LONDON – On the day of Spain’s recent general election, Iris López de Solís finally made it to bed at 3 a.m. She is a member of the Spanish Radio and Television Corporation’s (RTVE) verification team, an interdisciplinary unit of journalists and documentation specialists. The team had been formed to combat disinformation during the Spanish snap election on April 28, as well as the country’s municipal ballots and the EU parliamentary elections in late May.
On election day, the team spent hours verifying numerous claims of electoral fraud circulating online. In the run-up to and aftermath of the election López de Solís, who is a verification expert, worked with other Spanish newsrooms and fact-checking organisations in CrossCheck’s Comprobado project to investigate some of these claims. First Draft talked to López de Solís about her work with Comprobado, a collaboration between 16 newsrooms in Spain investigating disputed information, and her experience of reporting on information disorder more generally.
First Draft: How did your involvement in reporting on misinformation begin?
Iris López de Solís: There is a person here in Spain, Myriam Redondo, who is a specialist in verification and who was doing a course on disinformation that I attended with other people from my department. It was after attending the event that I became interested in issues related to disinformation, unfounded rumours, and user generated content.
Election campaigns are always gruelling for journalists. Now, with the abundance of misinformation, they can be even more challenging. What was the toughest moment for you during the recent election campaign?
The most difficult part has been working through all the information that has surfaced since the general elections, for example all the unfounded rumours around voter fraud. Most of our work came both on election day and the following days. Being able to address and verify the large quantity of rumours around electoral fraud that we noticed during these days was tough.
Was there anything that surprised you while reporting on the recent election campaign, whether about misinformation or its impact?
We noticed a few curious trends during the election, for example parody accounts of politicians whose content people were taking seriously. And the conspiracy theories around electoral fraud, where information was mixed together with false data, was also a bit strange.
We noticed a few curious trends during the election, for example parody accounts of politicians whose content people were taking seriously.
Can you tell us about how you spent election day on April 28?
Obviously there was a lot of activity. And as the verification team, we were in charge of monitoring and watching every social media platform in order to identify and then verify each instance of disinformation circulating. We worked really well, debunking various pieces of disinformation related to election. And we didn’t stop working that day. We worked from the afternoon late into the night. I think I finally got to bed around three in the morning.
Have you noticed any new trends around the kinds of disinformation you have seen in the last year and how this disinformation travels?
Lots of disinformation surfaced and then spread on WhatsApp before jumping onto other social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. WhatsApp seems to be the medium where these rumours often start. These rumours spread easily among family and friends on WhatsApp before eventually hopping onto social media.
In Spain, there are fewer open groups on WhatsApp than in other countries.We have been able to enter a few, which we then monitor for rumours and disinformation, but it’s been hard for us to get access to groups. In other instances we have been able to get access to these groups through contacts and friends that have tipped us off. So one part of monitoring WhatsApp is joining open groups and the other part is getting invites and tips from other people.
What is your biggest worry for Spain in terms of how disinformation may influence the country?
What worries me most is that disinformation will affect how people decide to vote.
First Draft has found that journalists work faster, to a higher standard and gain greater audience trust and impact when working together to investigate mis- and disinformation. But that’s not to say collaboration is always easy. What were some of the highlights and difficulties of working with other newsrooms through Comprobado?
We are a big news organisation and we have five people dedicated to this project. Other news organisations are smaller and can’t dedicate as many people. We understand that. So we have taken on the role of detecting many of the rumours. There is an imbalance we have accepted, because as a public news organisation this is part of our job. Another issue is that some organisations may find it harder to collaborate than others.
Did any of the specific investigations you worked on in Comprobado have an especially large impact on your audience?
Each investigation had an impact, but maybe the debunks around issues of electoral fraud on election day had the greatest impact. We dedicated a part of our website just to debunks around electoral fraud on election day.
Did any of the investigations mean a lot to you personally?
The work we did on election day was very interesting, not just for me but for the entire team. We had the feeling that we were dismantling certain rumours that could affect a democratic process: the act of voting in an election. The act of debunking not just one but lots of rumours around electoral fraud was an enriching experience for us, both professionally and personally.
We had the feeling that we were dismantling certain rumours that could affect a democratic process: the act of voting in an election.
Spain’s election is over, but the spread of misinformation is not. What are you most interested in investigating with colleagues through Comprobado going forward?
We want to continue investigating politics but we want to expand the range of these investigations so that we are not only looking into disinformation at the national level but also internationally, collaborating with news organisations across the world to see how disinformation travels across borders. This is something that really interests us: working with other media organisations at the international level.
Based on your experience in Spain, what would you want journalists in other countries to know about reporting on mis- and disinformation?
I think we as journalists should be more modest. While disinformation may be easily detectable for journalists, not all the world has the possibility to discern between whether a rumour is true or not. Journalists should take on this role. We shouldn’t think, “How can anyone believe this?” Instead, we should think, “People do believe this rumour and our job is to explain to citizens in a simple way why it’s not true.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify Iris López de Solís’ job title.