colombia Humana, won more than 40 per cent of the vote – a much wider margin than originally expected. As a result, the country has remained deeply divided, especially with regard to the peace process.
Checking facts in a heated atmosphere
Misinformation and false reports were spread ahead of the elections, and in part by the parties themselves. As a response, the Colombian journalists' network Consejo de Redacción (CdR), together with support from DW Akademie, launched "Colombiacheck" to verify alleged facts and information. Journalists trained young students in fact-checking, and a 15-member team then closely examined the candidates' statements.
Sania Salazar, a CdR journalist, says it makes an impact when politicians realize their statements can be verified. "Politicians now realize that the media can check their statements and that they are responsible for what they say," she points out. "And it means that people can make their decisions based on verified information," she says.
Colombiacheck activists want to make it harder to spread false statements as a way to strengthen social debates. The members check and compare statements with various independent sources and then put them in categories ranging from "true", "slightly or strongly exaggerated”, "overly simplified", to "misleading" or "false".
"Our methodology meets international standards," says Dora Montero, Head of CdR. "When civil servants give a speech, we check it against reliable facts to see whether their statements were true, false or overly simplified."
Social media: Top tool for spreading misinformation - and countering it
Colombiacheck publishes results on its website and on popular social media sites. The team also uses formats otherwise unusual for journalists.
Daniela Ramírez, a student, wants to reach Colombian voters where they're most confronted with misinformation: on social media sites and in private chat rooms.
Misinformation or fake news can be spread using various formats. "Memes (short images, videos or texts) or GIFs are a simple and effective means for reaching people," says Daniela Ramírez, a student. "They also appeal to people who aren’t used to, or don’t like, reading paragraphs that are 15 lines long," she says.
During the presidential election campaigns, for example, retouched photos were posted online showing prominent FARC members wearing T-shirts printed with Gustavo Petro's campaign logo. Users were mislead to think that the left-wing presidential candidate was linked to the former guerrillas. The photos were shared thousands of times on WhatsApp groups, but Colombiacheck countered the action by creating its own meme showing the photos were fakes.
The technical quality of misinformation is often very high. A popular video that looked similar to Iván Duque's official campaign ads, for example, told viewers who had voted for Duque in the first ballot that they didn't have to vote in the run-off election, as well. Their initial vote, they were told, would automatically be counted twice.
Another photo making the rounds on social media was one showing the logo of a popular radio station. Candidate Gustavo Petro was misquoted as saying he wanted to abolish the Baranquilla carnival – one of the largest and most popular carnivals in the world. The photo was shared after Petro had in fact given the station an interview.
Do candidates stand by their statements?
This is the first time that fact-checking and this type of reporting has been done in Colombia. Colombiacheck was given a test run with the parliamentary elections in March. When the journalists realized that only 30% of the false reports and fake news had reached them and were verifiable, they changed their approach for the presidential elections.
"Before the run-off was held, we compared statements the candidates had made ahead of the first round with the ones they were making now. We wanted to find out whether they'd stayed with their original positions or had changed them," says Montero.
Following the national elections, Colombiacheck members want to expand the project and verify facts in the upcominglocal elections.
As in the past, the peace agreement with FARC will continue to be an issue in Colombia – in upcoming local elections, as well (archive).
"The situation in rural areas is not necessarily the same as it is here in Bogotá. Given the upcoming local elections, we're now looking at the regions to get a sense of corruption and law and order there," says Montero.
Tasks for Colombian journalists
"Journalists need to get closer to their sources and out onto the streets. They need to get a sense for what people are feeling," says student and fact-checker, Ramírez.
And fact-checking needs to play a greater role in Colombia, says journalist Salazar. "Given the flood of false information, scrutinizing everything is the only way that we will save journalism and restore people's confidence in the media," she says.