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May 26, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

Want to stop a spreading fake news story? Choose one of these four points of attack to fight back

Plus: The faces of a Russian botnet, an alt-right newsletter to subscribe to, and “falsehoods in a forest of facts.”

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

The four key elements of a successful fake news story.

1. Emotional appeal
2. Veneer of authority: Story traces itself back to a leak or statement or something that supposedly happened.
3. Effective insertion point into the online space.
4. An amplification network (like Twitter or Facebook)

A successful fake news story has these four traits, Ben Nimmo, information defense fellow at the international affairs think tank Atlantic Council, said Thursday.

Outlets that want to debunk fake news need to consider which of these four elements of a fake story is “the weak link in the chain” and attack from there, Nimmo said. “Is it a case where, for example, you see this story about the French election but that was posted online by an alt-right operative in the U.S.?”

Nimmo was speaking on a French election debriefing conference call hosted by the Factual Democracy Project and MisinfoCon. Also on the call was First Draft News’ Claire Wardle, who helped oversee a large-scale French fact-checking effort during the election. “We saw very little ‘fake news’ in the traditional sense of ‘100 percent fabricated text content,'” Wardle said. “We saw lots of images and manipulated visuals that I think, over time, had a drip, drip, drip effect. The anti-Macron, anti-immigrant examples that were easier to believe shifted into the mainstream relatively quickly.”

Some “really nasty” stuff, meanwhile, didn’t make it as far outside niche groups, suggesting that fake content that is too extreme will not spread. Wardle pointed to a recent BuzzFeed article on the “psychology of what works” with fake news.

Wardle’s team is now working to train German journalists ahead of the German presidential election this fall. “There’s a sense among the German publishers that in Germany they don’t have a fake news problem, that Germans are too educated to be fooled,” she said. “But in the far-right groups on Facebook, we’re seeing really nasty anti-Merkel, anti-immigration stuff. There’s the sense it’s not traveling just because journalists aren’t seeing it in their feeds. But it does exist, and when they get the messaging just right, the seeds are there for it to travel very quickly.”

Subscribe to this newsletter about the alt-right. I mentioned that this conference call was organized by Factual Democracy Project, which has no website yet but describes itself as

an emerging organization to address influence campaigns propagated by the alt-right coalition and foreign actors that threaten to destabilize liberal democracies. Our aim is to defuse the scourge of fake news, disinformation and propaganda by bringing together the technology, media, national security and civil society sectors through convenings, training and strategic guidance.

The Project’s cofounders are Melissa Ryan and Jennifer Fiore. Subscribe to Ryan’s weekly newsletter about how the alt-right operates online, Ctrl Alt Right Delete. (Other newsletters covering similar turf include Will Sommer’s Right Richter and Charlie Warzel’s Infowarzel.)

The many faces of a Russian botnet. The Atlantic Council’s Nimmo takes a look into how a Russian botnet operates on Twitter — and what happens if you’re a U.S. journalist whose tweet mysteriously gets swept up into it.

“A kind of case study of how and why fake news endures.” If you didn’t listen to the Thursday episode of Michael Barbaro’s The Daily, you should even though it is no longer Thursday: It’s an interesting case study of how a fake news story — in this case, conspiracy theories surrounding the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich — started nearly a year ago and re-emerged last week. Speaking as someone who had avoided the Rich saga entirely because thinking about it was confusing and annoying, I found this a useful primer on how fake news spreads. Fox News took the rare step this week of retracting a story claiming federal investigators were looking into the case. Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, however, did not retract his many thoughts on the matter, and some companies are pulling their ads from his show.

“Falsehoods in a forest of facts.” A new report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab looks at “an extensive Russia-linked phishing and disinformation campaign. It provides evidence of how documents stolen from a prominent journalist and critic of Russia were tampered with and then ‘leaked’ to achieve specific propaganda aims.”

“Fake information scattered amongst genuine materials — ‘falsehoods in a forest of facts’ as Citizen Lab’s John Scott-Railton referred to them — is very difficult to distinguish and counter,” Citizen Lab director Ronald Deibert wrote in a blog post, “especially when it is presented as a salacious ‘leak’ integrated with what otherwise would be private information.”

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     May 26, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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