Factually: Fact-checking the impeachment

It’s only been a little more than two weeks since U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. But for fact-checkers, it feels like a lifetime.

Since the announcement of the inquiry, which focuses on a phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine, misinformation has come from all sides. Online, social media users have targeted politicians who speak out against the president with disinformation. In Washington, politicians from both sides of the aisle have tried to spin the news to make their respective cases about impeachment. Trump even mentioned a conspiracy theory during his call with Ukraine.

So let’s start with the facts.

It is a fact that, during the July phone call, Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. It is a fact that Trump had recently frozen military aid to Ukraine. And it is a fact that a whistleblower subsequently filed a complaint about the interaction.

But if you exclusively read social media or right-wing media outlets, all you hear about are the Bidens.

While the impeachment inquiry was unfolding, allegations about the Bidens’ dealings in Ukraine started to surface. Biden’s son, Hunter, had previously served on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma, whose owner faced accusations of money laundering, fraud and tax evasion. Some claim Joe Biden, as vice president, called for the ouster of a prosecutor investigating the company to shield his son.

Fact-checkers have found no evidence to support that claim, as Biden was not alone in calling for the prosecutor’s removal. But Trump allies and conspiracists took the kernel of truth and ran with it.

That was exemplified when Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, went on ABC News last weekend to talk about the Bidens’ dealings in Ukraine. He made a slew of unproven, conspiratorial claims in less than 15 minutes. Afterward, Nieman Lab published a story questioning the value of doing live TV interviews.

Daniel and Miriam Valverde of (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact fact-checked statements from the interview. Most of those checks pointed to the fact that there is simply no evidence to back up what Giuliani claimed on ABC, particularly the notion that Ukraine colluded with Democrats during the 2016 presidential election.

But therein lies the problem — there is no evidence. That makes it arguably harder for fact-checkers to debunk misinformation than for partisans to create it in the first place, because there is no tangible proof that adjudicates the claim. And politicians seem to know that.

Writing for The Washington Post, Abby Ohlheiser articulated this conundrum especially well — particularly as it relates to the challenge that fact-checkers and reporters face while covering impeachment.

“Trump, and many key figures in the pro-Trump Internet, are good at overwhelming their perceived enemies,” she wrote. “The Impeachment Internet will never just be about impeachment; it’ll be about impeachment and Joe Biden and the Clintons and Soros and the media — and random people on Twitter and outrages from years ago that can still go viral if shared in the right place.”

“It is an inseparable blend of fact and fiction and anger and fear and lamentation. It will be hot and exhausting.”

Indeed, it already is.

. . . technology

  • BuzzFeed News uncovered a network of Facebook accounts that sowed propaganda targeting Iran and Qatar. The website found that the accounts, which Facebook has removed, were most likely coordinated by public relations firms in the Middle East and Africa.
  • In Argentina, TV channels have started running a “deepfake” video created by the ad agency Fit BBDO and the collaborative fact-checking project Reverso showing presidential candidates in unexpected situations. President Mauricio Macri, who is seeking reelection, for example, appears juggling a soccer ball. Opposition candidate Alberto Fernández is shown “playing” a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. The point is to draw attention to misinformation and how believable fakes can be.
  • After the Trump campaign posted a Facebook ad claiming Biden offered Ukraine $1 billion in aid if it ousted the man investigating the company tied to his son, Biden’s campaign asked Facebook to remove it. Facebook refused.

. . . politics

  • Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have called for new  regulations to make political ads more transparent and urged a more forceful public stance by politicians to warn Americans about how misinformation can spread in advance of the 2020 elections.
  • Canadian fact-checkers are pleasantly surprised by the small amount of false electoral content being spread on digital platforms during the campaign. Besides some French hoaxes and a few memes that carry misinformation, there hasn’t been a deluge of original false content. Daniela Flamini wrote about it.
  • But… people should prepare for “an onslaught of doctored pics” surrounding the revelation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the past dressed up in blackface and brownface, according to a piece in Nieman Reports from researchers at Harvard. The episode, they write, has created an “information environment ripe for exploitation by partisans and other bad actors seeking to spread confusion, division, and hate.

. . . the future of news

  • In one of the first major government actions against misinformation in the U.S., the state of California has banned the distribution of deepfake videos that are intended to damage a politician’s reputation or mislead voters.
  • Speaking of deepfakes, Deeptrace, a cybersecurity company based in Europe, found in a census of about 15,000 such videos that 96% were pornographic. It also identified 20 “deepfake creation community websites and forums.”
  • BuzzFeed News reported on how political operatives fabricated millions of comments on U.S. government websites to create fake voter outrage. In that same vein, i, a newspaper in the U.K., wrote about how the tactic of “astroturfing” — wherein the sponsors of a message are masked to make it appear authentic — is among the biggest threats to democracy nowadays.

On Sept. 26, Colombian President Iván Duque posted on Twitter parts of a report he had presented to United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, during the recent General Assembly meeting in New York. According to Duque, the document had undeniable proof of what he characterized as “threats to democracy, security and regional peace” –  among them, pictures showing how Venezuela, under President Nicolás Maduro, was supporting rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombian leftist guerilla groups.

Once fact-checkers saw the content tweeted by Duque, they went to work. El Colombiano newspaper and Agence France-Presse (both in Spanish) found out that some images were neither recent nor were the photographs taken in Venezuela,  as Colombia’s report said. At first, Duque tried to minimize the use of the misleading photos, but on Oct. 1, the chief of intelligence and military counterintelligence in Colombia stepped out of office, apologizing.

What we liked: This case proves once more that a fact check can have a great impact and even change the composition of a government. Both AFP and El Colombiano acted swiftly to debunk the photos in fact checks that are among the most highly visible to date in Latin America.

  1. The Associated Press’ 2020 reporting lineup will include a team specifically dedicated to misinformation.
  2. Misinformation researchers Joan Donovan and danah boyd have a new study on how amplification plays into the practices of news outlets and tech platforms.
  3. There have been lots of warnings lately about Instagram’s potential to carry misinformation. Here’s a new one from HuffPost.
  4. Facebook announced this week the expansion of its third-party fact-checking program to 10 additional countries across Africa.
  5. After Malaysia passed an anti-misinformation law last year, some lawmakers tried to repeal it. That effort failed, but now they’re trying it again.
  6. Mother Jones wrote about how, during the impeachment inquiry against Trump, fringe platforms like 4chan and conservative outlets have been floating the same conspiratorial talking points.
  7. First Draft has a new guide for reporters on how to responsibly cover misinformation.
  8. The Daily Beast found a secret Facebook page run by RealClearMedia, the parent company of the political news website RealClearPolitics. The page is filled with right-wing memes and Islamophobic smears.
  9. Ahead of the United Kingdom’s deadline to reach a deal with the European Union, First Draft has rounded up some of the top false and misleading claims about Brexit.
  10. Want to learn more about the American impeachment process and how to improve your coverage of the inquiry against Trump? Sign up for today’s one-hour webinar with PolitiFact’s Angie Holan and Louis Jacobson.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. And if this email was forwarded to you, you can subscribe here.

Note: The Factually newsletter sent to subscribers, in summarizing a Daily Beast story, incorrectly identified the operator of a Facebook page that publishes far-right memes and Islamophobic smears. It is RealClear Media,  not RealClearPolitics. The former is the company that owns the latter. It has been corrected here, as indicated in #8, above.

Daniel, Susan and Cristina

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