Factually: The things we learned about misinformation after recent mass shootings

At least 31 people died in two separate mass shootings in the U.S. over the weekend And misinformation wasn’t far behind.

In the hours after the attacks in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart and a Dayton, Ohio, entertainment district, hoaxes about the gunmen, other shootings and even prescription drug use proliferated on social media. BuzzFeed News’ Jane Lytvynenko started debunking them in an early Twitter thread, while Daniel and John Kruzel fact-checked some of the most viral hoaxes in a story for (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact.

It wasn’t the first time that online fakery flooded social media following an American mass shooting. Misinformation has become a staple of such attacks. But the shootings in El Paso and Dayton highlighted a few trends in shooting-related misinformation that pose challenges for fact-checkers and journalists covering future tragedies.

1. False flag conspiracies are now routine

Some of the most widespread hoaxes PolitiFact identified about the El Paso and Dayton shootings falsely claimed that both attacks were planned by the “deep state,” an alleged faction of the U.S. government working against President Donald Trump.

These kinds of conspiracies were popularized in 2012 following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when notorious conspiracist Alex Jones claimed that the tragedy was faked. Now, those hoaxes spread after nearly every mass shooting.

Unfortunately, these conspiracies aren’t likely to go away any time soon. So fact-checkers and journalists had best be on the lookout for such hoaxes immediately following major tragedies.

2. Misinformation spreads on messaging apps

While much misinformation talk focuses on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, private messaging platforms have become a big problem in the U.S., too.

The primary example of this is WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging app where rumors regularly lead to violence abroad. But Lytvynenko reported that, after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, rumors spread in group chats, Facebook groups and Snapchat stories — none of which could be effectively covered by fact-checkers.

The spread of misinformation in these private spaces is much harder to track. And as more misinformers and extremists are banned from open platforms, it’s likely that misinformation will continue to migrate there.

3. Classic hoaxes still thrive online

Misinformers are getting smarter with their means of distribution following mass shootings. But the classics are still performing just fine on social media.

Daniel debunked several fake news stories that claimed police in other American cities, such as Des Moines, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, had foiled similar atrocities from taking place. Fact-checking site Lead Stories debunked a hoax perpetrated by Twitter trolls that the El Paso shooter was someone named Sam Hyde, a comedian who has become the subject of regular accusations after mass shootings.

Fact-checkers face big challenges in debunking widespread conspiracies and misinformation on private networks. But some of the most basic shooting-related misinformation is still getting thousands of shares on social media — and the IFCN has a tip sheet for how people can avoid spreading it.

. . . technology

  • In an effort to limit the spread of misinformation, WhatsApp has taken steps to alert users when a message has been forwarded too often. In some cases, the app will simply not allow a message to be forwarded. As BuzzFeed noted, WhatsApp has been “a vector for misinformation in two of its largest markets: India and Brazil.”
  • The FBI has identified conspiracy theories as a new domestic terrorism threat, Yahoo News scooped this week. That’s based on reporting about an intelligence bulletin dated May 30 that noted it was the first such report to do so. It specifically identified QAnon, a broad conspiracy popular among supporters Trump, as a problem.
  • Speaking of conspiracy theories, the House Homeland Security Committee has called on the owner of 8chan to testify before the panel, Politico reported. “Americans deserve to know what, if anything, you, as the owner and operator, are doing to address the proliferation of extremist content on 8chan,” lawmakers said.

. . . politics

  • Twitter has told congressional candidates they need to win their primaries before being verified, CNN reported. “That’s despite indications that foreign entities have previously attempted to pose as U.S. political candidates on social media,” wrote Maegan Vazquez and Donie O’Sullivan.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported that “bot-like activity” pushed divisive content about race during the two most recent Democratic debates in the U.S. But Daniel pointed out that not all of the Twitter users pushing such content were bots. Vox also wrote about it, and in its misinformation newsletter, BuzzFeed spoke to a researcher who said a bigger concern is accounts that “combine real human activity with automated posting.”
  • Guatemalans will have election Sunday (Aug. 11), and are facing tons of false news around ballots and the voting process itself. Agencia Ocote launched a fact-checking unit called Fáctica and has been publishing fact checks of campaign claims (in Spanish only).

. . . the future of news

  • Fact-checkers face an increasing number of obstacles in doing their work as social media platforms shut down the tools traditionally used to see the types and reach of misinformation as it spreads. The latest news, Cristina wrote this week, is thatFacebook-owned CrowdTangle will stop offering Twitter data on its dashboard starting Sept. 29.
  • The IFCN’s Daniela Flamini this week offered a roundup of some recent research on misinformation and how it might help fact-checkers looking to gain insights on the motives behind those who spread it. She also wrote about the trend of governments shutting down the internet to try and stop the spread of misinformation.
  • The Brazilian fact-checker Aos Fatos is asserting itself on the issue of climate change, as deforestation in the Amazon has gained international media attention, including an Economist article with the headline “The Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point.” The fact-checker weighed in on the issue in four claims in a long thread (in Portuguese only) after turmoil in the government of President Jair Bolsonaro over statistics used to measure climate change.

This week we’re choosing a fact-check from the Turkish platform Teyit.org, which debunked a widely shared Facebook post that showed a picture of a man carrying a sign during a protest in Istanbul on July 27 over the city’s demand that some Syrian refugees be relocated to other parts of Turkey.

The fact check itself wasn’t particularly sophisticated; it called out a social media post that showed just part of a sign held up in the protests. It’s what happened afterward that makes it noteworthy.

In the post, the sign was partially obscured, so it appeared to say only “Turks go home.” In fact, those words were from a Dutch politician against Turkish migrants in The Netherlands. The rest of the sign showed a picture of the Turkish politician Sinan Oğan, a member of the right wing nationalist movement and the words: “Syrians Get Out!’ The point of the sign was to liken Oğan to the Dutch politician.

But when Teyit showed the whole sign, Oğan protested on Twitter that those were not his words. Teyit then included his disavowal in its fact check.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Oğan took to Twitter to demand that Teyit to go further and actually verify that he never said them. He was essentially suggesting that Teyit prove a negative, which fact-checkers are loath to do. He then took to social media to attack Teyit, and some of his allies joined in.

Among his attacks was the absurd claim that Teyit’s founder, Mehmet Atakan Foça, was the son of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish nationalist group that the Turkish government and the United States consider a terrorist organization.

It was a demonstration of how fact-checkers can easily become the target of attacks by politicians who don’t like their rulings. “Politicians’ tool kit when they are not happy with fact-checkers!”tweeted Baybars Örsek, the International Fact-Checking Network’s director, who is Turkish.

What we liked: The attacks didn’t stop yet. But they did generate an outpouring of support among fact-checkers and other journalists around the world for Teyit’s work. It was a powerful international show of solidarity and it sparked important discussions about the impact of such attacks on fact-checking platforms — both positive and negative.

  1. Axios has a thorough rundown of the misinformation challenges ahead of the 2020 U.S. primaries.
  2. Facebook this week shut down an influence campaign it said was tied to the Saudi government. Here’s CNN’s report, and here’s Facebook’s accountRead Bellingcat’s investigation that led to the takedown.
  3. The ISIS-backed militant group Boko Haram is using disinformation and violence to deter vaccination efforts in Nigeria, NBC News reported. Public health officials are pushing back.
  4. Indian fact-checking site Boom Live has a new podcast about misinformation. Its latest episode: “Why Do We Fall For Fake News?”
  5. Webqoof debunked a whopping seven fake news stories in India in 24 hours. All of them were related to the fact that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi extinguished autonomy given to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
  6. An investigation from The Guardian found a Facebook propaganda network connected to new Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
  7. Matt Motyl, a political psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, announced in a tweet that he is joining Facebook’s civic integrity team, aimed at combating polarization, extremist violence and misinformation.
  8. The New York Times wrote about how Snopes is feuding with satirical site The Babylon Bee.
  9. Ozy profiled an Indian policewoman who regularly prevents violence from breaking out as a result of rumors spreading on WhatsApp.
  10. Friday is the last day to apply for IFCN’s fellowship. Don’t miss this opportunity to spend some time embedded in a fact-checking organization.

Beginning this week, we are thrilled to welcome IFCN’s associate director Cristina Tardáguila as a co-author of the newsletter. Otherwise, that’s it for this week. Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factchecknet@poynter.org.

DanielSusan and Cristina

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