This article was first published Dec. 16 on IJNet.
Almost all smartphones in Brazil have WhatsApp installed on them.
While the messaging app helps ensure easy communication within and outside of Brazil, its widespread use also facilitated the proliferation of disinformation in the lead-up to the country’s 2018 presidential election. During that time, Patricia Campos Mello, a journalist with Folha de São Paulo, reported closely on the mass dissemination of disinformation on WhatsApp.
Drawing on this experience during a recent ICFJ Disarming Disinformation master class, held in partnership with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Campos Mello offered a series of tips for journalists investigating political disinformation.
(1) Start talking
Kickstart your reporting by talking with people.
In 2018, political campaigns in Brazil hired marketing agencies to disseminate disinformation through mass messaging on WhatsApp. Campos Mello spoke with campaign marketing experts and their employees, building a list of companies and marketing agencies that were providing these messaging services for the campaigns.
“At the time, people didn't know what mass sending of messages was. Not us [journalists], not the TSE [Superior Electoral Court], not anyone. It was something that we were beginning to comprehend,” she said.
(2) Search for data
Next, look for data. In Brazil, for instance, journalists can search DivulgaCand, a TSE database with a wide range of elections-related information. This includes details about campaign donors, hired contractors, candidates’ assets, and more.
Look into the companies you're investigating, too. Knowing property addresses, telephone numbers, and other details will allow you to investigate more deeply.
(3) Find whistleblowers
Knowing details about the companies also enables you to investigate which ones may have had cases brought against them in court. Search for employees or former employees who are suing them, for instance. In general, these people are more likely to talk to journalists.
“Whistleblower, employee, former employee […] it's always important,” said Campos Mello. “There is always a Disneyland of data to discover, but it helps a lot when you have a whistleblower.”
Campos Mello explained how she visited the database of the Regional Labor Court to analyze lawsuits brought against agencies that were providing the mass messaging services. From this information she was able to make a list of potential sources for her investigation.
(4) Request documents
Some whistleblowers may send information spontaneously, but journalists should also proactively seek data and documents from these sources. Request photos, worksheets, message exchanges, and more from whistleblowers to reinforce your reporting, Campos Mello advised.
(5) Check your sources
Journalists must be extra careful with their sources. Always check whether your source is telling the truth, and safeguard their identity to guarantee they do not suffer reprisals.
For example, after publishing her first reports on the disinformation she was investigating, Campos Mello received direct messages on social media from someone who said they were interested in collaborating. This person claimed to work in a marketing agency.
"I needed to check that he really worked at this agency, so I needed to collect more information. At the same time, I reassured him that I would preserve his identity," she said.
Collaborations can strengthen the fight against disinformation. Journalists can search, for example, for universities and research centers to work with that can add value to their investigations.
Journalists partnered with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro during the 2022 Brazilian election to help monitor WhatsApp and Telegram, as the university was already analyzing the websites most shared by politicians.
(7) Know the tools at your disposal
Journalists should identify free tools that will help with their investigations, including:
The Wayback Machine is a digital database where billions of archived versions of web pages are available for free. Erasing records from the Wayback Machine is difficult and requires legal action, Campos Mello noted.
Palver is a technology company that monitors public WhatsApp groups. It partnered with TSE during Brazil’s 2022 election cycle. The dashboard is easy to navigate, and can be filtered by specific terms, attachments, and more.
CrowdTangle is a tool from Meta that monitors narratives circulating on social networks. It can help journalists analyze topics that are trending, and those that aren’t. Using this information, journalists can avoid “amplifying disinformation, under the illusion that [they are] helping fight it,” said Campos Mello.
If you write about something that doesn't have much traction, you're likely helping the disinformer spread disinformation to new audiences.
SimilarWeb is another useful tool for tracking disinformation. “With SimilarWeb, we measured which sites were most shared in WhatsApp groups, and by politicians. We took those sites to see if they had a large audience or not. It had frightening results,” said Campos Mello.
Many of these sites take news from reliable journalistic sources and repackage it with far-right bias, distorting the information, she said.
(8) Monitor by mapping
Monitoring disinformation is part of our new reality, said Campos Mello: “Mapping all these sites — knowing how they have been financed and what people are behind them — is another interesting thing to do.”
(9) Track changes in legislation
Journalists should track changes in legislation that may affect how easily disinformation can spread online.
“For example, there were several determinations, TSE resolutions, and changes in social media policies regarding what could or couldn't be done in political ads,” said Campos Mello of her reporting in Brazil. “These policies, in theory, have rules for compelling Google to stop the spread of false information about the electoral system or false information about politics.”
(10) Cross-reference data
It is possible to cross-check public data from political campaigns with data provided by the Big Tech platforms. Both Google and Meta have ad libraries, for example, which journalists can use to check expenses declared by individuals or companies.
“In the case of promotion on the internet, only the candidate or [their] party can pay the platform to promote political content. What we saw [in Brazil] were people advertising against candidate X or in favor of candidate Y,” she said.
(11) Follow the money
Protests with anti-democratic agendas broke out in Brazil after the 2022 elections. Many of the protests’ organizers received funding from powerful businessmen.
By following the money, journalists can identify the actors helping organize — in this case — the protests, those who received donations, and then contact those people.
(12) Monitor the courts and watchdog agencies
Journalists, academics and fact-checkers should track the actions of the courts as well as government watchdog agencies to inform their investigations.
“Who oversees this, besides journalists, academics and fact-checkers?” said Campos Mello. An interesting thing is watching how the judicial system is complying with its own rules — if they are fulfilling their duty or not.”
(13) Be careful when investigating
Combating disinformation in the 2022 Brazil elections was even more challenging than in 2018. Four years ago, false information spread on a limited number of platforms. Now, there is a much wider infrastructure.
“In 2022, disinformation became much broader because political leaders are more influential online with more followers. There are large numbers of YouTubers, many junk news sites that present themselves as reliable and impartial news sources, as well as TikTok, Kwai, and other short video platforms,” Campos Mello explained.
This ecosystem and the political narratives that proliferate on them hit professional journalism hard. “Journalists are the main investigators of disinformation campaigns, and also one of the main targets,” said Campos Mello. “We must take care.”
Disarming Disinformation is run by ICFJ with lead funding from the Scripps Howard Foundation, an affiliated organization with the Scripps Howard Fund, which supports The E.W. Scripps Company’s charitable efforts. The three-year project will empower journalists and journalism students to fight disinformation in the news media.