One fake. Five European countries. Here’s why anti-refugee hoaxes transcend borders.

November 15, 2018
Category: Fact-Checking

Another anti-refugee hoax in Europe

One of the great ironies of "anti-globalist" disinformation is how seamlessly it travels across different countries. This is becoming increasingly clear in Europe.

In this newsletter, we’ve already flagged how a hoax about a “staged drowning” video and a photoshopped buzzer were recycled across the continent. The latest example is a hoax that wraps in several conspiracy must-haves: the United Nations, refugees and George Soros.

The false claim spread with some variations in at least Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. It essentially alleges that refugees were found at the European Union border in Croatia with Mastercards bearing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees logo. “Further investigations” apparently discovered that the cards had been funded by George Soros.

The story takes several actual facts and distorts them into a toxically false narrative. UNHCR does use debit cards to distribute aid to refugees in Greece, though they can't be used outside the country. Mastercard and George Soros did actually sign an agreement for a vague charitable partnership.

The story was debunked by Mimikama, Check News, Pagella Politica, Nieuwscheckers and others.

The good news is that conspiracy theorists are lazy and don't adapt their hoaxes. A fact check from one country can serve as an early warning in another. The bad news is confirmation bias: The real stories that seem to echo elements of the hoax are enough for true believers.

EU fact-checkers know this is a phenomenon that needs a coordinated response and they are working on it. More to come on that.

WhatsApp
This Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 photo, shows the WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on an iPhone in New York. (AP Photo/Karly Domb Sadof)

This is new

  • WhatsApp has awarded 20 research projects $50,000 each to investigate how misinformation spreads on its platform.
  • The Agence France-Presse’s fact-checking project is now operating in 13 countries around the world.
  • Russia and Spain are reportedly collaborating on a new cybersecurity group aimed at preventing misinformation from harming diplomatic relations. *Thinking face emoji*

Show and tell

  • The BBC talked to fact-checkers around the world about why they do the work they do.
  • Wired U.K. wrote about how Full Fact is leveraging automation to go after misinformation.
  • Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a link to an NBC Miami story about noncitizen voters in Florida. But the story was from 2012 and has been updated since — the news outlet added an editor’s note to the top explaining that.
Trump
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange watch President Donald Trump's news conference, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

This is bad

  • Donald Trump has been tweeting false claims about voter fraud. BuzzFeed News broke down how that echoes online conspiracy theories, and how Twitter’s rules allow for the president’s falsities to go unchecked.
  • During the U.S. midterm elections, several repeat (or “zombie”) hoaxes went viral online — despite being debunked by fact-checkers.
  • That questionable video of CNN’s Jim Acosta during a White House press briefing is one giant UGH.

A closer look

  • This week, CNN sued the White House after Jim Acosta was banned from press briefings. The American Bar Association’ Legal Fact Check published a legal backgrounder on the history of case law over press credentials.
  • Researchers for the BBC spent hundreds of hours with people in India, Kenya and Nigeria to research how misinformation moves Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. They found that nationalism is a driving factor behind sharing fakes, but some think the news outlet’s sample (80 people across three countries) is too small for any conclusion to be drawn.
  • There was plenty of fact-checking during the midterm elections — but very little of that work came from local news sources.
Nigeria
In this Thursday Jan. 11, 2018 file photo, people watch a truck conveying coffins with victims of an attack alleged to be by Fulani herdsmen before a mass funeral in Makurdi, Nigeria. (AP Photo, File)

If you read a few more things

The BBC published an in-depth series on misinformation around the world. Some highlights: a deep dive about how fakery on Facebook has contributed to recent killings in Nigeria, five fake stories that have had a big impact across the African continent and a look at how fact-checkers are tackling misinformation in Turkey.

Save the date

The IFCN’s sixth Global Fact-Checking Summit will be in Cape Town from June 19-21, 2019. Express your interest to attend no later than Jan. 14, 2019.

10 quick fact-checking links

  1. The New York Times published a blockbuster investigation about how Facebook's leadership has responded to crises over the past few years. One of its findings: The company employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit protesters by linking them to George Soros.
  2. There’s a long read on deepfakes in The Guardian, but it’s kinda meh in terms of bringing anything new to the table.
  3. Taking over other people’s social media account is a bigger deal than you might have thought.
  4. In India, fact-checkers are seeing an “epidemic of fake quotes” from bogus news sources online.
  5. Why do people fall for fakes online? “It's just mental laziness,” MIT’s David Rand told Wired.
  6. That bitcoin-peddling fake Elon Musk promoted tweet was making the rounds again this week.
  7. Rappler, a Philippine news site with an active fact-checking unit, is under pressure from the Duterte government.
  8. Who needs deepfakes when you’ve got grainy GIFs, right?
  9. Online groups of conspiracists behave a lot like cult members, Renee DiResta writes for Wired.
  10. Brazil's new Foreign Minister has some thoughts about fake news.

Until next week,

Daniel and Alexios