Project Management Institute

Projects to Disrupt Misinformation

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How do you catch the coronavirus? How do you treat it? Should you wear a mask? What about gloves? Should you trust the people on TV, on social media or those in your government?

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, your survival could depend on separating fact from fiction. Already people have died because they followed bad advice or because they didn’t believe the danger of the virus.

Today on Projectified, we focus on projects designed to stop rumors from putting more lives at risk.

SILVIA CAVASOLA

At the time of a big medical sanitary crisis, misinformation can actually cause damage to individuals. So I think our role is even more important there.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified. I’m Steve Hendershot.

Over the last decade, hundreds of fact-checking organizations have sprung up around the world, dedicated to building a foundation of trust in information by evaluating the claims made by officials, reporters and others, and testing whether those claims are true. One of the standard-bearers is the International Fact-Checking Network, housed at the Poynter Institute in the United States, which announced in April that it was distributing more than half a million U.S. dollars in grants to 13 fact-checking organizations around the world for projects related to COVID-19.

One of those groups, Pagella Politica, based in Milan, Italy, recently created a website called Facta to deal with nonpolitical fact-checking—including all things COVID-19. Based in one of the world’s COVID-19 hot spots, they’re following that up with a current project to create a chatbot to field coronavirus queries. We’re joined today by Silvia Cavasola, project manager at Pagella Politica.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

Tell me about Pagella Politica and how you came to spin up this new site with a broader, nonpolitical mission?

SILVIA CAVASOLA

At the beginning, the concept behind Pagella Politica was fact-checking the declaration of Italian politicians—only focused on determining if what politicians were saying was true, false, partially true, terribly untrue, etc. Then over the years, we realized that this information is also very much about nonpolitical stuff. We created a section on Pagella Politica which was expressly addressing nonpolitical disinformation. This section became bigger, more and more important over the years. And we had in the corner of our head for a long time the idea of having to create a website, a parallel project out of this section. But we didn’t do so until the coronavirus crisis exploded.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Part of your organization’s mission is also to train your readers to do some fact-checking of their own. How do you approach that piece?

SILVIA CAVASOLA

I think of the training work as a really important part of our fact-checkers’ job. I think it is really about empowering audiences and citizens to consume more reliable, more accurate information. The empowerment passes by not actually sharing the very technical tools we sometimes use to carry out our fact-checking work, but the message is trying to share with the general public what makes news suspicious and worth verifying, where to look for reliable information, what exactly to look for, which are the most basic tools that can be used for that purpose. So I think this empowerment or this transferring of basic fact-checking skills is a mission of fact-checkers, and it’s perfectly doable.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Let’s shift to the chatbot project. Tell me about the origin of that and then the execution of it as well. But let’s start with why you thought a chatbot would be a nice supplement to what you were doing otherwise in terms of your COVID work.

SILVIA CAVASOLA

When the COVID-19 crisis exploded, as fact-checkers we’re confronted with the challenge of having to face a growing number of direct user requests for verified information on our websites. At a time when misinformation can cause incredible damage to both individual and collective health, we had to start thinking about ways of meeting such requests without, of course, on the other hand, further burdening our fact-checkers’ workload. So here is where the chatbot idea came about, out of this necessity, I would say, to find sustainable ways of carrying out our fact-checking service at the time of crisis.

Now, the chatbot will basically consist in a space on our website for users to directly type in their COVID-19 related questions and receive an answer. But the actual tool we’re working on will not just be like a mechanism linking a query to a number of preexisting articles for the user to find the answer to his question. No, we’re working on a more, I would say, sophisticated mechanism to really guide the user through the available content in order to find an answer to the query. We’re aiming for a sophisticated kind of experience for the user to kind of chat with this digital assistant to find what he or she is looking for.

This kind of chatbot is most commonly used by websites of sectors like pharma or banking or insurance but not so commonly used by newsrooms. Actually, not common at all. Like in Italy, I haven’t seen it. I think that’s why we’re really all very excited about this project because it is very original. It is pretty much of a novelty in our sector.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How difficult has it been to bring the technology on board?

SILVIA CAVASOLA

Not so difficult actually because anybody who we speak to, talking about this project, suddenly becomes very excited about it because it seems like there’s an urgency for project that augment the capacity of fact-checking newsrooms and service. The two partners working with us at this project, which are the Outreach Communication Science of the San Raffaele Hospital on the one hand and the developers on the other hand, which is a boutique called Indigo.ai based in Milan and specialized in natural language processing.

So all of our partners were very much excited. The moment we told them about this project, they wanted to participate. Although the developers haven’t yet had the opportunity to develop this kind of tool for a newsroom, they were absolutely enthusiastic to get on board for this, and they’re doing it greatly.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Back to building out the chatbot—you’re building this knowledge repository at the other end of this high-tech FAQ section. And it’s an iterative process—one of the interesting things with the coronavirus is that we haven’t known much about this virus, and the facts keep changing the more we learn. How do you think about updating answers as we learn more?

SILVIA CAVASOLA

Well, yeah, it is true the facts keep changing, and that is a big challenge for us. But we just need to make sure that whatever we write, whatever content we produce, we put a date on it, so to say, in the sense that we specify when this was produced and go to update it once it’s not relevant anymore. So we have to make sure we become a gateway for true information. True and accurate information also means updated information. So we really stress the dating part of our work, and we always make sure that we update whatever we write.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Assuming that this works compared to the sort of traditional news-feed style of fact-check sites, if this takes off with COVID, does this technology have potential for the future beyond this specific application?

SILVIA CAVASOLA

I think it does have potential for the future. We think this is the right moment to launch this because this is a moment at which the demand for verified information grew vertically, so very rapidly. So we can see that the general public is really looking for accurate information to consume. So this is the right moment to launch. But we do have the desire or the hope that this stays on our websites because we think we can bring a lot to our websites, including, for example, it can help us better surface the information which is directly relevant for users, or it can offer users the opportunity to directly engage with fact-checking platforms and therefore to get into a closer relationship not only with the concept of fact-checking but also with the practice of it.

We think this chatbot has a potential of creating a closer relationship between the readership and fact-checking platforms, possibly leading to a process of restoring trust in the media. We do think that this tool is going to be there to stay even after the current crisis.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Another of the grant-winning, fact-checking organizations is Newtral, N-E-W-T-R-A-L, based in Madrid, Spain. Newtral is a media company founded in 2018 by the Spanish journalist Ana Pastor, and fact-checking is one of its areas of focus. Its COVID-19 work is notable for the way the team is using automation to tackle the challenges of fact-checking.

Projectified’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with Itziar Bernaola, director of Newtral Educación—Newtral’s project to promote critical thinking in schools, institutes and universities—about how the organization is approaching COVID-related claims.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
HANNAH SCHMIDT

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

ITZIAR BERNAOLA

Well, COVID-19 has affected very, very much our work because it has really increased the number of fakes and all kind of hoaxes in the network and in social media. Cristina Tardáguila—she’s the associate director of the IFCN, which is International Fact Checking Network—she said this was the worst disinformation wave in history, okay, the worst one in history. Never, ever seen before something like this. So it is a huge challenge for fact-checkers.

In our case, in Newtral, we are facing 10 times average more daily messages asking us about specific information, asking us if this is true, this is false. Sometimes in these last months, we have had even up to 16 times more than on an average month. We have this what we call VOD WhatsApp line, which is Verification on Demand line via WhatsApp. Anyone who sees information on the internet and does not know if it’s true or if it’s false can ask us, and we will answer them.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

How have you all adapted to meet this increase in demand?

ITZIAR BERNAOLA

Well, it’s been a little difficult at first because we had two different problems colliding now together. First we had our team in quarantine. So from one day to the other, we were all working at home, all separated one from the others, and we could work online, but it was a little bit different. And then on the other hand, this pandemic of misinformation I was telling you about. So we had to hire two more people for our newsroom, and we had to work so much time in these last two or three months.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

When you have such a large increase in volume, I’d think it’s changing your workload, even with adding more people to your team.

ITZIAR BERNAOLA

It has definitely varied our work routines. For example, we don’t have weekends anymore. So the week is seven days, and we have different turns, but we have to be working from Monday to Sunday.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

So your team is working longer hours and through a stressful time. How do you as a leader keep that in mind and care for the team?

ITZIAR BERNAOLA

I have thought a lot about this in the last two months, because we have so many young people working with us. Some of them live in their own apartments in the center of Madrid. And working in a quarantine without going out of your home only just to go to the supermarket or—that was at the beginning two months ago. Now you can go out to have exercise and so on. But when we started, that can be really stressful, really, really stressful, because you cannot be with your colleagues or with your friends. So I try to be as close as I can with my team. Make them know that this that they’re working is really important. They’re helping other people with their work. And I think that’s the small part we can do in this pandemic. We are not nurses. We are not doctors. We don’t work in hospitals, but what we’re doing, I think it’s a little bit important also.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Earlier you mentioned Newtral’s WhatsApp Verification on Demand, and you received funding for a project to help automate verifying stories and information sent through WhatsApp. What can you tell me about the project?

ITZIAR BERNAOLA

Currently we manually answer 70 percent of all those questions we receive through our VOD WhatsApp line. So the other 30 percent we have automatized it, but we need to automatize more these processes.

So what the project will do is the artificial intelligence will help us to know what can be verified and what can’t. And that may be a little bit basic, but it’s really important for us because it takes us a lot of time saying, okay, this we cannot verify, it’s an opinion for example, or this we cannot have data about this. So that first part is really important for us.

And also like a second part of the project would be that maybe we could automatize also the search of the data. So if some economic data, for example, if the machine learns how to get to those data and gives them directly to the fact-checker, that would be also a way to accelerate responses and accelerate the whole process.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

And so what teams are involved in this project to create this automation?

ITZIAR BERNAOLA

I’m a journalist, so the journalists, we know what we need, but we don’t know how to develop it. But we know what we need, and we especially know what are the needs of our community. Like with COVID-19, it was not only fake news or hoaxes or whatever. Also, we need to do what we call explainers because there was a very big need, a very big demand for trustful information. And that information had to do with verification also, but not only, also about legal measures, economic measures taken by the government related to COVID-19 and to all this crisis, apart from the specific pandemic crisis. We can tell what our community needs and then work together with engineers.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

So we can’t completely stop the spread of misinformation, even if all of your projects succeed. So what’s it like working on a problem that is, you can’t fully solve, just here: it’s done, we’ve solved it?

ITZIAR BERNAOLA

We can’t solve it, no, I’m afraid we can’t. But it’s important even if we cannot solve it, we are helping people to, well, first of all, take care of their health, because some of this disinformation can be very, very bad for your health, so that’s important.

And also I think it’s very important to make people conscious of this disinformation epidemic we’re living. So even if we cannot end the problem, if society gets involved in this problem and when you receive some information, you don’t just upload it or share it with your friends or with your family, but stop a minute and think, “Do you think this is really true? Okay, let’s try to verify it. If I cannot verify it by myself, let’s send Newtral this WhatsApp and try and ask them to verify it for me.” Well, that could be useful even if we don’t, as you say, finish with the problem.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

If we’re going to beat this virus, we need to get on the same page about how best to stay safe and stop its spread. That means having access to reliable, accurate, trustworthy information—but sadly, not exactly all the information floating around out there about COVID-19 quite hits that bar. Separating the fact from the fiction can be tedious work, but it is so important. The project teams that have taken it on and that are exploring new technology to help them fight the battle are doing their communities a huge service. And that’s a fact.

NARRATOR

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