New Europe

Ever since 200 of its officers sought to scuttle Spain’s transition to democracy through a coup d’état in 1981, the Guardia Civil has shed its longtime reputation for subversiveness and emerged instead as a bulwark of constitutional order. So when the gendarmerie corps’ highest-ranking officer pledged to “minimise criticism” of the government’s handling of COVID at a press briefing early this week, his words sent shockwaves through the nation.

If his superior’s disavowal is to be believed, it is not plaudits but accurate coverage that the government is after, and any hint to the contrary was a “lapse”. Yet government spokespeople have repeatedly blasted the independent media which covers Spain’s skyrocketing case count, the world’s second-largest, for breeding “social stress”.

Other countries have also seised on COVID-19 to urge for facts to trump presumption, but in Spain, the distinction between fake news and dissent is losing meaning at an alarming pace.

Thankfully, some of the country’s independent newspapers remain a safe haven for independent coverage of the government’s COVID blunders. That is decreasingly the case in some corners of social media, where so-called “fact-checking” outlets have been caught skewing the information available to users in a direction favourable to the government, primarily on Facebook.

Those incredulous about the fact that the platform could be so easily gamed should be reminded that it seeks to keep misinformation at bay not through in-house content management but by outsourcing fact-checking to country-specific outlets through the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).

In Spain, a 20-second Google search and a cursory understanding of the media landscape is enough to realise that Facebook’s outsourcing model has gone haywire. Maldita and Newtral, two of the three outlets hired through the ICFN, have worked as revolving doors for former executives of the privately-owned, yet overtly leftist, TV network LaSexta and even communication staffers of the PSOE party now in government.

LaSexta has repeatedly acknowledged its leftist bias and its CEO recently equated on-air criticism of the government’s handling of COVID to “far-right conspiracies”. You don’t need to work in media to know bias simply has a way of asserting itself and tainting an outlet’s coverage.

Does this make Maldita and Newtral outright censors as many are beginning to worry? In trying to disprove the claim, Maldita has actually worked to confirm the suspicions. On April 13, it labelled as fake news a story that simply listed it and Newtral as the “two outlets hired to shut down fake news in Spain”.

Maldita’s rebuttal was to say that it simply advises Facebook on a story’s trustworthiness, with the platform holding the ultimate power to administer the “fake news” label.

It took fact-checking the fact-checkers for the claim to be proven false. Per Facebook’s own avowal, any story its outsourced fact-checkers report as false bears the “fake news” label, no questions asked. Thankfully, Facebook’s ability to take down content is limited to posts on its own platform. Readers can get past the “fake news” label on outside stories by clicking past it. So despite their claims to the contrary, outsourced fact-checkers are the ultimate arbiters of whether a story circulating on the platform is to be believed or not. Maldita and Newtral’s judgements are unappealable, not even by Facebook.

That the power to censure news stories lies on judges isn’t lost on the government either. Podemos, the PSOE’s far-left coalition partner, wasted no time in the early days of COVID to label a series of Twitter videos showing rooms full of coffins and bags full of body parts as “criminal”. It claimed the videos weren’t shot in Spain, but in asking a prosecutor to take them down, Podemos’ aim was far larger. In its letter to him, it called for any “simulation of danger and defamation aiming the State” to be taken down. No doubt their definition of “defamation” may include news stories they aren’t happy about.

Ironically, this hasn’t prevented Podemos from exercising that very same freedom to artificially spread negative news. Soon after filing their complaint, the party was found to run a twitter account, since withdrawn, blasting as incompetent the centre-right PP-led regional government in Madrid, Spain’s main COVID-19 hotspot. No doubt that same twitter account would have been a primary target of the government’s anti-fake news zeal had it been aimed at its own management nationwide.

The government’s tactics are in fact as much about silencing negative coverage as about artificially propping up praise. This week, Facebook shut down an army of bots that had sprung up on the Health Ministry’s official page to praise its handling of the virus, which most Spaniards disapprove of if polls are to be believed, with many finding large majorities deeming it “very bad” or “catastrophic”.

Last week, Australia’s Institute of Certified Management Accountants ranked Spain’s response to the virus as the worst among a sample of 95 countries.

When piecing these tactics together, what emerges is not a contest between truth and falsehoods, but a self-interested use of news by all sides. This is par for the course in a democracy until a government uses the health emergency to justify muffling negative coverage. Yes, facts are paramount in a crisis of COVID-19’s proportions.

If, however, Spanish audiences are increasingly turning to tendentious coverage, it is largely a function of the government’s own use of publicly funded media to whitewash its mishandling of the virus. Public networks such as RTVE routinely underreport cases while refraining to display the shopping malls and stadiums turned into factory-sized morgues.

What’s even more concerning is that a government is seemingly so concerned with truth is scapegoating independent coverage of its policies as “right-wing conspiracies”. Even if the remarks by José Manuel Santiago, the Guardia Civil’s Chief-of-Staff, were an off-the-cuff lapse—some have even speculated it may have been the Guardia Civil’s stealth way of exposing the government’s plans for censure—, the role of government-friendly fact-checkers in skewing the news spreading on social media is highly concerning.

Every government has a vested interest in having its policies covered in a friendly way, but none seems to be going this far in blurring the line between fake news and dissent. For its own sake, Facebook should disown Maldita and Newtral, and Spanish audiences should remain on their guard about the government’s skewing of coverage through other means. Meanwhile, the world should closely watch what increasingly look like attempts at censure in Spain.

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