Factually: Russia’s video play

The New York Times last week published a striking piece about how the Russian news network RT has been airing story after story about the dangers of 5G cell phones as part of a disinformation effort to undermine the United States’ comfort with — and advances in — the technology (which scientists say isn’t actually harmful).

We say striking because one of the most notable aspects of the Times’ story, at least to us, was not the disinformation itself, but the open nature of the campaign — it was out there for the whole world to see, delivered on RT America. The YouTube version has been viewed more than 1.6 million times.

A Washington Post piece about Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the European Union parliamentary elections this week noted similarly open efforts to advance divisive content.

“The Sputnik news agency has offered wall-to-wall coverage of the ‘yellow vest’ protests that have shaken France,” The Post’s Michael Birnbaum wrote. “The German-language homepage of RT, formerly Russia Today, recently featured a banner debunking ‘myths’ that the former West Germany was superior to communist East Germany.”

This isn’t exactly the kind of anonymous, troll-driven dezinformatsiya often attributed to the Kremlin’s online propaganda machines, like the infamous Internet Research Agency.

The RT and Sputnik cases show how countries with state-run media, like Russia, can make video broadcasts that pick up on existing disinformation campaigns in an attempt to divide the populace. In campaigns like this, Russia may not be the original creator of false content — it might hand-pick certain sentiments with the hope of getting them to “seep into mainstream political conversations,” said Benjamin Decker, a disinformation specialist who runs the investigations firm Memetica, in an email interview.

“They will heighten and amplify disinformation campaigns that tap into partisan politics, the globalist vs. nationalist narrative, and the concept of tech censorship/assault on free speech,” Decker said. “In practice, they are less likely to be the patient zero, the origin of a disinformation campaign, yet they may seek to increase the perception of popularity of certain concepts or sentiments in the hope that they will further seep into mainstream political conversations.”

This is consistent with what other experts are seeing — the notion that people who identify with one side or another can pick from a wide variety of false or misleading content that already exists in an effort to divide voters.

This theme was echoed this week by experts testifying before a U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Russian efforts to influence citizens in Europe and the United States.

“I think we are increasingly going to see U.S. voices and U.S. organizations that will be the key disseminators of Russian malign disinformation, with messages targeting vulnerable and divided U.S. communities,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

The whole point of the Russians’ disinformation efforts, Conley said, is to stoke disagreement among Americans, to get them fighting with one another.

This is evident in RT’s efforts to sow doubt about 5G technology, and in similar efforts involving racial divisions and the anti-vaccine misinformation.

And for those hoping to spread false narratives, the important thing is the sharing. Decker noted that the growth of the Yellow Vest movement organizing outside of France on Facebook swelled in January 2019 as it was adopted by numerous conspiracy groups. A lot of the content shared on their Facebook pages was RT-produced news coverage of the Yellow Vests in France.

With Europeans voting this week and the U.S. preparing for the 2020 elections, the temptation is to see disinformation efforts merely as isolated, state-sponsored attempts to sway voters. That would be a mistake, said the experts who testified on Capitol Hill this week.

“We can’t see election interference as a discrete thing in and of itself,” said Laura Rosenberger, a senior fellow and director of The German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. “These are ongoing operations.”

. . .   technology

  • NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny published perhaps the most dystopian article we’ve included in this newsletter (and that’s saying a lot). In it, she reports on how a pair of mothers are infiltrating private Facebook groups where parents get tips on how to poison their autistic children to “cure” them.
  • The European Commission criticized Google, Facebook and Twitter for not releasing enough transparent data about how their efforts have limited the spread of misinformation leading up to this month’s parliamentary elections. In October, the three tech giants took a voluntary pledge that they’d commit more resources to combating false information on their platforms.
  • Speaking of Facebook, the company took down a network of fake accounts that sought to influence elections in Nigeria, Senegal and Angola. Interestingly, part of the network was linked to an Israeli political consultancy, Quartz reported.

. . .  politics

  • Last week, Alabama passed the most restrictive ban on abortion in the United States. And, as with most major news events, misinformation started circulating on social media almost immediately afterward. BuzzFeed News debunked some of the top hoaxes.
  • Writing for Bloomberg, reporter Saritha Rai summarized the challenge Facebook faced in addressing misinformation ahead of the Indian election this week: “A new category of users, recently digital, believe almost whatever they receive — especially if it comes from family or friends. Hundreds of millions read in languages the American tech giants haven’t even begun to monitor.”
  • U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a 2020 presidential candidate, called a Daily Beast report claiming her campaign is backed by Russian sympathizers “fake news.” The incident is further proof that the term has been become a cudgel that politicians — and Kelly Clarkson — worldwide wield to condemn media reports that paint them in a negative light.

. . .  the future of news

  • In an analysis of 36 fact-checking projects worldwide, Daniel found that about 41% of fact-checking staffers are women — while about 71% of fact-checking sites are run by men. While stark, those numbers are in line with the gender breakdown of most American newsrooms.
  • Election verification projects are very in right now. And in Argentina, a new initiative has set the bar even higher, uniting more than 80 publications and tech companies teaming up to debunk misinformation about the October election. Reverso will publish fact checks between June and December and train journalists around the country on verification skills.
  • CNN reported on how a Finland anti-misinformation initiative teaches residents, students, journalists and politicians how to identify and counter false information online — and how it could serve as a model for other countries.

Each week, we analyze five of the top-performing fact checks on Facebook to see how their reach compared to the hoaxes they debunked. Read more about this week’s numbers, and how political parties in India are spreading voter fraud hoaxes, here.

  1. Factcheck.org: “Social Post Wrong About Obama’s Tax Returns” (Fact: 5.1K engagements // Fake: 8.2K engagements)
  2. Vishvas News: “Before the counting of votes, EVMs’ swapping of claims in Bihar is false.” (Fact: 2.8K engagements // Fake: 108K engagements)
  3. India Today Fact Check: “Truth behind the viral video that claims conspiracy by BJP to change EVMs” (Fact: 1.4K engagements // Fake: 148 engagements )
  4. Correctiv: “No, in 2017 there were not 95,000 acts of violence by refugees” (Fact: 592 engagements // Fake: 1.7K engagements)
  5. Aos Fatos: “Meme criticizing demonstrations for education uses photos of old protests” (Fact: 523 engagements // Fake: 8.2K engagements)

On Tuesday, Snopes CEO David Mikkelson investigated the origin of a series of photographs that depict men bathing in bathtubs full of milk while an elderly woman in a robe stands alongside them. The bizarre images made the rounds both on Facebook and Twitter among users who were rightfully creeped out.

Mikkelson reported that the photos originally appeared on flyers posted throughout Los Angeles in 2017 calling for men to bathe in “almond, soy or traditional” milk. Some social media users speculated that the flyers were part of some kind of nefarious criminal plot.

But, according to Snopes’ fact check, the entire thing is just an elaborate prank coordinated by Alan Wagner, an artist and comedian who “has turned absurdist, real-life memes into an art form.” Case closed.

What we liked: In this newsletter, we love fact checks that address some of the weirdest hoaxes or urban legends on the internet. And the Snopes article fits that bill to a T.

  1. Chequeado has built a tool that automatically transcribes YouTube videos.
  2. Al Jazeera suspended two journalists for producing a video that denied the facts of the Holocaust.
  3. Several mainstream news outlets reported on a survey about Americans bathing in pools last week. There’s just one problem: The survey was conducted online by a public relations firm that works with the chlorine industry.
  4. The pope is still warning people about misinformation.
  5. The AI Foundation has partnered with the Technical University of Munich to further develop technologies that automatically detect deepfake videos. Learn more about that research in this Poynter article.
  6. The Guardian outlined how Facebook’s efforts to combat misinformation don’t always translate to countries without strong civil society organizations. Exhibit A: Hungary.
  7. Meanwhile, The Guardian also profiled some of the fact-checkers debunking misinformation about the EU elections.
  8. Russia is creating a database of organizations that it deems to be “fake news,” The Moscow Times reported. The move comes only weeks after the country announced it would outlaw the dissemination of false claims, which critics say is just another attempt at censorship.
  9. WhatsApp has taken a few steps to limit the spread of spam and potentially false content on its platform. But Reuters reported that software costing as little as $14 helped some get around the controls in the lead-up to the Indian election.
  10. A new study from the University of Texas at Austin found that clickbait articles about partisan name-calling could lead readers to believe that mainstream news outlets are fake.

That’s it for this week. Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factchecknet@poynter.org. And if this newsletter was forwarded to you, or you’re reading it on our web site, subscribe here.

Daniel and Susan