Cristina Tardáguila, an inspirational and energetic journalist from Brazil is the founder of Agência Lupa, the first fact-checking initiative in her country. She is the former International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. As a reporter and/or an editor, Tardáguila has worked in some of the most important media outlets in Brazil and has o published two books. Her interest in dis/misinformation combat has taken her to TEDx’s red carpet twice and has turned her into elPeriodico’s best journalist of 2018. The same year she had to flee the country after threats on her life. It wasn’t safe for her in Brazil because she and her colleagues at Lupa were receiving as many as 56,000 threats per month.
In her interview with Portalb.mk, she talks about the challenges of fact-checkers in times of disinformation and the development of AI. She shares advices on how to become more resilient to pressures in troubling times and also mentions the main narratives of Russian propaganda being spread in Brazil.
As the founder of Agência Lupa, the first fact-checking initiative in Brazil, how do you see the role of fact-checking evolving globally in response to the challenges posed by the spread of misinformation and disinformation?
Cristina Tardáguila: I am very excited. I see that the fact-checking community in the fact-checking universe is growing. It had a very big peak around 2016-18, but we do not see fact-checking organizations laying people off, closing, reducing their products. The fact-checking community seems to be a very stable community at this stage, we’re hundreds of fact checking organizations and 10 years ago we were like 20. During the COVID-19 pandemic the fact-checking community proved that we don’t cover only political issues and that the work we do is vital. I can’t imagine what would have happened during COVID if we’re fact-checkers weren’t there. I kind of think that the last two years were extremely beneficial for fact-checkers because the pandemic showed that they are completely necessary.
Is fact-checking enough to counter disinformation?
Cristina Tardáguila: It is very good. There’s a very good latest research about the effectiveness of fact-checking and if it does or does not work. All single studies done on this topic show that yes, fact-checking is a good product, that yes, it has impact. A paper published by the Cambridge University Press in February 2023 tested eight different situations with panel-survey experiments and all seem to work.
Now, it’s another issue if we can completely solve the problem of disinformation? No, of course not, because it’s not only a communication problem. It’s also political and technological issue. Fact-checkers are mainly journalists, and we can do our investigations and point out bad actors and bad tactics, but we’re not police or law enforcement. We’re not lawmakers, nor IT companies. So, there are so many other instances of power and knowledge that need to come together in order to fight disinformation, in a battle that we’re still losing.
What do you think about the role of media literacy?
Cristina Tardáguila: First we need to acknowledge that each and every one of us causes the spread of disinformation, because we amplify what we like and we delete what we do not like. But that’s a very tough step to take universally. People really need to know that. For example, in my case, if I get an advertising saying that chocolate is being handed out for free in a supermarket, I will trust it and I will go to the supermarket. I mean, doesn’t matter that I’ve been in this field for 10 years, that I know everything about disinformation, this is what I really would like to happen. Therefore, people need to do this personal revision and be very aware of their own beliefs, fears and likes. Also, education is very important. I mean, really good quality education.
Given your extensive experience as a journalist and editor in major Brazilian media outlets, how do you see traditional journalism adapting to the digital age, especially in terms of fact-checking and maintaining credibility in an era of rapid information dissemination?
Cristina Tardáguila: Now, in times of wars, it’s more clear than ever, that fact-checking and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) are very needed, because sources can be completely biased and involved in the war. This situation might be very tough if you are a traditional reporter. You cannot just rely only on your source because the source will be pushing a narrative or lying. And now what you have to do is actually find and analyze metadata from photos, videos. I don’t see that old style journalism would last for much longer. We all know that, sources play around with journalists and media. So, we better rely now on data and on metadata to actually verify whatever’s being said, so we’re not fooled, right?
I believe that all journalists will soon be reaching out to fact checkers to learn OSINT and fact-checking tools.
What is your advice for journalists and fact-checkers working in times of social unrest or wars, when things happen so fast? How to remain truthful and fair to the opinion while in a hurry?
Cristina Tardáguila: Two things quite important. First of all, be transparent about your sources and how good they are. So if you’re actually quoting the representatives of warring sides, you have to clearly inform your audience that this source is part of the problem. Make sure that you’re sharing with your reader that context, about possible bias and interest in the conflict of all sources. You have to be really transparent and honest, because that’s what people expect from journalists, honesty and transparency. And you have to be able to say, ‘we haven’t been able to verify this,’ or that we only heard one source so far.
The second thing I would say is collaborate. Journalists do not collaborate. So maybe you know something that I don’t and we are kind of battling against each other when at the end of the day, the resulting monster is the disinformation. So learn to make friends in other newsrooms, in other magazines, in other radio stations, and share, because what we all are seeking is the truth. And there are not many journalists remaining anymore. So we have to work together.
How can AI help fact-checkers and journalism in general?
Cristina Tardáguila: I believe fact-checkers should use the current AI tools to shorten dumb processes that they have to do. You don’t need to transcribe a television interview, just send the recording to a chatbot and it will transcribe it for you. If an image has been altered, there are several tools that you can upload the image and it will point out where. It will probably make your work faster.
AI shouldn’t be used for any content that goes outside of the newsroom without revision. That would be my number one tip. Do not, do not trust AI and rely on it fully. Don’t allow AI to substitute anyone. It will only save you time, but not replace the human brain.
You have received threats due to your work, and you had to leave the country. How can one become more resilient to pressure in these troubling times?
Cristina Tardáguila: First of all, I’d say that nothing is more important than yourself, nothing. It doesn’t matter who wins the election. It doesn’t matter if something is false or true. It doesn’t matter. First thing is you, the journalist, the editor, right? Are you safe? Are you sleeping well? Are you spending time with your family? Like, really, there is nothing more important in the planet than you as a person. In time, things must have their balance.
The second thing is to be prepared. If you’re in a newsroom, make sure you discuss how you’re dealing with hate and how you’re dealing with threats. Create guidelines because everybody needs to know what they have to do if they ever receive a threat. Who do they call? Who do they talk to? Who do who they report to? And then if you’re a manager and you receive that report, what do you do? Do you call the police? Do you, do you send this person outside the country? Like, you know, you have to have a clear guideline from actions. And then you do need a really clear psychological support.
If you look at the fact-checking community, I don’t think there is anyone really safe today. Everyone is somehow threatened, or doxed or criticized with very bad language, especially if you’re a woman. The psychological aspect of this issue deserves a whole new conversation. It’s really very hard to be online and be a fact-checker and also be mentally healthy. Yeah, you need a lot of strength, and a support system.
What are the main narratives of Russian propaganda being spread in Brazil?
Cristina Tardáguila: Pro-Russian actors mainly spread anti-USA sentiments. A very good recent report by the US embassy in Brazil which highlights the group called “The New Resistance.” It is very well-coordinated and embedded in Brazilian academia and universities, and also bought stakes in some newspapers, radios, and other media.
Brazil and United States were very close during the reign of the previous president, Jair Bolsonaro, who was friends with Trump. With current leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula, it seems like there is a possibility for growing Russian influence. He failed to show support for Ukraine, blaming both sides equally for the war.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists and fact checkers looking to make a meaningful impact in combating misinformation and upholding journalistic integrity?
Cristina Tardáguila: I would say, be humble, know what you don’t know, and explain what you don’t know. Be transparent about your limitations. Keep studying every single tool because they change every day. Also collaborate with others and show solidarity.
If you’re going on your own and becoming a media entrepreneur, make sure you study business management first. Many journalists fail when they try to open a newsletter or a website, because they don’t get management skills when they study journalism at our universities. At least they don’t in this part of the planet.
In these times when journalism has lost its credibility mostly due to fake news and other problems, like no financial incentive and threats, why would you want to be a journalist?
Cristina Tardáguila: Because as Gabriel Garcia Marquez usually says, that’s the most beautiful profession in the world. Ha ha ha. And I believe him. I cannot see myself doing anything else.
Journalist: Elida Zylbeari