Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Lauro Maia/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Does Argentina have a lower rate of poverty than Germany? It seems unlikely, and there were many raised eyebrows when Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said, at a UN summit in Rome in June, that her homeland’s national figure had dropped below five percent. Aníbal Fernández, her head of cabinet, later took the claim a step further by confirming that Argentina was indeed bettering Norway, Denmark and Germany in the fight against poverty.
Facts, lies and statistics: these have become key themes on the campaign trail for October’s national election, with the opposition vowing to offer greater transparency than under the current government, led by Fernández since 2007.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, 2015. Presidencia de la Nación/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Argentina has developed a critical stats problem. The combination of highly partisan press and some very unconvincing official data has created a huge output of untrustworthy information. The country has one of the highest rates of inflation in the world and yet its national statistics office, Indec, has been underestimating the figures for years. Currently the official inflation figure hovers around 15 percent, while independent analysts suggest it could be almost double that. Coming up with alternative figures has led to some independent economists being threatened with fines or jail sentences.
Perhaps the most outlandish example of Argentina’s book-cooking came in 2011 when Guillermo Moreno, then secretary of domestic trade, allegedly asked McDonald’s Argentina to reduce the price of the Big Mac, in what was viewed as an attempt to get a better position in the Economist’s annual Big Mac Index, which, the publication says, aims “to make exchange-rate theory a bit more digestible” by comparing burger prices around the world. The company complied, but customers noticed the burger disappear from shop-front menus. It was available, if requested, but the chain clearly hoped customers would be swayed by the other, more realistically priced offerings. “Our leaders are not going to stop lying, or using figures in the most strategic way they can,” said Laura Zommer, director of Argentina’s independent fact-checking organisation Chequeado. “But the antidote to this is to increase the cost of the lie. You do this by making the public more alert and more questioning.” Chequeado hq. Pablo Martín Fernández/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Zommer was talking to Index on Censorship about the global rise of the fact-checking industry. Index’s latest magazine has profiled some key fact-checking organisations, from the UK to South Africa. There are now 64 active websites dedicated to analysing and potentially debunking political or journalistic statements, up from 44 a year ago. The second Global Fact-Checking Summit was held in London in July, with participants from 31 countries. “It seems like we are capturing a global zeitgeist,” Will Moy, director of UK fact-checking organisation FullFact.org told Index. “I’m not sure if it’s [due to] a growing sense of distrust or because the internet makes it easier to fact-check and compare primary sources. Maybe it’s a search for authenticity? We’re definitely tapping into something.” Founded in 2010, Chequeado (meaning ‘checked’) is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organisation, with an aim to “improve the quality of public debate”. It was South America’s first independent fact-checking organisation, although many more have sprung up since, from Uruguay’s uycheck.com to Mexico’s El Sabueso, run by AnimalPolítico.com. Slums, Rio Grande, Argentina. Jim Kearns/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Zommer said that the organisation has been well received by the public and the press. It has developed partnerships with three radio stations, and runs fact-checking columns in two newspapers (national broadsheet La Nación and English-language daily Buenos Aires Herald). When Fernández gave a speech to open Congress earlier this year, Chequeado ran a live fact-checking event on Twitter; its hashtag #ChequeadoCFK (based on the president’s initials) received 1.5 million impressions.
In the case of the poverty statistics, while the anti-government press delighted in the absurdity, Chequeado delved deeper. It debunked the claim, while also showing that Argentina and Germany have different methods for determining the poverty line. In Argentina, it’s based on the income needed to purchase a basket of basic food items. In Germany, like many European countries, it’s calculated on relative terms: those earning significantly less than the median income are considered poor.
There is plenty of evidence to show their work is being listened to. Former chief of cabinet Jorge Capitanich responded directly to Chequeado in a press conference, divulging the sources he used after one of his statements on infant morality was declared false. And former vice-president Julio Cobos admitted to being wrong after incorrectly stating that 85 percent of prisoners hadn’t finished primary school. “Excellent work, Chequeado”, he tweeted. Boy is ignored as he sits on the pavement in Rosario, Argentina. Pablo Flores/Flickr. Some rights reserved.But Chequeado is quick to stress that it is not just going after the government. Opposition politicians and journalist are also held to account. Journalist Jorge Lanata, one of Fernández’s biggest critics, is among those regularly scrutinised. Like everyone else, he is pulled up for falsities, and also for exaggerated or misleading statements. Zommer said that their intention is to provide a platform that people feel confident to use, whatever their political persuasion. “Often, individuals have information that contradicts a minister, but they aren’t going to come out and say it publicly, because they are scared, or because they don’t want the confrontation. Part of our work is to generate a platform that is neutral. We want people to be able to come to us with information,” she said. Argentina’s elections take place on 25 October, with a possible run-off between the top two candidates on 22 November. Fernández is constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term, but her party’s sole candidate, Daniel Scioli, remains the current frontrunner. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to try to capture the public’s attention with promises of increased transparency. “The first task we have is to resolve statistics. We can’t talk with the world if we’re lying to it,” said opposition candidate Sergio Massa at a recent debate. Chequeado has an eye on him too. The autumn issue of Index on Censorship magazine – “Spies, Secrets, Lies: How Yesterday’s and Today’s Censors Compare” – is out now, and includes a comparison of fact-checking organisations around the world.