Just the facts: behind Brazilian fact-checking startup Aos Fatos

Journalists launched the venture in the midst of a historic political crisis

Brazil, one of the world's largest democracies, is in the throes of a major political crisis. But very few media outlets have dedicated significant resources to fact-checking at a time when rumors and misinformation spread like wildfire.

Aos Fatos, a Brazilian media startup launched in July 2015, is aiming to change that. The organization, which means “To the Facts,” describes itself as national, independent, investigative, educational, responsible, and free of government financing. They have a homepage explaining their mission, but they publish articles exclusively on Medium.

Here's the inaugural post:

The team

Aos Fatos is a team of three: Tai Nalon, co-founder, director, and executive editor; Rômulo Collopy, co-founder and technology director; and Sérgio Spagnuolo, data editor. Nalon previously worked as a reporter for Folha de São Paulo and Revista Piauí, and Spagnuolo came from Reuters and the UN. Collopy, a web developer, worked at several Rio-based startups and the Brazilian Fund for Biodiversity. Aos Fatos also has a network of several freelance journalists based in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The mission

“Aos Fatos came about due to the huge demand for rigorously verified information, with public and transparent data, done by professional journalists,” says Nalon.

“As a journalist at Folha de São Paulo, I'd already done fact-checking projects, especially during elections. After the 2014 campaign, they were all discontinued and a void emerged: even with the growing polarization and political crisis, no site was doing the work to verify statements and information in a systematic way. What I thought was that it could be a blog, which turned into a site and now, a multimedia fact-checking platform.”

The context

In December, Brazil's legislature opened impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, and the lower house will vote on April 17 whether to oust her. This comes in the midst of a massive corruption investigation ensnaring the country's top politicians and business leaders, as well as the Zika virus outbreak.

To the facts: in search of truth in politics

“Above all, our work came about because of the lack of reliable information in the midst of a crushing flood of facts, rumors, and speculation about the political crisis,” says Nalon. “That means that we still don’t know what it’s like to check facts and statements in a normal institutional context. However, the unpredictability of facts makes the work particularly challenging. We do weekly planning around coverage, but often on Monday or Tuesday, we’re already producing material outside of the initial scope [we'd planned]. It’s a difficulty as well as part of the job to be flexible and fast. We can’t complain about our routine.”

Aos Fatos produces articles several times a week; last month they published 20 posts. Some of the team's recent work includes identifying which congressional committee members accused of corruption voted for impeachment, debunking the vice president's stance on social programs, and explaining that Brazilian presidents cannot call new elections.

Defining success

Aos Fatos measures success in a number of ways: audience, social media engagement, mentions in other outlets, and above all, says Nalon, when the politicians correct themselves.

“That's already happened with the president, our most emblematic example, from a fact-check we did in September 2015,” she says. “At that time, she said that her government only realized in August 2014 that the economic crisis was more serious than anticipated. We got access to documents from technical bodies within the government that showed the crisis had already been approaching in December 2013. The article had impact: it showed up even in Clóvis Rossi's Folha column. Months later, when [Rousseff] was discussing the issue again, she corrected herself.”

Sustainability

For its first annual funding round, Aos Fatos did a crowdfunding campaign last November, raising R$32,600 (around $9,200). The team is also working to establish editorial partnerships and receive funding from foundations and companies. “There are other strategies on the horizon, but we don’t want to rush,” says Nalon.


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