Efecto Cocuyo: Collaborative journalism and citizen activism to fight disinformation

02/07/2021, por Angel

Efecto Cocuyo: Collaborative journalism and citizen activism to fight disinformation

Shari Avendaño

Journalist and illustrator at Efecto Cocuyo


Empodera.org interviews Shari Avendaño, a 25-year-old Venezuelan journalist. She studied Social Communication at the Central University of Venezuela and since 2017 she has been working in the Venezuelan digital narrative media Efecto Cocuyo. She always wanted to support the processes experienced by citizens, to understand and help people to give dimension and meaning to the reality in which they live. That is why she became a journalist covering microeconomics, public services, electoral processes, human rights violations or the hospital crisis. She publishes annual issues of Las venezolanas que brillaron (The Venezuelans that shone), where she gives visibility to women whose talent, drive and social commitment stand out.

When the Data Verification and Fact-checking Unit of Efecto Cocuyo (EC) was created in 2018, Shari was one of its members. From there, she contributed to create and implement her own verification methodology, which earned her being chosen by the fact-checking portal Chequeado to spend two weeks in its editorial office in Argentina. She participates in EC’s Training Unit, where she teaches verification and fact-checking workshops. In 2019 he signed an investigative work called Venezuela sin datos (Venezuela without data), which earned him a nomination for the Gabriel García Márquez Award. Since 2020 Efecto Cocuyo has participated in a collaborative program sponsored by the Peruvian research portal, Salud con Lupa. There he published a report on how Venezuelan migrants of the Waraos ethnic group experienced the passage of COVID-19.


Tell us how it was born and what is the philosophy behind the Efecto Cocuyo initiative, the Venezuelan media of independent digital narratives in which you collaborate.

Whenever we have a reason to celebrate the work we do, those at the helm of Efecto Cocuyo tell us that this independent media was born in the kitchen of the Editorial Director, Josefina Ruggiero, in 2014. The journalists Luz Mely Reyes, Laura Weffer and she came from working in print media censored by the government of Nicolás Maduro. 

That year, Venezuela went through one of the most convulsive and violent periods of anti-government protests. In order to silence the voice of the print media, in 2012 the authorities reduced the purchase of rolls of newsprint (which are imported). For this reason, dozens of newspapers reduced the number of pages. Eventually, over the years, many more had to close. In this context, information opacity became the daily bread for many people who do not have access to the Internet and the country became an ideal breeding ground for the proliferation of disinformation. 

 

“Efecto Cocuyo found an opportunity on the web to do the independent journalism they believe in, one that is not tied to political interests and that believes in listening to the citizenry”


But when doors close, windows open. In this scenario, the founding journalists of EC found an opportunity on the web to do the kind of independent journalism they believe in, one that is not tied to political interests and believes in listening to the citizenry. 
The philosophy behind EC is, as its slogan says, to do journalism that enlightens. Like cocuyos, or fireflies, which are light in the midst of darkness or, in this context, in the midst of information opacity and disinformation.

As a member of the Fact-checking Unit of Cocuyo Chequea, how do you think we should fight against the instrumentalization of online information by governments?  

I think we have to fight from evidence, visibility and training. One of the pillars of any fact-checking work is the description of the whole journey that was made to reach a certain conclusion (what was done to find a source, with whom we talked, how we searched for this or that data), so that it is replicable for anyone. For Cocuyo Chequea it is important to make readers understand that our articles are based on evidence, not on emotions, opinions or positions of political parties or power groups. In this way, we also seek to educate in critical thinking. 

 

“It is important to make readers understand that our notes are based on evidence, not on emotions, opinions or political positions. Thus, we seek to educate in critical thinking”

 

An important factor in the fight against the instrumentalization of disinformation is the visibility of the accounts, people or power groups involved in the dissemination. Venezuelan researchers, such as Professor Iria Puyosa, and other international organizations such as the University of Oxford have published very important works on how accounts allegedly associated with the administration of the ruler Nicolas Maduro seek to break into the conversations that take place in social networks. Disseminating these works is very important for audiences to be aware of what is behind the radical speeches that are often seen on these platforms. 

To combat disinformation it is also important to educate citizens, to give them the tools to detect some key warning signs so as not to fall for lies. For this reason, it is very important for Cocuyo Chequea that the notes are written in a very understandable and didactic way, so that other people can replicate our verification.

 

“It is important to educate citizens, to give them the tools to detect key warning signs so as not to fall for lies. It is important that the notes are written in an understandable and didactic way so that other people can replicate our verification”

 

Every year we give verification and fact-checking workshops for communication professionals and other areas, as part of the objectives set by the CE Training Unit.  


Is the issue of freedom of expression in your country, Venezuela, particularly sensitive? How do you deal with it at Efecto Cocuyo?  

At EC we work to ensure that our articles and investigations are as accurate and varied as possible in terms of points of view. However, we have gone through several periods of digital blockades by the state-owned telecommunications companies, Cantv and Movilnet

In fact, last October 3, these two companies applied an HTTP block to EC. That is to say, those who wished to access the portal through the internet services of Cantv and Movilnet could not do so unless they downloaded a VPN (Virtual Private Network). According to data from the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) in Venezuela, since the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine (March 17, 2020), more than 40 portals and digital platforms have been blocked in the country. 

 

“We have gone through several periods of digital blockades by state-owned telecommunications companies. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine, more than 40 portals and digital platforms have been blocked”

 

Every time we go through a blocking episode, we urge our readers to log in to the portal through a VPN. We explain how to download and install the program on cell phones and computers. 


In addition to being a journalist, you are an illustrator. Do you consider yourself a digital
artivist?  

I like to make and share illustrations about issues that I am passionate about or that somehow move me to see if they move others. I feel that with what I draw, many people can feel identified and can be informed, or at least have access to a different point of view.  

I really like to draw about the experience of being a woman, some feminist issues, mental health and misinformation. I also illustrate about whatever is going on inside me, for example, how the pandemic has impacted my emotions and the way I see the world. 

I don’t know if I consider myself a digital artivist anymore, but I definitely think I’m on my way to that. 


How do you think the avalanche of fake news is affecting journalism today?

Disinformation has meant a very interesting challenge for journalism, especially for that popular journalism developed by some communicators based on sources, presumably reliable but anonymous, and on the “tubazos” or scoops.

The avalanche of disinformation has shown that there are basic steps of journalism methodologies that have been put in second place and that it is necessary to give them the importance they have, in terms of truthfulness and accuracy. For example, confirming and re-confirming a piece of information is as important as the actual street reporting, interview or investigation.  

 

“Confirming and re-confirming a piece of information is as important as the actual street reporting, interview or investigation”

 

In this sense, the proliferation of disinformation in Venezuela brings with it the opportunity to review good journalistic practices, from methodologies to writing. Now more than ever, it is much more valuable to publish with confirmed and accurate data rather than first publishing a supposed scoop. 


In 2019, you were part of the group of Efecto Cocuyo journalists nominated for the Gabriel García Márquez Award in the Cobertura category. What did this nomination mean to you?  

It meant great joy for all of us involved in the work. Eleven journalists worked hard in Venezuela without data, a work to record the large number of databases that have not been published in recent years because of the opacity of information in Venezuela. Moreover, they are not simple numbers: they are the data that account for the diseases that Venezuelans suffer from, how the economy is behaving and what Venezuelans are eating, to mention a few examples. 

On the other hand, it is always an honor to be nominated for such a prestigious award. Two years ago, in 2018, Efecto Cocuyo took the award in the Cobertura category with the special Venezuela a la fuga (Venezuela on the run), about migration. In particular, it was very exciting to feel that a work in which I collaborated was recognized. It was very meaningful for me. 


The management team of Efecto Cocuyo is made up of four women. An example of projects created by women entrepreneurs. How do you define the journalism you believe in? 

I believe, above all, in a journalism far from the interests and moorings of power. That is, I believe in independent journalism. I think that the media that bet on that are, to date, the “spearhead” or those who set the tone for what independent journalism will be in the future: much more innovative and with more tools to control the power groups. 

 

“I believe in a journalism far from the interests and ties of power, a journalism that, from collaboration and ideas, helps to translate the complex world in which we live. The media that bet on this are the ones that set the tone for the future of independent journalism”

 

I believe in a journalism that is told from the tools of entertainment, such as cartoons, animations, memes, gifs and other formats more associated with entertainment. But, above all, I believe in a journalism that, from collaboration and ideas, helps to translate the complex world we live in. 


What other projects are you currently involved in?

For the past few months I have been part of the liquid newsroom of Distintas Latitudes, a Latin American media outlet focused on seven priority communities: women agents of change, LGBTI+ populations, journalists, technologists, environmentalists, migrants and entrepreneurs. 

I really like this project because of its innovative work format. I had never known, much less participated, in a liquid newsroom (i.e., each of its members is in a different place, in this case country). So the meetings are very fun and enriching. 

In alliance with the Venezuelan chapters of the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS Venezuela) and Transparencia, I am doing an investigation on one of the social missions of the Venezuelan State. We hope to have it ready by the end of this year. 

A few weeks ago, I was selected to be one of the seven journalists, illustrators and designers who will be part of the training program Latinográficas contra la desinformación, organized by the Paraguayan media, El Surtidor. It is a learning and collaboration program in visual journalism. So far it has been an incredible experience and a lot of growth. 

Finally, I collaborate as an illustrator with a Mexican digital magazine called La Desvelada. They publish chronicles and essays. They have a very interesting proposal, far from the daily news agency. 


How do you manage to reach the most vulnerable communities through your illustrations?

Social networks, especially Instagram and Twitter, are the channels through which I usually connect with people. For now, those are the networks I keep active. I hope that soon I can come up with a way to reach people who perhaps have connectivity failures and find it difficult to keep an eye on social networks. 

 

More information on Efecto Cocuyo:

Efecto Cocuyo’s website

Efecto Cocuyo’s Twitter

 

More information on Shari Avendaño:

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