Open-source applications filter out noise and misinformation to connect journalists directly with research-based expertise
In early 2020, Sérgio Spagnuolo and Alexandre Orrico established Núcleo Jornalismo the impact of big tech and social media platforms on people’s lives and the quality of public discourse in Brazil. Their second goal was more ambitious: they wanted to create a data-driven outlet to develop open-source “social listening” applications that enable journalists to monitor trends and filter out “noise” and misinformation on social media. The result: Núcleo’s “pulse” tools assist journalists in providing credible, trustworthy, and fact-based information on issues of public interest. Núcleo Journalismo currently generates revenue through various sources, including user subscriptions, grant funding, and the provision of services.
Sérgio Spagnuolo, one of the founders of Núcleo Jornalismo, spoke with DW Akademie about the initiative's goals and the development of their open-source tools. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DW Akademie: How did you come up with the idea to develop the “pulse” applications?
Sérgio Spagnuolo: We created the first pulse app, Science Pulse, in 2020 after the World Health Organization declared the Covid pandemic. At that time, many scientists, physicians, researchers, and experts were starting to use social media – especially Twitter – to relay important insights and information about the outbreak. A lot of misinformation was circulating as well. In response, we launched Science Pulse, which is based on verified curation, and could track and help journalists and science communicators discover trustworthy content from the scientific community about the pandemic.
How did this technology help journalists during the pandemic?
Several news organizations – including the large Brazilian outlets Folha de S. Paulo, Globonews, and UOL – used our tool during the pandemic to discover relevant topics and to reach new experts who might not have a big social media reach, but who were able to serve as trustworthy sources. We also gathered a huge amount of data, which later allowed us to create several reports on the state of science communication in Brazil. This tool worked well, so we expanded it to several other thematic areas, including politics, for our own Political Pulse, as well as on environmental and financial topics, in partnership with external news organizations.
Now, almost three years after the first tools were developed, what have you learnt, and what are the main limitations? What would you do differently?
One major limitation is that social media companies are not very keen on sharing their data. In order to gather the data we needed, we had to do a lot of development work. Now, Twitter is closing its free API (Note: Application Programming Interface — a software intermediary that allows two applications to talk to each other and serves as an important tool for third-party developers), and charging a lot of money for a small amount of data. I wish I had partnerships with social media platform companies so we could gather their data on a long-term basis, but unfortunately, they are not very amenable. If I could go back, instead of using official APIs, I would try other ways to gather that same data.
(Editor’s note: Since the recording the interview, the application has been discontinued due to Twitter’s decision to revoke free API access from journalists and researchers, and instead charge fees. Spagnuolo said that this decision is “inconsistent for independent journalistic organizations who wish to develop those tools.")
How do you view the quality of public dialogue on social media in Brazil?
I have mixed feelings. It’s true that social media offers space for great debates and dialogue but unfortunately, a few bad actors make many people uncomfortable about engaging in online discussions. Additionally, the ambiguity between irony and mockery, assertiveness, and aggressiveness often makes it difficult for people to engage. As a result, many prefer to avoid participating in discussions on social media.
How have your tools helped average users to better navigate social media?
Our tools didn’t help in any way, nor was it our ambition. I’m not sure any third-party tool could be of use here anyway, since it would have to be designed by the major platforms themselves. As a journalist leading a journalism organization, my work is to inform my audience. For this reason, my tool was designed to help journalists, NGOs, and experts find good, actionable content to do their jobs with better information.
Besides developing tech tools, Núcleo also covers the impact of social media and platforms in Brazil. How has your coverage helped address the key issues in this field?
It is extremely hard to measure the impact of the things that we do, especially because social media companies remain completely silent on this question. We were able to map significant impacts on policy making and content moderation, and I reckon our work has informed people working on important projects to try to fix social media issues, especially around regulation and moderation. Right now, the biggest social media problem in Brazil is finding the right balance between content moderation and freedom of speech. It is a thorny subject in most countries, but here, where we have a very divided society, it is a very pressing matter.
Can you provide an example of your work?
Recently, an investigation we did at Núcleo about a small extremist network that was housing content glorifying school massacres and graphic violence led to an operation by the Federal police and local police forces against the administrators of this network. In the past, our reporting on child sexual exploitation groups on Facebook resulted in Meta taking down the groups and a number of profiles.
A lot of our stories and projects have had positive impacts on society. At the beginning of our initiative, during the high peak of the Covid-19 emergency, our tool Science Pulse helped Brazilian journalists keep updated on the latest information being shared by scientists on social media and was used in multiple news stories. The same tool was responsible for amplifying important voices from the scientific community on Twitter, bringing light to their content in a moment where people were trying to find reliable sources online.
Our news reporting also has several impacts, prompting action from social media platforms regarding their content moderation practices. For example, because of our stories, Facebook took down 7 groups focused on child sexual exploitation; TikTok took down 30 hashtags used to worship criminals on their platform; YouTube took down a live transmission claiming election fraud; Facebook removed irregular gun ads from their platform; and more. Our 2022 election coverage helped other news organizations to report on anti-democratic speech.
We have also won an award for innovation in data journalism, in recognition of our work merging tech and journalism. We receive constant feedback from readers and relevant stakeholders, particularly civil society entities, that the coverage we produce has informed debates, discussion and advocacy action. Our journalism has also served as evidence and to provide the base in information requisitions made by the Public Prosecution Service to platforms and in a bill related to online violence against women, Black, and LGBTQIA+ politicians.
- Staying up-to-date with current trends and needs, and exploring innovative solutions can lead to valuable tools.
- Social listening tools can aid journalists in sifting through the vast amount of information on social media, gaining a better understanding of ongoing conversations, and enhancing their reporting.
- When platforms modify their rules and algorithms without consultation with affected groups, it can create a challenging environment for experimental initiatives.