"Fighting disinformation and fighting climate change go hand in hand"

Vernise Tantuco is a fact-checker for Rappler, the Philippines' leading digital media outlet. She tells us why - in a country plagued by natural disasters - disinformation can kill.

A champion of truth in a hostile online and offline environment, Rappler is no stranger to the consequences of disinformation. Several years ago, the platform and its CEO, Maria Ressa, fell victim to state-sponsored digital abuse. False accusations about its credibility and motives were rife. Rappler’s crime? Telling the full story about unlawful killings conducted by the Filipino government under President Duterte.

What started online soon shifted to Filipino courtrooms. But while fielding convenient accusations of cyberlibel and tax evasion, Rappler has doubled down on its unique approach to fact-checking. Since last January, the platform has fact-checked 100+ claims about COVID-19.

As the Philippines suffers at the hands of exacerbated natural disasters, it has also been at the forefront of fending off environmental dis/misinformation.

We spoke to Vernise Tantuco, a writer and researcher for Rappler, about what sleuthing for the greater good entails.

How did you become interested in fact-checking and disinformation? What are some of the most interesting stories you’ve worked on?

I began fact-checking in mid-2018, when I moved from Rappler’s Lifestyle and Entertainment section to the Research team, which is under Newsbreak, our investigative arm. At the time, I had been assigned to write fact-checks on posts that were circulating on social media, but it wasn’t until a few months later that I began to really appreciate the work I was doing.

At Rappler, the data we gather about the misleading social media posts and the public pages/groups that share them inform our investigative work.

Over time, my teammates and I would notice patterns in the claims sent to us via email, reported on Facebook (we are one of its third-party fact-checking partners), or that were going viral on social media.

I’ve worked on stories about how the Marcos family has been gaining political power through social media, even though their patriarch was overthrown in 1986; the inadequacies of YouTube and Facebook Messenger’s disinformation policies; and even the times social media boosted President Rodrigo Duterte’s lies. 

Aside from the stories I write, I also find it interesting to engage with academics, students, and other journalists about disinformation through our webinars and election fact-checking initiatives.

I like knowing that other people can also see that disinformation is a problem and want to help find solutions. 

What does environmental disinformation look like in the Philippines? 

The Philippines experiences a lot of natural disasters like typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. We often see environmental disinformation whenever any of these events occur, and they usually sow panic and confuse people on what’s really happening on the ground. 

For instance, we fact-checked at least 13 misleading claims about the Taal Volcano in the days following its phreatic eruption in January 2020, including rumours about raised volcanic alert levels, photos of other erupting volcanoes that were mislabeled as Taal, misleading text messages about which areas had lost power, and volcanic tsunamis. 

When it comes to typhoons, we also see disinformation about government response or lack thereof, painting certain politicians in a better light than others. We’ve fact-checked a supposed video of typhoon relief operations in the Philippines that was actually taken in Guatemala and purported images of the aftermath of a 2020 typhoon that were actually taken in 2013. 

What kind of impact does it have on the ground? E.g. how are fake images disseminated and how do they impact natural disaster response? 

I answered this a bit in the previous question – it sows a lot of fear and confusion. 

Once – although this was likely a case of misinformation, not disinformation – I fact-checked a list of emergency hotlines that wasn’t updated. You can imagine the kind of danger that would pose to flood victims who were in need of aid. The list was circulated during Typhoon Ulysses (Vamco) in 2020, the deadliest tropical cyclone that hit the Philippines that year.

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One post with this list of wrong emergency hotlines had at least 40,000 shares on Facebook.

Also during Typhoon Ulysses, a false claim circulated that a group of volunteers were offering shelter for those in need, and their contact details were included in the post too. It turned out that they were only organising a donation drive to aid residents in their area.

One of the volunteers in the post told us that the spread of this wrong information caused delays in their operations. He also said some people misunderstood, thought they needed to be rescued, and tried to connect them with rescuers. This is a waste of time, energy, and resources that could have been allocated to people who were really in need of help.

What’s concerning as well is that a lot of rumours spread on private messaging apps or through text messages, which makes it hard for fact-checkers to see and correct.

When there’s no electricity, which is often the case when there are typhoons in the Philippines, people in affected areas can only stay connected through their phones or the radio. However, radio stations are usually more preoccupied with live storm updates than fact-checking rumours circulating on social media or through text.  

How do you go about checking stories? 

When it comes to fact-checking during disasters, we get a lot of help from experts to verify scientific claims, as well as from our Movers, or citizen journalists, on the ground. Because Rappler is a news outlet, we do have reporters and stringers on the ground too, and we have contacts with the relevant government agencies and NGOs who can help us verify whether certain things are true or not. 

There are also times when it just takes a little online sleuthing to know what’s true or false. We often use reverse image search engines in our work to check when, where, and in what context an image or video was taken.

There are also a lot of online resources, like news reports, statements published on official social media channels, or academic websites that help us with our research. You’d be surprised how responsive scientists and experts can be on social media as well.

Do you feel combatting disinformation plays a big role in the climate fight? 

Yes, for sure!

Social media and the internet has opened us up to so many sources of information, which is both a blessing and a curse.

It can be emotional and confusing, especially in times of crisis, to determine what’s a fact and what’s not, amid all of the information that’s available to us. When it comes to something like the climate fight, it’s important to get our facts right, do our research, and know what experts and scientists are saying and recommending, in order to respond efficiently and with urgency. Fighting disinformation and fighting climate change go hand in hand. 

Follow Vernise Tantuco and Rappler on Twitter.