“Because the truth is usually boring” says Camila Zuluaga on a TED talk about why people spread misinformation. As a national TV host and journalist from Colombia, she and her colleagues from the media community initiated a movement called “No Como Cuento”, meaning “I don’t buy this story”, to fight against fake news in their country.
Fake news is an old issue in the new era
Fake news is by no means a new problem. Politicians from ancient Rome were spreading rumors of their rivalries. But it has never been a bigger issue than in the digital age we live in today. The rapid development of information technology reached all parts of the world and all sectors of society, forcing almost everyone to be exposed to explosive amount of information, among which many are phony.
Fake news can be roughly categorized into 2 kinds, disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation refers to news deliberately created attempting to manipulate, often combined with communication strategies and tactics, while misinformation usually refers to misleading information created without malicious intent. Both are problematic and cause media to lose their credibility.
The vulnerable communities are especially harmed by fake news on multiple levels. As information spread on social media and social networks are usually free ones, people without access to quality, paid media are more likely to be the target of fake news. Less educated groups also tend to lack information literacy, and thus have little skills or awareness to discern whether the information is credible or not.
Furthermore, fake news jeopardizes democracy itself. Disinformation targeted to shape political views could misguide vulnerable groups to make different choices in an election, voting for policies that actually hinder their interests. “Public access to information and fundamental freedoms” is part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Both development and developing countries are facing this problem as we are all just entering this vast-growing and ever-changing age of internet, technology giants and total automation.
3 events leading to the initiating of “No Como Cuento”
In 2016, 3 episodes of democratic process threatened by fake news occurred in 3 parts of the world, bringing surprise and a sense of urgency to the democratic world. Brexit, resulting in the withdraw of the UK from the European Union, the election of Donald Trump in the US, and the plebiscite(referendum) vote against the peace deal in Colombia, none of these was accurately predicted by most polls.
During the campaign of each of these elections/referendums, social media is the main stage for announcements, debates, and arguments. All kinds of information flies around voters. The “leavers” of Brexit published an ad on the side of the bus claiming that the UK sends £350 million to the EU per week, which is later labelled as “misuse of statistics” by the UK statistics authority. Articles were posted on Facebook about EEA (the European Economic Area) immigrants taking up Britain’s social welfare. However, the MAC (Migration Advisory Committee) reported that the EEA migrants as a whole were estimated to have “paid £4.7bn more in taxes than they received in welfare payments and public services". Regarding the US election in 2016, an article published on the Nature Communications analyzed a dataset of 171 million tweets in the 5 months preceding the election day to identify 30 million tweets, from 2.2 million users, concluding that 25% of these tweets spread either fake or extremely biased news.
Misinformation in Colombia hurting the most vulnerable
In Colombia, a civil war had been on for more than 50 years between the government, far-right paramilitary groups, and far-left guerilla groups, among which the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) remained as the most influential one in the recent decades. According to Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory, 177,307 civilians have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, and more than 5 million were forced from their homes between 1985 and 2012, generating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). 2.3 million children have been displaced from their homes, and 45,000 children killed, according to national figures cited by UNICEF.
As the initial claim of the conflict was to protect the poor from government violence and improve equality through communism, most supporters of the war are from low-income and rural areas of the country, and the battlefield remained mainly in the remote parts of the nation. Then in the 1970s and 80s, the armed conflict was hijacked by organized crime and drug trafficking, escalating the problem to another level of complexity. Ending the war is the first and most critical step for the well-being of these severely vulnerable people in the areas controlled by local guerillas. After years of efforts and sacrifices, the Colombia government and FARC finally negotiated for a peace deal in 2016, but the plebiscite result was to deny the peace deal with “No” votes prevailing with 50.5%, a margin amounted to fewer than 60,000 votes.
Disinformation was blamed to serve as a main culprit leading to such result, and this time, major political figures are spreading them. Former President Uribe, in his condemnation of the peace process, falsely stated that the deal was attempting to collectivize the countryside and nationalize private property, but in reality, some land would be forced to return because it had been illegally taken from displaced farmers during the civil war. Juan Carlos Vélez, the manager of the “No” campaign, said the campaign’s messaging was designed to mobilize people “to vote angry” and with “indignation” through the “viral power of social networks.” Vélez admitted that it was the goal of their political campaign to use social media to spread disparaging claims about the peace deal.
WhatsApp is a key platform for spreading such news. Both campaigns created WhatsApp groups and sent “chains” of disinformation that would be shared in users’ close circles of family and friends. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp is “a private communication network made up of one-to-one connections and small groups”where users can create echo chambers of disinformation with little to no objection. While a viral tweet or Facebook post is often viewed by millions, the private and encrypted WhatsApp makes it nearly impossible for fact-checkers to interrupt or intervene in the communication channel and correct false information. Thus, WhatsApp users are more vulnerable to “consuming—and believing—misinformation.”
Fighting against fake news: #No Como Cuento
The result of the referendum rang the alarm of many Colombians. Journalism and media, the responsible and independent ones, are important parts of any healthy democracy as the public watchdog. When people stop trusting journalists, there will only be one narrative created by the government, and that would be extremely dangerous.
In 2016, Camila realized that when disinformation grabs people’s attention more than mainstream news, and when social media misinformation spreads more than media outlets, journalism itself is at stake. She talked to her friends in several press and journalist associations, and everyone immediately agreed that they should work something out to solve the abominable situation of fake news and bring back the reputation and value of their work – journalism.
Recognition is always the first step to solve any problem. They started organizing a series of events throughout the country and the whole Latin American community. “No Como Cuento” (meaning “I don’t buy this story”) was the hashtag they designed for the events, which summarized their goal to raise people’s awareness and take “fake news” as a serious matter, to think twice before believing or sharing in the information they read on WhatsApp and the social media. As fact-checking and intervene is difficult to conduct on the private groups on WhatsApp, fundamental solution is to advocate among every user, to raise their awareness and arm them with the mindset and practical tips to detect hoax and false information and say, “I don’t buy this story”. When someone says “No Como Cuento” to a piece of misinformation, the spreading stops right there.
Over the past 4 years, “No Como Cuento” has reached thousands of people through their social media campaigns, and dozens of events each year. They’ve invited all major media in the country to join seminars and discuss how the traditional media sector should do to fight against fake news, how to keep their own standard and professionalism to create quality news, and also to be aware of misinformation. They’ve also reached hundreds of thousands of young people by giving lectures in universities, talking with scholars and students about the importance of information literacy among the young generation, advocating for more study and research on it, and brainstorming about ways to tackle with disinformation and misinformation.
Escalated problem and “No Como Cuento 2.0”
In 2020, as the first stage of advocacy and awareness-raising is wrapping up by covering all big media and all areas of the country, COVID-19 pandemic happened. Turmoil times is the cradle of rumors and irrational spreading of unauthorized information. Colombia, as well as any other country, experienced an accelerating of misinformation on what to eat, drink or do to avoid getting COVID, unscientifically proven methods or even medical advices on how to cure the disease. When people are in panic, they tend to trust information they want to trust, ignoring the process of rational judgement.
The pure public health issue also quickly turned into a political fight. In Colombia, the opposite political parties, similar to the Republican and Democratic party in the US, are suggesting different approaches on how to control the pandemic. In 2022, there will be another election in Colombia, the peace deal, representatives related to FARC and the area they used to control, are once again in the center of attention and countless disinformation around them are generated and reposted. Intertwined with politics, conspiracy theories flooded on how the pandemic is connected to the building of 5G towers to the spreading of the virus, exaggerating the potential side-effect of the vaccine or various ridiculous claims on how the vaccine is designed to damage people’s health, etc.
Simple and effective public health advices like wearing a mask or social distancing, eventually became debatable arguments between people with different political beliefs. Energies and resources are wasted in debates that should not even happen, and precious time for early-stage prevention to avoid mass contamination are missed again and again in different countries.
Tips created by #No Como Cuento against Covid-related misinformation
Events cannot be hosted during the pandemic, and the reappearing of malicious information has reminded Camila that awareness is just the first step and is far from enough. She quickly adapted her strategy and started what she described as “No Como Cuento 2.0”.
Working with behavioral scientists, they are developing a platform to try and change how people digest and react to information. The plan is to design a platform that tests people to understand their political spectrum, and present to them potential biases they might have based on their testing results. Then the platform will send the users videos and other contents that are carefully made to elaborate and explain opinions that are potentially biases and why they might have them, providing a new perspective to view all issues in a more rational and neutral manner. This platform is currently under development and they are looking for additional funding. One major difficulty of this initiative to fight against fake news is actually fundraising. “Disinformation is usually a lucrative business”, says Camila, “and our non-profit initiative needs more resources so we can have more people formally work on this.”
With the current fight against COVID-19 and efforts to get people vaccinated, as well as an upcoming election, Colombia might be facing additional challenge in public communication. Efforts to stop the spreading of fake news like “No Como Cuento” is essential to ensure a fair election, a firm recovery from the pandemic, and a peaceful and stable social environment for its vulnerable community to enjoy the welfare and development they deserve but has long forfeited.
UNESCO Handbook on Journalism, Fake news and misinformation