The EU DisinfoLab encourages all initiatives from civil society supporting media plurality and responsible reporting. The development of strong, diverse and transparent fact-checking organisations is no exception to this principle as it is an important tool to support the fight against disinformation. Fact-checking requires high standards of transparency, as well as continuous improvement in the working methods, to dispel suspicions of bad practices and ideological bias.
For several months, the EU DisinfoLab has detected the apparition of several new actors in the Spanish informational landscape that position themselves as antagonistic alternatives to well-established Spanish fact-checkers. They use look-alike names and logos to appear as credible and legitimate fact-checkers. Still, there is often no transparency about who is behind such initiatives, which frequently exploit manipulative techniques to confuse people, spread polarising political narratives, and discredit recognised fact-checkers that they perceive as ideologically biased.
The apparition of opaque organisations, which weaponise and politicise the notion of fact-checking, captures the complexity that currently afflicts the Spanish disinformation landscape, including some of the challenges faced by internationally recognised verifiers. Although there are probably no simple solutions to such issues, the objective of this blog post is to shed light on the emergence of a new phenomenon that could undermine the efforts of fact-checkers to tackle disinformation. It also highlights the need for civil society and institutional actors to support the development of a resilient fact-checking community that continuously tries to improve its practices and methods in a hostile and polarised environment.
- Our analysis focuses on entities that antagonise two established fact-checkers: Maldita and Newtral. Bendita seems to have been created as an alternative to Maldita, while Newtrola.online, Newtrola.eu & Newtrola Revolution emerged to mock Newtral and to launch some political attacks.
- Claiming to engage in content verification, these initiatives fail to conform to the methodological or deontological principles expected from fact-checkers.
- In addition, such initiatives remain fully opaque and the identities of the actors behind them are unknown.
- Their misleading strategies include using antagonistic names to their identified competitors, mimicking their logos, visuals, and structures to confuse the audience. They produce information, which is regularly decontextualised, presented in ambiguous and misleading ways.
- The phenomenon can be a cause for concern, although for now the online presence of these actors is rather disorganised, scattered across social media platforms.
- This emerging trend also invites the realisation of more studies and thinking on how to deal with the notion of fact-checking in heavily polarised political landscapes like Spain.
- Finally, it also calls for stronger transparency and protection of civil society, journalists and open-source investigators in Europe, who are too often easily impersonated, targeted or harassed. It can only go through the development of shared good practices and mutual recognition, as only a diverse and strong community will be efficient in countering disinformation.
Well-established Spanish fact-checkers evolve in an extremely polarised environment and have been sometimes confronted with accusations of partiality. In this regard, we stumbled upon new ambiguous initiatives that present themselves as alternatives to the main Spanish fact-checkers but lack a clear methodology and transparency. Besides promoting audience-dividing content through different techniques on topics such as migration, climate change or gender equality, these actors fail to comply with basic debunking principles, such as the ones collected in the Code of Principles promoted by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).
BREACHING THE ETHICS OF VERIFICATION
Four Spanish fact-checkers are signatories of the IFCN Code of Principles. Most of the other ones that are not still mostly comply with the basic principles of trustworthiness prescribed by this specific set of practices. On the contrary, the behaviour of the entities claiming to engage in content verification that we identified in our study stands in open opposition to the code. For instance:
- They do not have a known or public methodology regarding their verification process, which contradicts the commitment to transparency of sources.
- They do not disclose clearly the names of journalists, fact-checkers or editorial team involved in the project, nor provide information on funding sources, which contravenes the commitment to transparency of funding and organisation.
- Their tone sometimes becomes derogatory and harmful, against the commitment to open and honest corrections.
- They embrace politically oriented polarising positions, which contradicts the commitment to neutrality and fairness. In particular, these actors who label themselves as fact-checkers often blur the line between fact and opinion in their alleged verifications.
TARGETING FACT-CHECKERS BY MIMICKING THEM
The observed entities tend to mimic established ones: Bendita publishes alleged verifications, while the various Newtrola-related initiatives mainly produce content that criticises the current central government coalition but also established fact-checkers.
A very first clue about their misleading intentions is evident from their names, which rely on a wordplay technique opposing the established verifiers:
- From Maldita (‘damned’ in English) to Bendita (‘blessed’);
- From Newtral (joins the words ‘news’ and ‘neutral’) to Newtrola (putting together ‘news’ and ‘trola’, slang for ‘lie’).
Another strategy is to mimic the aesthetics of the antagonised fact-checkers, even bordering on logo spoofing:
These attempts to spoof fact-checking organisations’ names and/or logos are a way to pretend to be legitimate entities, to gain credibility and trust among their audiences while creating confusion over the pretence of logo recognition, which can occur especially when you are scrolling through social media.
SELF-DEFINITION AND OUTREACH
Originally, Bendita defined itself as “an independent verification tool. We dismantle the deceptions and fake news. Also, from the left”, as written in its Twitter biography after its creation in March 2019. At present, references to an objective consisting of debunking more specifically content “from the left” have been deleted. In response to one Twitter user in April 2019, Bendita tweeted that it was verifying content from the left because competitors failed to do so.
Bendita operates primarily from a Twitter account that has 24.9k followers. It does not have a website: clicking on the domain www.bendita.eu (in its Twitter biography) redirects users back to the Twitter account. Nevertheless, it also has a Facebook page with fewer than 900 followers, as well as an outdated Instagram account.
The managers behind the “Bendita project”, as well as the alleged verifiers and sources of funding remain unknown. In order to sustain the project, a tweet mentioned the intention to carry out a collective microfinance campaign (crowdfunding) “when these hard times pass”. Overall, retweets and likes indicate that Bendita’s main Twitter account has still a limited scope, e.g. only 12 tweets of the main account have reached more than 1k retweets and 1k likes since March 2019.
Bendita consistently copies Maldita’s style, from its logo to replicating the same labelling method to classify alleged disinformation.
Bendita also created Twitter accounts for its eight “verification sections”, four of them mimicking or opposing the names of Maldita’s fact-checking sections:
- ‘Madito dato’ (damned data) vs. ‘Bendito dato’ (blessed data);
- ‘Maldita ciencia’ (damned science) vs. ‘Bendita ciencia’ (blessed science);
- ‘Maldita migración’ (damned migration) vs. ‘Bendita inmigración’ (blessed migration);
- ‘Maldita feminismo (damned feminism) vs. ‘Bendita igualdad (blessed equality).
The amount of followers for Bendita’s thematic Twitter accounts ranges from 3.4k to 11.5k. Ten tweets of these accounts reached more than 1k retweets and 1k likes. If the overall reach remains limited, the fact that all the accounts amplify each other allows some tweets to become quite viral.
In June and November 2020, Twitter suspended temporarily some of Bendita’s accounts without public explanations. All these accounts were reinstated later:
Numerous initiatives attacking fact-checker Newtral included the word ‘Newtrola’ in their name. Some entities sometimes publish alleged verifications, while others mainly produce articles or posts on polarising and divisive issues.
- NEWTROLA REVOLUTION
On Facebook, Newtrola Revolution has 8k followers. The page was created in September 2020 to replace a previous one that was shut down by Facebook for inciting hatred according to Newtrola Revolution. And on its Telegram channel (783 subscribers, created in April 2020) users can read the following: “while Facebook decides on our appeal on the closure of Newtrola, we have decided to create Newtrola Revolution”.
Newtrola.eu emerged in January 2021 with the motto “No journalism, no technology, no data”, which mirrors the one by Newtral (”Journalism, fact-checking, technology and data”). The goal “debunk the debunks made by the fact-checkers”, as stated on its Twitter account, which counts only a few followers, suggesting a rather limited outreach.
During the elaboration of this report in April 2021, the website newtrola.online expired. The site relied on a very similar logo to Newtral, reproducing for example an article questioning the impartiality of the established fact-checker, calling the organisation “a judge who decides what content is or is not truthful on social networks”.
POLARISING CONTENT AND DISINFORMATION STRATEGIES
Analysing the content produced by Bendita and Newtrola-related accounts, we identified several practices that contribute to the spread of politically-charged and polarised content, as well as disinformation, which can hinder the building of a healthy fact-checking landscape.
- Decontextualising information as a strategy to mislead people
During the pandemic, a recurrent strategy consisted of covering a story with a false, misleading or out-of-context background. For instance, some actors relied on decontextualised pictures to claim that Spanish authorities had staged a fake pandemic by using dummies, to whom fact-checkers regularly explained that these photographs were often linked to different situations, e.g. a medical school training. Newtrola Revolution spread similar disinformation items, claiming that doctors had placed “dolls to occupy hospital beds” (Figure 6).
In another case, which was debunked by Maldita, Newtrola Revolution circulated on Facebook a decontextualised screenshot from the CNN website. It was used as alleged evidence that the same British woman, who received the Pfizer vaccine in December 2020, had already been vaccinated in October 2020. The post triggered scepticism regarding the transparency of the vaccination campaign, although fact-checkers explained that the December video was simply associated with earlier articles on the COVID-19 vaccine on the CNN website.
Furthermore, Bendita accused Maldita of lying when they published a fact-checked article, labelling the claim that all foreign minors receive automatically 664 euros from the Spanish government as inaccurate. In fact, these social benefits are foreseen only in Catalunya for both Spanish and foreign minors in need, who simply have to meet specific conditions – their origins as a domestic or foreign national is not relevant. Bendita omitted much of the contextual information that was present in the original debunking of Maldita that allowed us to understand the situation clearly. In doing so, Bendita once again disseminates and legitimises the initial misleading content, fuelling anti-migration sentiments and trying to cast doubts on the partiality and seriousness of Maldita’s work. The tweet by Bendita Inmigración reached 152 retweets and 198 likes.
Another example on the topic of migration allows us to present a decontextualisation strategy that consists of cherry-picking bits of events to reframe a story and prove a predetermined point. Recently, Bendita attacked Newtral founder Ana Pastor. Bendita claimed that her tweet about football player Inaki Williams’s Ghanaian mother crossing the Melilla fence while pregnant could not be true as the football player was born in 1994, and the modern fence between Morocco and Spain was only built in 1998. However, a fact-checking article from AFP Factual demonstrated that a previous fence already existed in Melilla in 1994. The tweet from Bendita Inmigración containing the polarising misleading information reached 3k retweets and 4.9k likes.
Bendita Inmigración also labelled as false an article from the Spanish online media El Plural, which echoed AFP Factual’s debunking article on this topic.
- Self-proclaimed experts voicing their opinions used as legitimate verification sources
These outlets look for validation from external personalities, who sometimes take this opportunity to voice personal opinions and prejudiced narratives under the guise of content verification. As evidence, Bendita quoted a self-proclaimed expert on gender issues (@ExpertoIgualdad, i.e. equality expert) as a legitimate source of fact-checked gendered disinformation. The alleged expert, for whom no information on his professional or academic background is provided, was an active contributor of a website (no longer online) promoting polarising narratives about gender equity, LGBTQI rights and feminism. He is currently co-hosting a YouTube show where he covers similar polarizing topics. Always blindfolded, the “equality expert” has published several videos through Bendita’s Twitter account with alleged verifications or debunks.
In a video published by Bendita Igualdad on Twitter, Experto en Igualdad claimed to debunk an article by Newtral. The article from Newtral fact-checked headlines in several Spanish media that claimed that 70% of gang rapes in Spain are committed by foreigners.
As mentioned by Newtral, the figure of 70%, which originated from a report written by the Spanish Institute for the Ministry of the Interior in Spain (ICFS), was misinterpreted as, in reality, it concerned only “gang rapes committed by aggressors who did not know their victims”, and not all gang rapes. The fact that this report focused only on rapes committed by aggressors who did not know their victim (20% of the rapes in Spain in 2010) significantly reduced the sample of the study. In the end, the specific category about gang rapes committed by people who did not know their victims represented only 4% of such assaults declared to the police in Spain in 2010. Newtral contexualised the data and assessed that the sample (70% of 4%) is far from enough to draw any solid conclusion about the involvement of foreigners in all sexual crimes in Spain. This assessment was confirmed by the experts from the Spanish Institute ICFS, who said that the data of the initial report were misinterpreted by several media.
Despite these facts and the public position of the Institute that wrote the report, and even despite his own assertions at the beginning of his video acknowledging that there is not enough data to draw conclusions, Experto en Igualdad concluded his explanation with the claim that the data from the report can be extrapolated and considered as “approximative figures” representing a more general trend. To support his point, he assured that this technique is used with surveys, “where a sample can be considered representative of the whole population”, omitting the fact that the surveys are based on scientifically built “polling samples” representative of the whole population. Finally, he concluded that the data indicates that there is a wider trend among migrants to carry out “this type of acts”, in order to support his anti-migrant narratives.
In another video (with 13k views), the same individual attacked the Spanish law against gender-based violence, describing it as “criminal” and comparing it to legislation “applied in the Third Reich”.
As another example, the account Bendita Historia (Blessed History) also relied on an article from the freelance author Xiomara Ramírez as a reputable source in a Twitter thread debunking a historical topic, i.e. the coexistence of different cultures in the Iberian Peninsula under Muslim rule.Her blog “Las Cenizas Del Ave Fenix” (The Hashes of the Phoenix), which was used for the verification, contains conspiracy articles maintaining for example that the 2019 fire in the Notre-Dame Cathedral was a “false flag attack” or echoing unproven claims about Joe Biden’s involvement in Ukraine. Moreover, Xiomara Ramírez is also openly critical of the current feminist movement, aligning with conspiracy claims that it is part of the New World Order that seeks population control and eugenics.
The existence of actors such as Bendita and Newtrola-related initiatives captures the complexity that afflicts the Spanish disinformation landscape. Fact-checking is a powerful tool that supports democracy. While organisations that aim at delegitimising content verifiers are on the rise, we must remain vigilant and work on the development of an efficient and transparent fact-checking landscape. Fact-checking requires high standards of excellence and transparency, as well as continuous improvement in the working methods, to dispel suspicions of bad practices and ideological bias.
In view of this, we make the following recommendations:
- Supporting fact-checkers. The EU should consider additional support to fact-checking organisations through the provision of grants or specific European funding projects providing financial, legal, and cybersecurity support, as well as technological infrastructure, tools, and services. It can be achieved within the framework of the upcoming work programmes under Horizon Europe and through the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO).
- Creating an independent network of European fact-checkers. To improve the transparency and credibility of fact-checking organisations, we call for the creation of a group of independent European fact-checking organisations, including open-source investigative organizations. This group would work on the definition of good practices around fact-checking and investigations and would also support transparency and credibility efforts.
- Synergies with “trusted flaggers”. At the EU level, the Digital Services Act grants an opportunity to better protect the role of fact-checkers by introducing “trusted flaggers”. This system will ensure prior vetting of organisations by public authorities, with appropriate safeguards to prevent certain governments or platforms from exercising undue control over these organisations. The European Commission and national authorities must ensure that these trusted flaggers work closely with the EU’s fact-checking community and that their activities are mutually reinforcing.
 https://archive.is/usuKJ See as an example the methodology of the Brazilian fact-checker Lupa Agency: “Lupa does not verify opinions (…) nor make future forecasts. It does not target trends or evaluate broad concepts”.
 Measures carried out with We Verify tools.
 https://archive.is/U7ONW; https://www.elplural.com/fuera-de-foco/no-valla-melilla-no-construyo-1998-bulo-extrema-derecha_259177102.
 European Commission (Dec, 2020), Proposed Regulation for a “Digital Services Act”, Article 19 on “Trusted Flaggers”.