Voting with Freedom: The experience of Verificado 2018 and its role in promoting public deliberation during Mexican elections
On July 1st, 2018, Mexico had the largest election process in history: in one single day, 3,416 elected office posts were voted. Since the presidential transition in 2000, Mexican democracy has achieved a greater maturity stage. As a result of this, the public speech and deliberations during the electoral campaigns have sophisticated. Candidates and their teams now advance diverse complex policy proposals in the public arena. Fortunately, there is an ecosystem of academics, civil society organizations and citizens that could follow and participate actively in the debates around these future policy proposals.
However, during the electoral processes a pernicious and negative phenomenon can also occur: political candidates can include inaccurate data in their speech or fake news can emerge. Indeed, the speed in which fake news can be disseminated through social media and their impact were seen in recent electoral processes such as the Brexit or the presidential elections in the United States of America (USA).
In this scenario, some months before the Mexican election, Verificado 2018 (Verified 2018) was born as an initiative to tackle the misleading effects of fake news, so that citizens had accurate information that could allow them to vote freely and informed. This task was relevant because Mexican voters get a lot of their information through social media. Given this problem, the media and civil society organizations (CSOs) can play a very significant role researching and disseminating accurate information.
Internationally, there are experiences of initiatives that identify and highlight fake news, for example, Chequeado in Argentina and ElectionLand in the USA. However, in Mexico, there was no such initiative until Verificado 2018 was created. Verificado 2018 is an initiative of various media -Animal Político, AJ+ in Spanish, PopUp NewsRoom, Newsweek in Spanish, Univisión-, a CSO -Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción (Mexicans Against Corruption)- and a university -Universidad de la Comunicación (The University of Communication)-. This initiative reviews and verifies what candidates or political actors said in their speeches or interviews during electoral campaigns to assess if it is accurate or not. Verificado 2018 was supported by other 90 actors, including CSOs, universities, enterprises, and the media, which made it an unprecedented effort in Mexican journalism.
How did we carry out our work? To verify the information candidates mentioned, we used a methodology developed by El Sabueso, that has the fact-checker certification from the Fact Checking International Network from the Poynter Institute. Verifying Information is a complex task because the research process to assess if a figure or data mentioned by a candidate is accurate involves reviewing data bases, calculating some numbers or figures, and understanding the context in which the information was mentioned. Once we have verified the information, we categorized it as “true”, “almost true”, “cannot be proved”, “misleading”, “almost fake”, “fake”, and “ridiculous”.
What challenges did we face? When we launched the initiative, we did not know the amount of fake news there would be, for example, we did not know if there were going to be 10, 20 or 50 fake news a day that would need to be analysed. The second challenge relates to the growing nature of this initiative: initially, we were 60 media, universities and CSOs, at the end we were more than 90. Also, we published more than 380 materials (media articles, videos, infographics, and interactives) in our website: verificado.mx. Developing such number of materials implied a lot of work and effort.
Our initiative had two main achievements. At the beginning of the electoral campaign, we brought attention into the public discussion to the issue of fake news and the relevance of our initiative. We played a citizen fact-checking role in the social media public discussion, so that fake news did not go unnoticed and the public speech of candidates was assessed regarding its veracity. At the end of the campaigns, Verificado 2018 also helped to guide the public discussion and inform citizens through evidence, analysis and expert opinions.
Although the existence of one single truth is a concept in dispute, especially in politics, more often we see lies and manipulation. In periods of political confrontation such as elections, there are news that are intentionally manipulated to discredit or attack an opponent. Verificado 2018´s work was relevant to point out fake news and, thus, it brought us closer to the truth. We think that the citizenry valued our work, which can be seen in the intensive discussions happening among our 202,000 Twitter followers or the 204,232 Facebook followers, and also based on the number of media outlets disseminating our information.
Our work and experiences raise some questions on the challenges democracies face. What are the limits to freedom of expression, when a political candidate is deliberately sharing fake news to achieve power? How do we balance rights such as freedom of expression with other rights such as intimacy, the right to information and to be informed, the right not to be slandered, etc.?
What’s next for us? After the elections in July 1st, Verificado 2018 came to an end. We will need to assess its impacts and outcomes and keep deliberating how we want to be informed in a democracy and how we counteract the practice of politicians spreading fake news.