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Meet Cecila Sorgine and Maria Clara Pestre, fact-checkers with AFP Checamos

Since October 2019, Meedan has run a global fact-checking project using the WhatsApp Business API and powered by Check, an open-source platform built by Meedan. During the year, we entered into new and exciting partnerships with fact-checking groups and newsrooms across the globe to combat misinformation. As a community, we have made huge strides and learned from each other.

In November 2020, we launched an interview series to present insights from individual fact-checkers and editors who are members of our partner organizations. The interviews capture our partners’ experiences related to fact-checking and their vision for the future. We interviewed Kritika Goel, Associate Editor at the Quint in the first part of the interview series.

This time we have Cecília Sorgine and Maria Clara Pestre, two young fact checkers with AFP Checamos who have just covered the municipal elections in Brazil. As our Phase I partner, AFP Checamos has provided us great inputs in building features for Check to suit the needs of fact-checkers. In this interview, we learn more about their journey and experience as fact-checkers in Brazil, one of the leading democracies in the world.

How long have you been a fact-checker? What has been your experience before becoming one? What brought you to this?

Maria Clara: I’ve been a fact-checker at AFP for almost two years. Before that, I worked at the Reuters’ bureau in Rio translating and adapting international news to the Brazilian audience. A few years before that, I worked at Globo.com, writing technology articles based on SEO metrics.

In 2018, seeing an expressive increase in online misinformation, especially regarding that year’s presidential election, I started studying fact-checking and its methods. That’s when I decided to research the impact of fact-checking organizations on the Brazilian 2018 elections as my final college essay. Soon after that I started fact-checking myself.

Cecília Sorgine: I’ve been working as a fact-checker since February 2018. Before that I already worked at AFP for two years with international news, translating and editing texts for the Brazilian public. My professional career has been built at AFP, as I started as an intern taking care of social networks and the multimedia part of the website accessed by agency’s clients.

While at university, I became familiar with fact-checking as a niche that was beginning to develop in journalism and I became interested in it. I took a course and soon after came the opportunity to work within the agency itself as a fact-checker.

What is the Brazilian media and fact-checking ecosystem like? What strengths and what gaps do you see?

The Brazilian fact-checking ecosystem is still relatively new, as in most places, but we see a rich and diverse scenario, with clever and engaged fact-checkers. As a result, collaborative fact-check initiatives are on the rise such as the Comprova Project, that brings together around 30 Brazilian media outlets, and a special project run by Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court to fight misinformation in elections in 2020. AFP is  part of both the initiatives.

We would like to see more of such collaborations with political bodies, especially before the 2022 presidential election.  

This year’s election saw a different misinformation flow than in the past years: much more focused on the electoral process than on the candidates themselves. As a whole, the electronic ballot remained a target, with multiple posts questioning the safety of the system and the legitimacy of the official results.

In that context, it was even more important to act quickly as a small local complaint could jeopardize the entire electoral integrity. With that in mind, we worked on almost 30 claims and are still closely monitoring the subject.

The above-mentioned fact-checking coalition formed by the Superior Electoral Court was also a big help this year, making it easier for us to access official information and helping us increase our content’s reach.

What are the kind of challenges you face while fact-checking misinformation and engaging with users on social media?

The biggest challenge of fact-checking is being able to handle the amount of misinformation circulating on social media and checking it before it causes serious damage.

Besides that, depending on what is being verified, in a country which has been experiencing intense polarization, the audience shows resistance to fact-check articles as in many cases it challenges their core beliefs. But we still notice more willingness among users in wanting to refute false content and sending it to us so that we can verify it.

How has been your experience of using Check? What else would you like the tool to do for you?

Check has been very useful, enabling us to automatically interact with our readers, while we still have time to identify and verify misleading posts.

Specifically, we’re happy with the way we can easily adapt the bot responses to our needs. This has proven helpful during the whole coronavirus pandemic, but also for specific events such as the municipal elections. In both cases, we were able to create tailored menu options, allowing our users to filter content depending on their interest.

To make it even better for our readers, we’d love it if they could search for specific debunks using keywords directly on WhatsApp.

What is your vision and hopes for journalism and the world in a post- pandemic world?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a very worrying scenario of discrediting science and verified information, with conspiracy theories and miracle cures gaining a larger number of followers.

On the other hand, and possibly due to the large number of false allegations that have circulated since the new coronavirus was detected, the audience is trying to protect themselves from misleading content, becoming more aware and less tolerant with misinformation.

In this context, journalists and fact-checkers have an even more important role in raising awareness about what people are publishing on the internet and flagging statements, which are deceptive, specifically from politicians and prominent figures.

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