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Aug. 11, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

There is a darker side of Westerners writing about foreign fake news factories

Plus: Crimea’s News Front; the fate of online trust; Facebook stops saying “fake news.”

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 unflattering light of conventional eastern European stereotypes.” Let’s not pretend we’re being completely neutral when we write about foreign fake news factories like those in Macedonia, writes Lalage Harris in The Calvert Journal (h/t Adrian Chen).

By spotlighting the experience of disenchanted teenage boys, the media cast the whole city in the unflattering light of conventional eastern European stereotypes. Veles became a quintessentially bleak, impoverished vacuum out on the ‘Balkan hinterlands,’ begetting amoral profiteering. Such images ignore the multifaceted reality and belong to a long tradition of Westerners seeking out what historian Larry Wolff called the ‘half-barbarian’ at the ‘unpolished extremity’ of the continent.

This is a fascinating addition to the fake news debate, and one that hangs over me as I include the next entry in this roundup…

“Voluntary fighters of the information war.” Time’s Simon Shuster looks at how Germany is fighting Russian misinformation efforts ahead of its September general election. He introduces us to News Front, “a small but growing Russian…multimedia outlet that pumps out content in several languages, including German, Spanish, and English. With about ten staff members and a few dozen contributors around the world, it is among the better-resourced players in the Russian media ecosystem — even though its sources of funding are opaque.” Its reporters often embed with Russian troops.

What makes News Front stand out from its allies is that it rarely even pretends to uphold traditional journalistic standards. Its website refers to the agency’s staff as ‘voluntary fighters of the information war,’ whose mission is to ‘defend the interests of Russian civilization and to show the true face of the enemies of the Russian world.’ Sputnik and RT, Russian outlets with overt funding from the state, try to act like professional media companies, presenting a Russian twist on world events usually without resorting to outright jingoism and fabrication. Their Crimean cousin, by contrast, acts more like a scrappy paramilitary unit, pushing the same goals and ideology more aggressively, free of direct links to the Kremlin. The site’s contributors in Europe often publish their work anonymously, providing a layer of protection from the authorities that Russia’s official outlets do not enjoy. The main stringer for News Front in Germany, for instance, uses online aliases, and Knyrik declines to provide his real name. ‘I worry about him and our other volunteers. They could be arrested,’ he says, as though his reporters in Europe are soldiers behind enemy lines.

“It is to help the journalist better push back.” The Guardian’s Robert Booth got a preview of “Full Fact,” the software backed by Pierre Omidyar and George Soros that “scans statements as they are made by politicians and instantly provides a verdict on their veracity.” (There’s some background on the software here.)

The Guardian witnessed a real-time demonstration during a health debate in parliament. Words spoken by the politicians were underlined if they matched an existing fact check. For example, the claim that ‘in the last six years of the last Labour government, 25,000 hospital beds were cut’ flags a fact check from the database that states: ‘Correct, the number of overnight beds in the English NHS actually fell by slightly more — about 26,000 — between 2003-04 and 2009-10.’

Another claim, that 10,000 more NHS nursing training places had been made available is also flagged: ‘Incorrect. This figure refers to the government’s ambition for additional places by 2020 on nursing, midwifery and child health courses.’

In another version of the software, the fact checks pop up on the TV screen as politicians are speaking, giving viewers instant verdicts on politicians’ claims. The experience of watching political debate programs like BBC’s Question Time could be transformed.

While the software is being tested first in the UK, it will also be used in South America and Africa: “Full Fact is working with Chequeado, an Argentina-based fact-checking organization, and Africa Check, which operates in several sub-Saharan countries, including Nigeria and South Africa.”

“Trust has not been having a good run in recent years.” Pew and Elon University looked at “the fate of online trust in the next decade.” The study is about not just news but work, shopping, and other kinds of online interactions. Of the 1,233 “technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers and other leaders” surveyed, “48 percent chose the option that trust will be strengthened; 28 percent of these particular respondents believe that trust will stay the same; and 24 percent predicted that trust will be diminished.” A couple of responses I found particularly interesting:

— Sam Anderson, coordinator of instructional design at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst: “The internet will be so ubiquitous that it will be like the air we breathe: Bad some days, good others, but not something we consciously interrogate anymore.”

— Scott Fahlman, computer science and artificial intelligence research professor at Carnegie Mellon University:

‘Trust’ is the wrong question to ask. Smartphones and nonexpert people doing complex things online are recent phenomena, very sudden by historical standards. In the past, human societies have had decades or centuries to come to grips with such disruptive technologies that have great potential for both good and bad consequences. The user community (which might be almost everyone) has to understand what these technologies do, what are the dangers, and society has to make new rules and social compacts about what things are OK, what are bad (in certain contexts), and how to police or prevent the bad ones. That takes time, and we’re not there with internet and cellphones. But kids who have lived with these things all their lives now are getting much smarter about what to do and not do, and society is beginning to come up with some consensus views on the limits of privacy invasion, etc. We need to work on this, but we needed to work on the rules for newspapers, broadcasting, high-speed driving, and so on. The difference now is that we need to do this more quickly than before.

Facebook doesn’t say “fake news” anymore. Slate’s Will Oremus notes that Facebook has stopped using the term, referring to “false news” instead. Oremus argues that “false news” isn’t an accurate substitute: “Whereas ‘fake news’ must be concocted, ‘false news’ could describe any news that turns out to be inaccurate, intentionally or not. That renders the concept even less useful, because it could apply just as easily to factually mistaken ‘real news’ stories as those fabricated by teens in Macedonia.” He also offers some classification, a useful little refresher:

It may be that there is no perfect substitute for ‘fake news,’ but rather a handful of already well-established terms that could be used to refer more precisely to various subgenres of the category. Fictional stories passed off as news articles can fairly be called ‘hoaxes,’ a term that is widely understood and has a long and colorful history. Stories that have their basis in speculation rather than evidence can be called ‘conspiracy theories.’ Blatantly partisan content can be called ‘propaganda,’ especially when it carries a pro-government theme. Articles that contain truth yet mislead can be called just that: ‘misleading.’ Individual falsehoods that advance a political agenda can be called ‘misinformation.’ And so on.

But wait, there’s more.

— BuzzFeed tries the fake news debunking thing in Germany. (Digiday)

— “I get called a Russian bot 50 times a day.” (Politico)

— “Mike Cernovich pivots from Pizzagate to not-so-fake news.” (New York)

— “Fake news bots are here.” (WBUR’s On Point)

— And if you’re in Sydney this weekend

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     Aug. 11, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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