Global crises like Covid-19 make it clear that the need for fact-checking and protecting fact-checkers has never been so strong. In the digital age, misinformation spreads so easily that during Covid-19, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation has stated that “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”.
Fact-checkers around the globe seem to agree. Our partners, the International Fact-Checking Network, have begun their own #CoronaVirusFactsAlliance, uniting more than 100 fact-checkers worldwide in publishing, sharing and translating facts surrounding the pandemic. The alliance was launched in January when the virus itself was still restricted to China, but myths about it were already spreading worldwide through the internet.
There have been countless conspiracy theories, falsely attributed viral videos and even fake home remedies circulating, to the point that some fact-checking agencies are reportedly now receiving 2000+ queries per day. The sheer magnitude of mis- and disinformation entering the public consciousness in what can feel like an unending stream is highly concerning, especially when we consider the number of lives at risk, and the fact that some of these rumours are even being spread by governments.
Sarah Matthews, Staff Attorney at our partner organisation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says:
“It’s critical that people have access to reliable, accurate information during the current public health crisis so they can make informed decisions, and know how to protect themselves and their loved ones. The work of the news media — including fact-checkers — to inform the public and address misinformation is as important as ever during this time.”
As the need for fact-checking increases, so does the amount of threats faced by fact-checkers. Re:Check, the Latvian fact-checking lab started by Re:Baltica, is a signatory of IFCN and a Facebook fact-checking partner. During the pandemic, Re:Check has had a smear campaign launched against it by at least seven conspiracy theorists whose disinformation on Covid-19 had been debunked by the organisation.
Meanwhile in Spain, fact-checkers at Newtral.es and Maldita.es have been subjected to a barrage of digital harassment by supporters of Spain’s right-wing Vox party. This began after Whatsapp’s decision to limit message-forwarding in an attempt to halt the spread of misinformation on Covid-19. Although the only link between these fact-checking organisations and Whatsapp is that both have a relationship to the IFCN, Newtral and Maldita have been targeted and blamed regardless.
As IFCN states, this situation is “extreme, but not unique”. There is an increasing trend of far-right groups around the world blaming fact-checkers and fact-checking organisations for what they believe to be censorship, and amid a global crisis, this is exacerbated. Generally speaking, fact-checkers are also often targeted with legal action from people whose articles or other content they may have debunked, and are regularly subject to harassment including death threats.
The Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative recognises the critical need to defend fact-checkers throughout this crisis and beyond. We will continue to work to do so through providing legal defence, pro bono legal support, paying legal fees and assisting lawyers with their work in this area.
If you are a fact-checker facing threats or legal challenges, please click here to apply for help from the Fact-Checkers Legal Support Initiative.
For free legal resources on fact-checking in Brasil, the US, the Philippines and Italy (available in English, Portugese and Italian), please click here.