When the results of the 2012 parliamentary election in Romania came in, Alexandru Roșu was flabbergasted. On that snowy December election night, he and a group of political activists were chatting and drinking spiked punch in an old freezing squat house in the center of Bucharest, the Romanian capital. When the news was projected onto a big screen, there was a moment of stunned silence.
“That’s when I knew the country was fucked,” Roșu said. “Everybody had pedaled a lot of lies, especially the coalition party that won. I just couldn’t believe that they could win by telling so many lies.” Not to the extent of Donald Trump, he clarifies — sitting in a café on the Upper West Side on a recent trip to New York — “I can honestly say that nobody can beat Trump at lying.” But it was a lot for a Romanian election. After a tumultuous period of austerity measures, political disputes, and civil unrest, confusion and manipulation were rife amid a mood that looks familiar today in the post-truth atmosphere of Brexit and the 2016 American presidential election.
An unusual feature of the 2012 election was a coalition of the left-wing and right-wing parties, which won about three quarters of the votes, canceling out the opposition. Roșu likened this union to the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. joining forces to become an unbeatable super party. “I didn’t think that one coalition should have so much power in the parliament because it undermines democracy,” he said. “I needed to do something, but I had no idea what.”
So Roșu, a boyish-looking 31-year-old who runs a boutique marketing company, posted an event on Facebook several days later called “Let’s Do Something.” It was an open invitation for anybody to come to a café in Bucharest to discuss the options. About forty showed up. Eventually, eight activists became the core of the group. Week after week, they explored various ideas, like forming a party themselves, but decided that would be too difficult. One group member who had lived in the U.S. mentioned fact checking. They decided that PolitiFact, the award-winning site put out by the Tampa Bay Times, could be a model for their project. Using evidence to call out politicians for lying was very appealing to them as there was nothing of the sort in Romania at the time. “It looked like we could bring a whole new level of accountability to the political discourse in the country,” Roșu said. “That was something.”
Romania’s Constitution declares it a democracy, but the lack of a robust independent media left a void in oversight, Roșu says, especially in TV news, which plays a large role in shaping public opinion. In an effort to fill this gap, they started their own fact checking operation from scratch, Factual, and spent the next year developing the method. In May 2014, when they felt they could deliver on their promise to hold politicians accountable, they officially launched with a fact checking marathon, or “checkathon.” After that, many volunteers started pitching in as their network grew.
“Our legitimacy came from a network of experts on different topics who conducted the fact checks – friends who were mostly academics, activists, business people, and those working in NGOs,” Roșu, Factual’s editor, said. “People who cared. Romania is not yet a post-truth society. People cared – and still do care – about the truth.”
Corina Murafa, one of the founding members, said in a recent phone interview from her home in Bucharest that after the 2012 election there was “a civic awakening” in Romania. People felt a need to reform the political system and Factual was part of that. Murafa, a thirty-year-old government consultant for energy policy, wore several hats – she was the energy sector expert, a peer reviewer, and she looked for political statements in the media that needed to be fact checked.
In the debates before the 2014 presidential election, Factual partnered with the country’s biggest online newspaper at the time, Gândul, to fact check the candidates in real time, creating a social media-friendly method of sharing their fact checks.
A key moment came during the second debate when Prime Minister Victor Ponta made a dubious claim regarding a charge of plagiarism against him. “He was lying,” said Murafa. “We spotted that very fast,” and they published the fact check immediately. It was a politically potent topic, and the three biggest mainstream media outlets picked it up within twenty minutes. “That was a breakthrough moment. It was like, ‘wow, what we’re doing is big.’” In the two days leading up to the third debate Factual’s posts had a total reach of nearly 150,000 people. Today, it has over 17,000 users on Facebook.
The editor who was their liaison at Gândul, Alina Mărculescu, said in an email that though she was initially skeptical about working with this young band of non-journalists, things gelled after the first debate when they got more organized, and the paper even went on to explore what some of the fact checks revealed. She says the fact checking affected the race. Along with the debate, “It cemented the idea that the former prime minister wasn’t always truthful,” and that his opponent was more prepared. The Factual team’s efforts, says Mărculescu, “managed to produce a healthier public and political debate that was very much needed in Romania.”
In the end, the candidate who lied the most, according to their analysis, Prime Minister Ponta, lost the election. They had no way of knowing how much Factual had affected the results, but were satisfied that they had done something. “My only personal bias was for the truth,” Roșu said, “not for or against any candidate.”
Andrei Țărnea, the executive director of the Aspen Institute Romania, has followed Factual’s activity. He said in a recent phone interview from his home in Bucharest that he is certain Factual did have an impact. “What Factual succeeded in doing was getting younger educated voters more engaged,” he said. He added that some TV channels and websites subsequently started doing their own fact checking. “They were certainly among the pioneers in this field,” he said of Factual, which was sorely needed amid a media climate he described as “abysmal in terms of quality.”
Thanks to Factual, Țărnea said, “to a small degree, the political class had to be a little more careful about what they were saying.”
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Soon after the 2014 election, Roșu noticed strange things happening to him.
He was in front of the Gândul headquarters, about to go to a party there, when, he said, his phone suddenly shut off while he was on a call. It had never done that. The next day, his computer started freezing a lot. That was also new, but he didn’t think much of it. But then, when he came home one evening, the lock on his front door that had not been working properly – it was hard to turn the key – had been fixed. The key turned perfectly. And it looked like stuff he had in the living room had been moved to the kitchen.
“I felt it had something to do with the fact checking,” he said. “But how can you complain? How do you go to the police and say, ‘Someone was in my apartment and they fixed my lock?’ You just sound crazy.”
Roșu said this is the kind of thing that the Romanian intelligence service would do if they wanted to mess with someone’s head. “This is how they send a message,” he said. “If this was a message, it was clearly: ‘By the way, we’re here and we’re watching.’”
His friends tried to calm him down, telling him he was imagining things and had an inflated sense of self-importance. “The government doesn’t care about you,” he recalled one saying. But he had also been losing clients for several months. That was not his imagination. Perhaps, he thought, nobody wanted to risk working with “a crazy guy who was calling out politicians for their lies with a huge loudspeaker.”
He was in quite a state, constantly wondering, “what’s going to happen next?” He became concerned about vans with tinted windows and suspicious men who might or might not have been following him. So he quit.
“I started that project to give something back to my country,” he said. “But I learned that there is a cost to doing good, at least in Romania.” For him, part of the cost was acquiring the sense that he might just be paranoid. He still doesn’t know what happened or if anything really happened. “That’s the most perverse thing,” he went on, “to doubt the way you perceive reality. But I don’t believe it was my imagination. I really don’t.”
After he departed Factual, the weird stuff stopped and his business eventually picked up again.
Țărnea, of the Aspen Institute, said that such harassment is not what the intelligence service would typically do. “I would very seriously doubt that it was coming from a state agency,” he explained. “It’s quite possible that somebody did that,” he went on, but surmised it was more likely a political actor. There certainly was no shortage of aggrieved individuals who might have been displeased with Factual.
As for the upcoming parliamentary election in December, Factual will do what it was designed for. “These days are mostly about preparing the infrastructure for what will be a very, very busy time during the elections,” Elena Calistru, one of the original core members who is now at the helm, said in an email. They will again do live fact checking of the debates; they will fact check policy statements by the current members of Parliament; and they will have checkathons of the candidates’ campaign statements. They are also testing a Chrome web browser plug-in that integrates their fact checks with news platforms.
Corina Murafa, who is now a strategic advisor, is another one of the few founding members still involved with the project. Most have moved on. One went to London, and another got into politics and is running for Parliament. Despite the change in personnel, the mission to reveal the truth about what politicians say is going forward.
“It’s clear to us that politicians now know about us,” she said, “and one of the objectives was attained: making politicians more careful about their public statements. That’s what we wanted: to have more responsible politicians.”