They verify online content, put claims in their context and track viral rumours. They check what politicians say, analyse fake photos and investigate much of the other misinformation that circulates massively on social networks. And for their trouble, they have been subjected to growing attacks, insults, threats and smears in the run-up to the general elections due to be held in Brazil on 7 and 28 October.
The Brazilian fact-checking agency Lupa has received thousands of hostile tweets, many of them containing death threats, since last spring. The trigger for what have been coordinated online campaigns was the announcement in May of a partnership between Facebook and several Brazilian fact-checking initiatives, including Lupa, aimed at limiting the spread of misinformation ahead of the election.
“Online harassment is a growing threat to press freedom, said Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology desk. “Fact-checkers are targeted with the aim of intimidating them and silencing their reporting of the factual inaccuracies they find. But their work of verifying claims and putting them in context has become indispensable for maintaining the integrity of the public debate, which nowadays mostly takes place online.”
When content on Facebook is rated as “false” by fact-checkers, its reach, meaning the number of people seeing it, falls by 80%. This is regarded as a form of censorship by many political groups, who have responded with massive campaigns designed to discredit the work of the fact-checkers. A 299-page PDF that contains detailed information about 40 Brazilian journalists (including Lupa’s) and uses this information to rate each one according to their supposed political bias, has been widely circulated on WhatsApp.
“More and more fact-checkers are being targeted,” Alexios Mantzarlis, the head of the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, told RSF. “This is an emerging trend. Their work was less well known before.” Journalists who specialize in fact-checking at the Vera Files NGO in the Philippines have also been the targets of threats, insults and aggressive misinformation campaigns.
Italian fact-checker David Puente has long been getting online death threats but they escalated after he revealed that a fake Facebook account was being used to smear Roberto Saviano, a journalist famous for his coverage of the mafia. And then a fake news story circulated on line reporting that Puente had been arrested ... for paedophilia! In France, Samuel Laurent, the journalist who heads the newspaper Le Monde’s fact-checking section called Les Décodeurs, has just announced that he is putting his Twitter account “on hold” as a result of the systematic harassment to which he has been subjected.
An RSF report in July, entitled “Online harassment of journalists: the trolls attack,” offers 25 recommendations for addressing this problem. They include more training for journalists, holding online platforms to account for the content they host, and creating alert mechanisms.