March 9, 2020

#DrilonOnCNN: A case for firing “fact-checker” Vera Files

Vera Files' latest fact-checking stunt on the issue of Senator Franklin Drilon's CNN interview should be a ground for its expulsion from its "fact-checker"-ship.
Vera Files is among Facebook’s fact-checkers in the Philippines, and I checked how it became so.

Facebook in its official help page [1] said it “work(s) with third-party fact-checkers who are certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) to help identify and review false news,” a claim seconded by Poynter Institute with a related announcement[2].

Given these, I can only deduce that some Facebook chose fact-checkers from the roster of IFCN members.

But what are the requirements for IFCN membership?

Quoting IFCN’s Code of Principles[3], each member needs to commit to several things, including (a) Transparency of Sources, (b) Nonpartisanship and fairness, and (c) Transparency of Funding.

Vera Files is an IFCN member[4], and this article, without prejudice to possible legal action against Vera Files, will discuss why it shouldn’t remain so.


Vera Files’ 07 March 2020 article “VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Jay Sonza, RJ Nieto help propagate wrong claim that Drilon snoozed in CNN PH interview”[5] starts with:
“Former broadcaster Jay Sonza and blogger RJ Nieto, both known for their pro-administration stance, amplified a false claim that Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon snoozed in the middle of a television interview.”
Vera Files used “blogger” to describe this article’s writer, RJ Nieto, conveniently omitting that he’s also a journalist through his daily political commentary radio show “Karambola sa DWIZ” and the weekly column “Thinking Pinoy” at the major broadsheet Manila Bulletin. Moreover, Vera Files described both as “pro-administration,” which is irrelevant to the question of whether Senator Franklin Drilon snoozed or not.

Vera Files must be aware of these omissions because (a) Vera Files in the same article fact-checked a video posted on the Thinking Pinoy Facebook page, whose logo[6] since September 2019 includes superimposed miniaturized logos of DWIZ 882 AM and Manila Bulletin; and (b) Vera Files in its fact-checks supposedly adheres[7] to the Philippine Press Institute’s Code of Ethics[8], part of which states:
“I shall scrupulously report and interpret the news, taking care not to suppress essential facts nor to distort the truth by omission or improper emphasis.”
This is a blatant attempt of Vera Files to poison the well as they consciously offer irrelevant adverse information and, at the same time, omit material facts about the person they’re fact-checking.

Here's Thinking Pinoy's logo that it has been using since September 2019:

Posted by Thinking Pinoy on Friday, September 6, 2019

Here’s a question:
If a rabid opposition supporter shoots me in the head after reading this Vera Files article, will my being a newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster make my death count as a journalist killing?
The same assailed article then went on to claim that:
“Sonza and Nieto both have a history of purveying misleading information on social media.”
In the fact check article, Vera Files hyperlinked the phrase “purveying misleading information” to another Vera Files article [21], strongly suggesting that the claim against Nieto is supported by the said link.

A look at the link’s target, however, shows that it’s a 14 November 2018 fact check about Sonza and Sonza alone. That is, Vera Files’ claim that Nieto has “a history of purveying misleading information on social media” is not just an extraordinarily heavy allegation, but also an allegation that is failed to be supported by facts.

Fact-checking Nieto

Vera Files, in the assailed article, directed the reader’s attention to the 02 March 2020 Thinking Pinoy Facebook Live Video entitled “FACT CHECK: DID SENATOR DRILON FALL ASLEEP IN A CNN PHILIPPINES INTERVIEW?”, where it quoted:
“Nakatulog siya momentarily, mga a span of five, ten seconds. Ngayon, medyo nakakahiya nga ‘yon. Pero feeling ko, ano ‘yan, may sakit si Drilon. Baka, ano, narcoleptic, ewan ko. Medyo hindi normal ‘yon eh, kasi, immediately before atsaka immediately after nung pagtulog niya, dilat na dilat naman siya. Pero kahit na, nakakahiya pa rin.”
(He fell asleep momentarily, for a span of five, ten seconds. Now, that’s indeed kind of embarrassing. But I feel like, Drilon is sick. Maybe narcoleptic, I don’t know. What happened is not normal, because immediately before and after he dozed off, his eyes were wide open. Nevertheless, that is still embarrassing.)
Nieto uttered these words at the 2:55 mark, as shown in the link below:

Vera Files, however, conveniently omitted what Nieto said at the 4:18 mark, which was:
“So ang tanong, ‘Nakatulog ba si Drilon o hindi? Well, judging from the video… ng CNN mismo, mukha ngang nakatulog.”
(So the question “Did Drilon fall asleep or not? Well, judging from the CNN video itself, he really looks like he fell asleep.”)
Check this via the link below:

Nieto was referring to timestamp 11:55 of Drilon’s CNN interview, as shown below:

Now, does that look like he’s fully awake the entire time? How would an average reasonable person interpret what he saw? Is it false to say that Drilon looked like he was sleeping when his head was bowed down for an inordinate amount of time?

Additionally, Vera Files all-too-conveniently omitted the readily observable fact that CNN host Pinky Webb laughed momentarily during those moments and even decided to repeat the question to Drilon.

Quoting what Webb said, verbatim, during the same time Drilon supposedly fell asleep:
“(Webb, staring at the void) There is a joint resolution, aside from the letter that was signed by Congressman Alvarez and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano… (Webb shifts gaze to Drilon, momentarily giggles and smiles, then raises her voice) Joint Resolution, which I already asked your chief of staff, sir… (giggles, squirms) There’s a joint resolution, there’s a concurrent resolution… you’ve sub… you’ve authored both…”
Webb, who rarely stutters, had to stutteringly repeat the question to Drilon, especially the parts said while Drilon was bowing down. Drilon is one of the most intelligent senators out there, so why would Webb feel the need to repeat the question if Drilon was fully lucid?

In this interview, Webb maintained a congenial tone, but she never definitively smiled. That is, until the 11:55 mark when she saw Drilon bowing down.


Vera Files then went on to say:
“Drilon did not fall asleep at any time during the interview.
VERA Files obtained from CNN Philippines a screen grab of the clip without the character generator (chargen) -- the graphics placed on the bottom portion of videos -- that shows Drilon not sleeping, but looking at the documents on the table in front of him.”
Vera Files included this graphic that includes a snapshot from raw footage, which is not publicly available until Vera Files published it.

Vera Files' logic is problematic on at least two grounds:

[a] Vera Files expects Nieto to see the invisible, as CNN Philippines’ live broadcasts contain character generator graphics overlays, and there’s no way to see what’s behind them.

[b] Vera Files basis for claiming Nieto propagated a falsehood relies on a false premise, as Nieto clearly qualified the limitation of his observation. Specifically, Nieto said he based it on what he saw in the live video (which has overlays), and not the raw video used as a basis by Vera Files.

Vera Files then attempted to buttress its observation by quoting Webb as having tweeted:
“Here’s what happened. As I was laying the premise for my question, I saw Sen Drilon look down at the documents he had on the table. I did not see him fall asleep.”
If all Webb saw was Drilon looking at documents, then why would she have to (1) giggle, (2) raise her voice, (3) repeat the question, (4) giggle again, and (5) squirm?

Moreover, does the presence of documents in front of Drilon make it impossible for him to fall asleep?


Recall that IFCN’s Code of Principles requires Vera Files to commit to (a) Transparency of Sources, (b) Nonpartisanship and fairness, and (c) Transparency of Funding.

To ensure compliance, IFCN requires Vera Files to re-apply for membership yearly by answering a questionnaire, so let’s fact-check Vera Files’ answers in its 2019 IFCN application form[9].

Let’s fact-check the parts relevant to the Drilon Issue.


The question under “Criterion 3a: Sources Policy” reads:
“Please share a brief and public explanation (500 words max) of how sources are provided in enough detail that readers could replicate the fact check. If you have a public policy on how you find and use sources for your fact-checking, it should be shared here.”
Vera Files answer includes, among other things:

FIRST, Vera Files said, “Hyperlinks to resources used its fact checks are provided within the text,” and that, “VERA Files follows a three-source policy for news reports and clearly states that at least three media networks used the same quote, or reported the event or incident.”

This claim is false, as the sentence “Sonza and Nieto both have a history of purveying misleading information on social media,” does not have a reference to support Nieto’s alleged “history of purveying misleading information.”

SECOND, Vera files said its “policy on sources is found in ‘What you want to know about VERA Files Fact Check,’” and that article[10] states:

[a] “In the spirit of transparency, we provide the links to the sources of the statement and the evidence that are presented in the article.”
Vera Files failed to do this, as explained earlier.
[b] “As a news media organization, we strictly adhere to the professional and ethical standards set for journalists such as those found in the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Philippine Journalists Code of Ethics (PPI)”

The SPJ Code of Ethics[11] includes the following:

[i] “Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing, or summarizing a story.”
It has been shown in the previous sections that the assailed fact-check article oversimplified and misrepresented the story when it willfully omitted crucial details in the CNN interview and Nieto’s Thinking Pinoy video, while including unsupported, irrelevant, and libelous claims about Nieto’s character.
[ii] “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”
Vera Files never contacted yours truly.
[iii] “Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.”
See [a].
[iv] “Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.”
Vera Files stereotyped Nieto as pro-Administration, despite the fact that Nieto very frequently and quite harshly criticizes Administration-aligned figures, including Information Technology Secretary Rodolfo Salalima[12], Communications Secretary Martin Andanar[13], Health Secretary Francisco Duque[14], Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez[15], and Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, [16] to name a few.


The question under “Criterion 2b: Nonpartisanship policy” reads:
“Evidence required: Please share evidence of your policy preventing staff from direct involvement in political parties and advocacy organizations. Please also indicate the policy your organization has as a whole regarding advocacy and supporting political candidates.”
The response? “VERA Files’ nonpartisan policy is stated in ‘What you want to know about VERA Files Fact Check,’” which, in turn, states that Vera Files doesn’t “take money from politicians, political parties or partisan groups.”

This claim is false because Vera Files has been getting funding[17] from the US Department of State-funded CIA offshoot National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Annual funding since 2016 totals US$ 272,600 so far, US$ 75,000 of which was granted in 2019.

A screengrab of NED's grants to Vera Files per NED website.

NED itself describes its origins with this statement[18]:
“When it was revealed in the late 1960’s that some American PVO’s were receiving covert funding from the CIA to wage the battle of ideas at international forums, the Johnson Administration concluded that such funding should cease, recommending establishment of ‘a public-private mechanism’ to fund overseas activities openly.”
Given this, I believe that I need not explain further how NED qualifies as a partisan group.

This funding source may be an even bigger cause for concern in as far as Vera Files’ claims of nonpartisanship because the Duterte Administration is at loggerheads with the United States, which is best exemplified by the recent cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement[19].

How can Vera Files be expected to write anything against the United States when it sources its funding from US-funded NED whose job is to “wage the battle of ideas at international forums”?

Note that a vast majority of Vera Files fact-checks are about Administration-aligned figures, as evidenced by its answers in “Criterion 2a: Body of work sample”, which asks for a list of “ten fact checks that better represent the scope and consistency of Vera Files’ fact-checking.

Seven of the ten listed are against administration-aligned figures (2: Angara, 3: Chong, 5: Ong, 7: Enrile, 8: Duterte, 9: Locsin, 10: Andanar), and the only opposition-aligned figure in that list is a blogger and not even an opposition official.

Case in point, Vera Files has yet to fact-check anything about opposition stalwart and Magdalo Senator Antonio Trillanes, and the Public can't help but wonder if Vera Files head Ellen Tordesillas' close personal and professional relationship with a Magdalo party member has something to do with it [20].


FIRST, Vera Files should practice what it preaches, something that it sorely failed to do in the assailed Sonza-Nieto article.

SECOND, Vera Files should issue an erratum to acknowledge the false and libelous statements it propounded in the same.

THIRD, Poynter-IFCN should review Vera Files’ compliance with membership requirements, as the above discussion clearly demonstrates that the latter forwarded false claims in its application.

I would like to believe that many of Poynter-IFCN’s administrators believe that the organization’s true goal is to help combat the proliferation of fake news. Unfortunately, it appears that no less than one of its supposedly esteemed members, Vera Files, is guilty of it.


[1] Facebook. “How is Facebook addressing false news through third-party fact-checkers?”. Help Article. Retrieved 09 March 2020.

[2] Poynter Institute. IFCN and the Facebook Journalism Project announce Fact-Checking Innovation Initiative. 05 November 2019. Retrieved 09 March 2020.

[3] IFCN. Code of Principles. Retrieved 09 March 2020.

[4] IFCN. Member Profile: Verafiles Incorporated. Retrieved 09 March 2020.

[5] Vera Files. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Jay Sonza, RJ Nieto help propagate wrong claim that Drilon snoozed in CNN PH interview. 07 March 2020. (Archived copy:

[6] Thinking Pinoy. Facebook Page Logo.

[7] Vera Files. What you want to know about ‘VERA FILES FACT CHECK’. 26 February 2017.

[8] Philippine Press Institute. Code of Ethics.

[9] IFCN. Member Profile: Verafiles Incorporated. Retrieved 09 March 2020.

[10] Vera Files. What you want to know about ‘VERA FILES FACT CHECK’. 26 February 2017.

[11] Society of Professional Journalists. SPJ Code of Ethics. 06 September 2014.

[12] Thinking Pinoy. “Department of Information and Communications Technology - DICT Secretary Rudy Salalima, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! Timer starts in 5... 4... 3...”. Facebook Post. 28 August 2017.

[13] Thinking Pinoy. “Martin Andanar has not improved quick enough. I think he must be fired.”. Facebook Live Video. 01 February 2018.

[14] Thinking Pinoy. Is Health Sec. Duque doing an Ombudsman Carpio-Morales?. 25 June 2018.

[15] Thinking Pinoy. On Bulacan Int'l Aiport, Duterte Finance Secretary's personal interests against Common Good?. 05 June 2019.


[17] National Endowment for Democracy. Grants Database. Retrieved 09 March 2020.

[18] National Endowment for Democracy. History. Retrieved 09 March 2020.

[19] Presidential Communications. Press Briefing of Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Secretary Salvador S. Panelo. 10 February 2020.

[20] Thinking Pinoy. #BangkoSerye: How close is Tordesillas to Magdalo Hacker Bem Pontejos?. 01 May 2016.

[21] Vera Files. VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Jay Sonza misleads in saying Trump to copy Duterte’s drug war. 22 November 2019.


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