Clara Jimenez Cruz

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Spain
Fellow since 2019
This description of Clara Jimenez Cruz's work was prepared when Clara Jimenez Cruz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 .

Introduction

Clara is fighting “fake news” by creating new roles for consumers of news, recruiting them to combat the spread of disinformation by becoming part of the process of evaluating, checking and disseminating facts. As a trained journalist, Clara understands that, fighting the exponential spread of disinformation and fake news, exacerbated by technology, must not only involve a technological response, but must also involve active citizen collaboration.

The New Idea

Clara’s vision is to involve society in critically thinking about news, news content and news sources by redefining the relationship between the public and the information they receive. Her model turns passive consumers into active contributors, factcheckers and redistributors of the facts.

Clara harnesses citizens’ demand to combat disinformation by providing them with easily accessible channels to flag up stories that worry them to Maldita (Clara’s fact checking organisation). Maldita then provides an easy to understand and easy to circulate fact-checked answer, and the community recirculates the counterargument.

Maldita checks almost 250 stories per day (this includes memes gone viral, photos, articles, propaganda leaflets…) flagged by their community of over 1 million followers. To do so, Maldita has its own team of journalists and researchers and over 14,000 active contributors who offer their specialist knowledge (doctors, scientists etc.) to the community on specific news items.

Maldita’s work focuses 100% on community proposals. Clara and the team do not only research political or policy issues but any area of concern that the community has, such as medical or scientific issues or simple clarifications on technical vocabulary that the ordinary citizen finds difficult to understand. Maldita’s responses are not academic or dry but use the same visual codes that are used in the viral circulation of disinformation – innovative, fresh and easy-to-viralize formats in a light-hearted tone. This means that counterarguments get out there quickly and are rapidly spread, reducing the harm that fake news may cause.

The content that Maldita produces is transmedia: Clara has forged alliances with national newspapers, radio and TV, reaching different audiences and those not normally on social media (different ages, economic situations, opinions, locations, etc.).

Clara also enhances digital news literacy in Spain through her training program for schools and other organizations. Her creativity and innovative community model make her the Spanish reference in the fight against misinformation and is the European representative on the Global Fact Checking Advisory Board.

The Problem

Disinformation - or what is commonly denominated fake news - consists of verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm. The first occurrence of fake news was reported in the 16th century.

Consumption of news has changed radically with the advent of internet, over 60% of Western Europeans consume news online and news items can be read rapidly and reach more people than ever before. In Spain, 36% of the population uses WhatsApp as an information channel. News viewed in WhatsApp often reaches the user with no reference point and, in the context of immediacy in which Western society lives, is forwarded on without any consideration.

Immediacy and literacy are both key issues in rebutting disinformation. There are fact-checking organizations that reply to a Tweet with four or five pages of long and complicated text which are read by academics and politicians and are of no interest to the general public due to their complexity. In other cases, fact checking takes so long that by the time a fact-based answer is constructed, the “fake news” has already won a place in the hearts and minds of citizens.

Citizens are becoming more and more concerned with the concept of disinformation, with over 50% of the population globally (over 69% in Spain after the Catalonian illegal independence referendum) declaring their mistrust of news items on social media. According to Reuters, 72% of the Spanish population also look to governments to regulate the phenomenon as they don’t know who else to turn to or how else to combat this situation.

However, as the phenomenon is still relatively new, there is little hard data on how these news pieces are fabricated and circulated and there is a very fine line to be drawn between freedom of speech and censorship, resulting in governing bodies being reluctant to take serious action and legislate.

Many actors believe that the big tech companies – Facebook (WhatsApp, Instagram), Google (YouTube), Twitter and Microsoft - should be held responsible. They have made attempts to create algorithms to flag up disinformation but to date their efforts have been limited due to the nuance of right to expression. Technology is not yet sufficiently developed and could potentially be used by companies or governments to manipulate the public. The solution lies with creating awareness, opportunity and desire within society, so that citizens become involved, creating a more critical mindset.

The Strategy

Clara has created tools that allow Maldita to check the misinformation that surround us, she is working to change the mindset in society and is multiplying the effects of her work by creating strategic alliances and strengthening the active role of citizens.

Building community, creating credibility and crowdsourcing

Clara is empowering a diverse community of interested citizens to become active participants in a more democratic, crowd-sourced and crowd-monitored fact-checking process. This community of over 1 million people (including followers on all their social media channels) flags potential fake stories and sends them to Maldita to verify the information.

Maldita has a solid fact checking policy in place. Once a new piece has been researched, the proposal is presented to a committee of eight journalists where at least five of them must agree on the counterclaim. In case one of the 8 journalist of the committee presents a veto, the counterclaim is sent back to be researched further.

Maldita is divided into niche projects which target specific themes and audiences. Maldita started with Maldita Archives, where current political declarations were contrasted with previous statements to highlight incongruencies, broken promises and straightforward lies. They have since expanded to include: Maldita Science, Maldita Feminism, Maldita Data, Maldita Hoax and Maldita Migration.

This approach facilitates access for specialist journalists to fact-check quickly and efficiently, gives researchers and academics access to relevant information, and provides general readers with an interest in a certain topic direct channels to address their specific concerns. This also allows Maldita to work more efficiently as their staff can specialise, recognising the same disinformation as it surfaces time and time again. There are many fake stories that continually re-emerge, and the fact checked answer is filed in a database allowing instant rebuttal of rumours that are constantly repeated.

The Maldita community also actively participates in fact-checking. There are 14,000 citizens who have volunteered their specialist knowledge to assist in the fact-checking process whenever needed. These “Super-Malditos” range from doctors or scientists to airport security workers or prison guards and their knowledge is always double and triple checked. Many of them have been trained as presenters and create their own videos which are then circulated widely.

Changing the mindset

In less than 18 months, Clara has brought fact-checking and disinformation to the fore. In the past general election, Clara and her team fact-checked the national debate among the five main political parties in real time, to an audience of over 9 million people in a joint effort with 16 other media outlets. This has created a wave of critical thinking about politicians’ promises, has awoken a whole new audience for Maldita and has positioned them as a place of trust for verification.

Maldita is one of the key players in a recently launched initiative in Spain with Google and traditional mainstream media players to educate adolescents in critical thinking when receiving, reading and sharing news items. The plan aims to reach 30,000 young people aged 14 to 16 in the next two years.

Clara and her team have carried out over 120 workshops independently for different companies and universities to teach them the tools to fight the problem. Maldita’s plans include an educational program for schools and a packaged training course (train the trainer) that can be easily imparted and exported.

On another level, Clara sources and provides tech tools to facilitate citizen involvement. She has created a plug-in that can be installed for free on search engines which alerts you when you enter an untrustworthy or unreliable website. This pop-up tells you the percentage of disinformation that has come from that source and has recently been converted to a mobile app with additional functionality such as an integrated search engine for denials and refutations or an uploader from Whatsapp to check if items have been checked or not.

Building alliances, multiplying the impact.

Clara established alliances with Oxfam-Intermon to create Maldita Migration and has already had interest from the same partner to expand into Italy where migration is a hot topic with the Matteo Salvini right wing government. She also collaborates with Plan International in Maldita Feminism.

Clara has strong relationships with other European actors in the fact checking arena and works within the ecosystem to import (tech tools) and export (community building) best practises. Her credibility, independence and reach within Spanish media is also key for dissemination.

Clara was the only Spaniard appointed by the European Commission to the High-Level Group of Fake News and Online Disinformation for her expertise in fact-checking and she is assisting other countries to engage citizens as active agents in the fight against disinformation. Furthermore, she is the European representative in the International Fact-Checking Advisory Board. As a respected colleague within the fact-checking community she was appointed by her colleagues to represent the European organizations in the global alliance and has assisted in the setting up of collaborative projects to fight disinformation such as FactCheck.eu.

Organisation

To have complete editorial freedom and ensure the social aim of her project, Maldita only receives private funds. Clara raised over 30,000 Euros necessary to set up a as a non-profit foundation through a crowdfunding campaign in less than one week.

Income streams include training programmes, fees for appearances on TV and radio programmes, fees from partnerships with NGOs, grants and prizes, paying subscribers, and contracts with partners such as Facebook, were they have been contracted to collaborate on managing disinformation in Spain within the Third-Party Fact-checking program.

The Person

Clara was a Scout and has always been motivated by the idea of “leaving the world a little better than she found it”. She had an alternative schooling attending a liberal arts school in Spain and spending time at the Newark centre for Creative Learning where she focussed on project learning, curating events, collaborative classes and practical creativity.

These early educational experiences gave her the confidence to propose alternative solutions to problems. At university in Spain she convinced her teachers to convert a theory class into the creation of a practical university newssheet.

Clara didn’t have a vocation to be a journalist, the obvious choice would have been to be a doctor like her parents. She toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher, but writing was becoming more and more important to her, so she decided to study journalism, motivated by the idea of being able to help people through exposing the difficulties in their lives. Clara worked through her degree as an intern on a political show on a national TV channel.

In her final year at university she studied in Mexico and bargained with the university staff to be able to travel and write articles on the tough migration issues in Mexico and other subjects. On her return to Spain, she was asked to cover the 15M movement (the inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement during the economic crisis) and there she realised that not only were citizens demanding political change, they were also demanding change in the way they were informed, in the transparency of media outlets. This motivated her to conceptualise Maldita, which began as a project on Twitter in her spare time.

In 2016, when the issue of Catalan independence started to become more and more relevant, Clara realised that disinformation was becoming a weapon for both sides in the debate and had arrived in Spain to stay. She decided to set up Maldita in a more structured and sustainable manner but was approached by her bosses at the TV station, who offered to buy-out the Maldita concept. Although Clara saw there was economic value in the project, she fought hard to maintain their independence and their non-profit status. Clara has found her calling to thwart the viral growth of disinformation by building broad networks of expert fact checkers but, most importantly, by enlisting concerned citizens to become active collaborators in reporting suspicious information they receive and then sharing the real facts with their own networks.