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Low tech, high risk: what’s behind the biggest misinformation threats


Low tech, high risk: what’s behind the biggest misinformation threats

Picture of Ingrid Cobben
Ingrid Cobben — Project Manager
November 22, 2019

Main takeaways from the News Impact Summit in Lyon on “Covering Politics in a Misinformation Age”

“If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the ******* window and find out which is true,” Jonathan Foster, a lecturer at Sheffield University, once said.

But that is not enough anymore, according to Jenni Sargent, managing director of First Draft. At our latest News Impact Summit on “Covering Politics in a Misinformation Age”, she explained that in today’s media environment, journalists need to investigate if the rain could be fake, learn how to verify fake rain, find out who created it, if it’s part of a coordinated effort of fake rainmakers, investigate what their motives may be, and so on…

In other words, news organisations need to fight misinformation to (re-)gain trust from readers. To find out more, we turned to leading experts in the field for a full day of knowledge-sharing.

Here’s what we learned:

Misinformation is a global, growing phenomenon

Journalists worldwide are targeted by people who deliberately make up false stories. Many newsrooms are not equipped to counter their manipulation tactics — especially at critical moments, like elections, social unrest, extreme weather events, and terrorist attacks.

Example: Are these really images of the Hong Kong demonstrations?

Misinformation is a powerful weapon. It can lead to apathy, disengagement, and distrust, according to Scott Hale, director of research at Meedan. “It can interfere in democracy by suppressing people to vote or influencing public opinion, cause economic harm, and even risk of death.”

Example: The fake cancer cure that circulated in private Facebook groups.

False context is the main threat

Visual content is particularly prone to be used to mislead, as it can spread easily on social media as it tends to elicit an emotional response. That’s why politicians have been using images for a long time and will continue to do so.

Example: Nigel Farage’s provocative use of an anti-immigrant poster.

New technology has driven the proliferation of dangerously deceptive deepfakes — videos that make it look as if a person said something they didn’t actually say. While this new phenomenon is seen as a huge political threat, it’s not the main problem.

Example: You won’t believe what Obama says in this video!

“A much bigger concern is the use of low tech unaltered images wrapped in a misleading context,” said Farida Vis, director of the Visual Social Media Lab, “especially in countries where media literacy is low and where these images circulate in closed messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram.”

Example: This man wearing an ISIS (Daesh) flag in Paris is not what it seems.

De-contextualised images and videos are very easy to produce and quick to spread, according to Guillaume Daudin, who is leading AFP Fact Check. “It keeps doing a lot of damage, far more than the alleged deepfake threat, which is not having any consequence for the moment,” Guillaume said.

Example: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau did not convert to Islam

Craig Silverman, Media Editor at BuzzFeed News at the News Impact Summit in Lyon.
Craig Silverman, Media Editor at BuzzFeed News at the News Impact Summit in Lyon.

Disinformation is a money-making business

“It’s not just politicians we should be worried about,” said Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed News, explaining how the worlds of for-profit and political disinformation are intertwined. Here are some striking examples:

  • Spammers often spread political disinformation as it’s a very effective way to turn their spam operations into a profitable business. “If running political stories gets them clicks, they’ll do it,” said Craig.
  • Professional scammers and spammers offer their sophisticated media manipulation services to politicians, some even have a detailed brochure. “We’ve seen a large growth in the amount of for-hire, for-profit disinformation operations,” said Craig.
  • The US is seeing a surge of local news sites, run by political activists masquerading as journalists. They publish legitimate stories, but their goal is to build an audience ahead of the 2020 elections to later push political messages.
  • A recent NYT-article revealed Russia’s new strategy to rent people’s Facebook accounts for media manipulation. This innovative tactic is the political version of a successful money-making scam that runs fake celebrity adds on people’s facebook accounts to make money.
Jenni Sargent, Managing Director of First Draft at the News Impact Summit in Lyon.
Jenni Sargent, Managing Director of First Draft at the News Impact Summit in Lyon.

What can platforms do?

“Platforms need to create fair and clear policies and then actually enforce them in a consistent and transparent way,” said Craig.

Platforms can warn users of content that is known to be false, limit the algorithms, take down content, ban offenders or — as Twitter recently announced — ban political ads altogether.

“These measures are useful, but we need to be aware that the platforms are incredibly connected,” said Scott, “taking the content of one platform doesn’t remove it from the conversation, it simply drives it to other places online.”

It’s more difficult to research and deal with suspicious content when it circulates on encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram, where even the platforms don’t know what is being discussed.

What can journalists do?

There are numerous tools available to make the verification process more efficient. Journalists can also go beyond fact-checking to investigate context, encourage offline debate and/or collaborate to promote accurate reporting:

  • Verify, verify, verify tools — AFP Factual’s InVID verification plug-in allows journalists to analyse comments, cut video into snippets, zoom in on images, do advanced Twitter searches, check for modified metadata, and see if images have been photoshopped. Additionally, you can use tools like Google’s reverse image search, TinEye, and Yandex, which is an excellent tool for facial recognition and identifying landscapes.
  • Context, please! — First Draft’s visual verification guide helps journalists run five quick checks on an image that will save time and “potentially embarrassment”: Do you have the original image, when was it taken, where, when, and why? The Visual Social Media Lab expanded this guide with a 20 questions framework that goes beyond mere verification to interrogate the context of a social media image.
  • Weaken polarisation off-line — My Country Talks is a Tinder for politics that brings people with opposing views together in real life to discuss societal issues. A study has shown that this experience reduces prejudice, increases empathy, trust in others, and the belief in social cohesion. ”A two-hour conversation between people with completely different political views is enough to weaken polarisation,” said one of the researchers.
  • Explore the dark side — DROG’s Bad News game puts you in the shoes of a fake-news creator to understand their powerful tactics. Build your army of trolls to spread conspiracies to influence the public debate. A great experience for journalists and readers to strengthen media literacy that increases “psychological resistance” to fake news, according to a study published by the University of Cambridge.
Participants of the News Impact Summit in Lyon.
Participants of the News Impact Summit in Lyon.

There are also many opportunities for journalists to work together if and when appropriate to fight misinformation, for example:

  • A global “super newsroom” — First Draft offers a platform for journalists, to start an investigation, use the evidence and expertise of the community to reach a conclusion, create an embeddable card that is collectively cross-checked and made available for everyone to use in their newsrooms.
  • Collective fact-check — Meedan’s Check platform is made to verify breaking news online by empowering journalists to fact-check information collectively with the help of machine-learning. It allows you to send verification reports in a visual form that media can share online.
  • Le JournoCamp — In France, Data + LOCAL gathers data journalists to collectively 1) clean data 2) run stories 3) lobby for access to public sector information. This initiative strengthens the use and knowledge of data journalism in the country and improves coverage of local issues.

Lastly, we are working hard on a new verification handbook to be released early 2020 with insights from Craig on reporting disinformation, new case studies from Farida around the context of images, and other updates from First Draft, Bellingcat, NBC News and many more. It will be available for free and in several languages. Sign up to our newsletter to get notified on its release, and other EJC activities.

*Registration for our next News Impact Summit is still open. We’ll be tackling challenges around “Identity & Inclusion: Local News With Diverse Voices” in Munich on Friday 6 December.

Further reading

  • How to change the way we report on climate change
  • Building resilience into journalism: our focus for 2019
  • Funding opportunity for journalists covering global health
  • Five lessons on the most pressing challenges for newsroom leaders
  • Four steps to finding new revenue streams for journalism
  • Listening and co-creation: five insights that will strengthen your engaged journalism


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