Dr. Regina Cazzamatta

Disinformation Environments and the Emergence of Fact-Checking Organisations in Europe and Latin America

Gefördert durch die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) / eigene Stelle von August 2022 bis Juli 2025

Fact-Checking organisations provide the most relevant non-governmental reactions to the increasing amount of disinformation around the globe and they have become one of the most popular innovations to tackle this problem (Saurwein & Spencer-Smith, 2020). For democracy to prosper, a society must have the instruments to remedy political misperceptions among its citizens, and fact-checking is one of them (Garrett et al. 2013). Fact-checkers’ primary function is not only to debunk online alternative facts but also to verify claims made by political actors (Saurwein & Spencer-Smith, 2020). Fact-checking units are flourishing among the websites of several media sectors: global news agencies (AFP and Reuters Fact Check, DPA-Faktencheck or Efe Verifica), broadcasting (ARD-Faktenfinder or BBC Reality Check), newspapers (Fact Checks -The New York Times) and even independent NGO-based organisations (Correctiv, Full Fact or Maldita). This tendency has indeed spread around the world, and nowadays, 236 fact-checking websites are active in the five continents (Duke Reporters’ Lab, 2020).

Although online disinformation is a global development, fact-checkers are formed by national environments (Graves & Cherubini, 2016). They are intertwined with the media systems they operate in. Hence, to fully comprehend this phenomenon, it is crucial to conduct a comparative analysis of its mechanisms and to investigate how fact-checkers debunk disinformation. Oriented by micro, meso and macro structures, this project – funded by the DFG from August 2022 – focuses on how disparities in the media and political systems impact not only on the disinformation landscape but also on the work of fact-checkers (debunking articles, performance, professional practices, and challenges). Thus; the main research question reads: how do online disinformation and the programme of fact-checking organisations vary according to different media systems in Europe and Latin America? The results of the US-presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum in 2016 demonstrated the consequences of “[a] post-truth political culture of public debate” (Hafez, 2017, p. 6) and of a public sphere dominated by irrational discussions (Hafez, 2019). Similar developments were also observed in Latin America, a region marked by weak penetration of public service broadcasting and high use of social media as a source of news (Reuters Institute, 2020). The election of the far-right populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro 2018 (Cazzamatta, 2020f; Saucedo Añez & Cazzamatta, 2020) equally prompted concerns about the effects of disinformation in the region. The Brazilian police investigated a ‘fake news’ network, the so-called digital militia, that might be linked to the president’s son.

Despite a few exploratory studies on the fact-checking phenomenon in Europe and despite the fact that an abundant amount in the US has already been published, there is a lack of comparison integrating non-Western nations, such as the Latin American new democracies. Euro-American comparisons are important, but they exclude a large portion of the world (Badr et al., 2020). Thus, this project is based on a “most different system design” (Rössler, 2011), in the sense that this comprises eight countries amidst Europe and Latin America with different forms of political systems and democratic levels. The research combines a quantitative content analysis of 4,400 debunking articles with 22 qualitative expert interviews. In addition, the project will provide a new theoretical approach to the analysis of fact-checking units grounded on concepts of the public sphere, discourse and system theory. Within Europe, Germany, the UK, Spain and Portugal were incorporated when considering the three types of media systems (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). In Latin America, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela were selected due to their contrasting media and political indicators.