Factually: Politicians co-opt fact-checking

Fact-checkers are used to spin from politicians. But now, some politicians around the world have started to mimic fact-checkers’ work to score points with voters.

On Tuesday, the IFCN’s Cristina Tardáguila published a story about how the government of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has created its own fact-checking operation. Launched by Notimex, a daily newswire service run by López Obrador’s staff, the project “is designed to debunk false news on social media as well as to fact-check dubious content published by traditional media outlets.”

The new service’s name: “Verificado Notimex.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the same name several fact-checking initiatives have used in Mexico.

In March 2018, more than 60 journalists and tech companies teamed upfor a collaborative fact-checking project called Verificad, which aimed to tackle misinformation about Mexico’s general election. Its name was based on a previous effort, Verificado 19S, that tried to crowdsource real-time information about the earthquake that hit Mexico City in 2017.

Then there’s VerificadoMX, a regional fact-checking initiative that launched in the state of Monterey in July 2017. Its founder told Tardáguila that the project is ready to go to court against the López Obrador administration to protect its registered brand.

While a blatant ripoff of Verificado’s name recognition, the situation in Mexico isn’t the first time that a government has co-opted the popularity of fact-checking to format their talking points.

In fall 2017, a Czech prime ministerial candidate created his own fact-checking site, Můj Demagog, aimed at addressing allegations made against him by his opponents. The site also used the same name as a fact-checking organization, in this case Demagog.cz, to piggyback off its brand recognition.

“It’s basically like fact-checking (in appearance), but he’s just talking about his opinions,” Ivana Procházková, an expert at Demagog, told Poynter at the time.

More recently, the Press Information Bureau, a communication arm of the Indian government, announced its plans to set up a fact-checking unit to “identify and counter any fake news about the government and its policies circulating on social media platforms,” the Hindustan Times reported last Wednesday. Details, including how the fact-checking service will work and when it will launch, aren’t yet clear.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)launched her own fact-checking project this spring as part of her campaign for president. Called “Fact Squad,” the special section of her website has published just a handful of debunks about allegations made against Warren.

It’s tempting to view the trend of politicians and governments co-opting fact-checking — and sometimes even fact-checkers’ own names — as business as usual for political campaigns. But it threatens to normalize other efforts that more explicitly aim to undermine the credibility of fact-checkers.

In October, we reported in this newsletter that there’s a growing crop of imposter fact-checking sites worldwide. These fake outlets impersonate legitimate fact-checking sites in an effort to either directly combat their work or make a political point about a topical issue. And their creators span from scorned satirists and conspiracy theorists to political operatives and anonymous social media users.

On an individual basis, these imposter fact-checking projects may be somewhat harmless. But taken together, they comprise a potential threat to fact-checkers’ future credibility online. Because if readers think they’re getting fact checks directly from politicians, they may be less inclined to actually do their homework.

As Alexander himself noted in his response to the tweet from Trump Jr., “one tweet can change everything.”

. . . technology

  • The sexiest explanation for a disinformation campaign (namely Russia) is usually not true, according to Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook and current director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, in an interview with First Draft. Here’s a counter-take, though: Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff wrote that Russian intelligence planted and fanned a conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee staffer, Seth Rich, was killed by assassins working for Hillary Clinton. (Police believe Rich was killed in a botched robbery.)

  • Writing for Bloomberg, Mark Bergen and Kurt Wagner reported that Facebook used polling data and special software to track hoaxes about, well, Facebook. In some cases, the company “took active steps to snuff them out.” Meanwhile, the groups on the company’s platform continue to be safe harbors for misinformation and hate speech.

  • Remember that Facebook outage last week that affected posts on Instagram and WhatsApp, too? In India, Boom Live reported that several viral hoaxes claiming that the platforms had shut down or were starting to charge users made the rounds during the outage.

. . . politics

  • Europe has struggled with its efforts to head off Russian meddling in elections, The New York Times reported. Its rapid alert system didn’t live up to its name, the Times wrote, offering lessons for the United States as it heads into the 2020 election.

  • There’s been plenty of talk about how misinformation could potentially affect domestic politics and elections. But this piece from Politico asks: Could false information potentially cause a war?

  • A fake Ronald Reagan quote has been making the rounds on the internet for a long time. Snopes debunked it in 2016 and PolitiFact did so in February. But a retweet by Trump this week gave it new life, prompting a number of fact-checkers to revisit it — and again declare it untrue.

. . . the future of news

  • DeepNude, software that uses artificial intelligence to create fake nude images of women, was pulled from the web by its creator last week after a report about it in Motherboard. But numerous copies of the app are still available, The Verge reported.

  • Meanwhile, The Guardian wrote about a fake text generator that uses AI to automatically write paragraphs in a specific style based on only one sample sentence. That has some people concerned that the tool could be used to produce false or misleading content at scale.

  • Le Monde published an investigation about the tactics that supporters of President Emmanuel Macron have used to radicalize online. Among the most pervasive strategies: Using fake social media accounts to recruit more En Marche party members and communicate with opponents.

Nearly two months ago, an altered video of Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, went viral on Facebook.

The video was slowed down to make it look like the speaker was drunk or intoxicated when, in fact, she wasn’t. It got more than 2 million viewsdespite the publication of several fact checks, and the mainstream media pounced on the incident to report on the potential threat of (unrelated, but similar) deepfake videos.

This week, Argentine fact-checkers dealt with their own version of that debacle.

On Thursday, Chequeado debunked a video that was edited to make it look like Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich was intoxicated. The hoax circulated on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, racking up thousands of engagements.

What we liked: Having just seen this kind of misinformation tactic used in the U.S., Chequeado was quick to debunk the bogus Bullrich video. The fact-checker pointed out that it was slowed to make the minister appear intoxicated, tracked down the exact press conference the video came from to compare the two videos and used tools like CrowdTangle to track where the hoax had been shared. Chequeado also succinctly explained the important differences between a manipulated and a deepfake video.

  1. IFCN’s Daniela Flamini this week wrote about cases in which misinformation has posed a real threat to public health and safety.
  2. The CBC is doing a multi-part series on misinformation leading up to the Canadian election this fall.
  3. A number of media observers this week noted a move by Fox News’ Shepard Smith to fact-check President Trump’s claims about environmental protection. Here’s HuffPost’s take on how the normally Trump-friendly network challenged him on the facts. It’snot the first time.
  4. There’s a new academic book out about detecting misinformation on social media.
  5. Twitter’s data dumps, which detail activity and accounts involved in online disinformation attempts, are helpful — but only to a point, Sara Harrison wrote in Wired.
  6. Slate dissected an #ADOS, or American descendants of slaves, hashtag in light of recent social media smears questioning the identity of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). It’s hard, the author wrote, to separate real rank-and-file followers of this movement “from trolls capitalizing on racial divisions to hurt Democrats.”
  7. One of the players in the Harris trolling, meanwhile, was invited to a White House social media summit scheduled for today. Mother Jones reported that right-wing provocateur Ali Alexander said he will be there. Social media companies were not invited.
  8. The Colorado Springs Independent profiled fact-checker Lead Stories, founded in 2015 by a local attorney and restaurateur and a former CNN reporter.
  9. The Agence France-Presse is hiring an English-speaking editor to join its Hong Kong-based fact-checking team.
  10. The United Kingdom and Canada are together giving more than $4 million to a new global media defense fund, CNN reported.
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