Anti-Soros conspiracies aren’t only on 4chan. This politician aired one in a speech — then tweeted it to thousands of followers.

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Politicians are great amplifiers

A lot of effort is put toward detecting misinformation at its source. Whether it’s 4chan, a subreddit or a WhatsApp group, knowing the origin of a hoax can help explain its appeal.

But as Data & Society’s Whitney Phillips has repeatedly noted, the channels of amplification matter. Media mechanisms can be gamed into giving an outright hoax the “oxygen” required to reach a much larger audience.

And it’s not just the media. Politicians have large megaphones both direct (their social media accounts) and indirect (their capacity to obtain media coverage). Some politicians have eagerly used these megaphones to amplify conspiracy theorists, whether it’s antivaxxers in Italy or birthers in the United States.

And so it was again last week, when the resigning Greek defense minister Panos Kammenos showed up in Parliament brandishing a photo of George Soros and Zoran Zaev. The smiling duo — the former founder of the Open Society Foundations and oh-so-frequent butt of political conspiracies, the latter the prime minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) — were celebrating a historic agreement that should see FYROM renamed as North Macedonia in exchange for Greece dropping its veto of the country joining the EU and NATO.

Kammenos attacked this agreement as “the beginning of the implementation of the plan for the dissolution of Greece.”

This wasn’t just political hyperbole. Kammenos suspects foul financial play.

In November, he suggested former foreign minister Nikos Kotzias had been bribed into backing the deal by Soros, an accusation that led to the Kotzias’ resignation and (possibly) a lawsuit.

Shortly after his Parliament speech, Kammenos retweeted an article with the headline “Here’s how Soros bought Macedonia from SYRIZA,” referring to the party of Alexis Tsipras, the Prime Minister and Kammenos’ former governing ally.

The evidence for this extraordinary exposé? A report published by Open Society itself on the Northern Macedonian question.

The most damning detail, apparently, was that the webpage hosting the report was dated Jan. 14 even though the PDF file itself had information about a parliamentary vote on Jan. 16. To the conspiracy-minded, this was an obvious sign of vote rigging — but what actually happened will be familiar to anyone writing about a story that is developing.

To summarize: In support of a conspiracy about Soros subverting Greek democracy, Kammenos accused a foreign minister of getting bribed, bandied about a public photo as evidence of collusion, and retweeted to his 90,000 followers an entirely baseless article from a hyperpartisan outlet. Or, to put it otherwise: fact-checkers, keep your eyes on the politicians.

…technology

  • One of the most notorious fake news publishers is getting around Facebook’s fact-checking system simply by changing its website domain. Another flaw in the program is letting users share false posts that fact-checkers have already debunked. Facebook, which announced that it will start cracking down on misinforming Pages and Groups maintained by the same person, told us it’s working to fix those problems.
  • Volunteers for India’s ruling party are using WhatsApp to peddle misinformation ahead of national elections this spring. Last week, the company announced that it was limiting the number of groups to which users can forward messages from 20 to five in an effort to slow the spread of misinformation. After the announcement, Recode posed the question: Could Facebook and Twitter do the same thing?
  • YouTube is changing its algorithms to stop recommending conspiracy theory videos to users — a change that came after BuzzFeed News documented how the platform’s recommendation system is filled with junk. But it’s still unclear how the company will determine what constitutes a false video.

…politics

  • Fact-checkers, especially on the local level, experienced heightened pushback from politicians whose claims were found to be false during the midterms. But some say that may be better than being ignored altogether, Susan writes on API’s web site.  
  • The European Union called on platforms like Facebook and Google to do more to counter misinformation heading into elections this spring. Meanwhile, the (IFCN-assisted) FactCheckEU alliance is edging towards a public launch ahead of the May European Parliament elections. The project presented its scope in Brussels on Tuesday and announced the hire of a project coordinator on Thursday.
  • Canada is spending $7 million on digital literacy and misinformation awareness campaigns ahead of this fall’s election. The move makes Canada the latest of at least 40 countries around the world that have taken action against misinformation.

…the future of news

Each week, we analyze five of the top-performing fact checks on Facebook to see how their reach compared to the hoaxes they debunked. Here are this week’s numbers.

  1. Agência Lupa: ‘Dilma did not issue a decree to reduce government responsibility for dam collapses’ (Fact: 28.5K engagements // Fake: 1.4K engagements)
  2. PolitiFact: ‘No, 18 million illegal immigrants did not get a “government check” this month’ (Fact: 17.4K engagements // Fake: 4.4K engagements)
  3. CheckNews: “No, Red Scarves did not march with a banner of support to Benalla and Castaner” (Fact: 9.8K engagements // Fake: 3.7K engagements)
  4. AFP: ‘No, this species of parrot is not extinct’ (Fact: 485 engagements // Fake: 12.8K engagements)
  5. Boom Live: ‘No, World Bank Did Not Name Modi As The PM Who Borrowed The Most Since 1947’ (Fact: 112 engagements // Fake: 1.2K engagements)

The Raleigh News & Observer fact-checked the rhetoric from both sides on alleged election fraud in the state’s 9th congressional district, which remains up in the air while an election board investigates.

What we liked: There’s nothing so fundamental to the functioning of democracy than an accurate vote count, so the stakes here couldn’t be higher. In this case, the fact-checker made a plea for patience, objectively walking the reader through the inflammatory rhetoric and informed readers that it’s just too soon to draw conclusions about the winner until the investigation is finished.

“It’s incorrect for anyone to allege there’s not enough evidence to change the outcome of the race,” wrote fact-checker Paul A. Specht. “We simply don’t know if that’s true.”

  1. The Guardian spoke to five people whose lives were ruined by conspiracy theories.
  2. A newly published study from David Rand and Gordon Pennycook found that crowdsourcing judgments of news quality could help limit the spread of misinformation on social media.
  3. Libération’s CheckNews has published a truly comprehensive report about its partnership with Facebook: How it works, what it costs and why they do it.
  4. AFP is hiring in Malaysia and Singapore for its growing fact-checking operation.
  5. Amen to this tweet from the Reuters Institute’s Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: “Every time I hear fact-checkers like today @cjimenezcruz from @maldita_es at #EuTackleDisinfo I am powerfully reminded of how hard the work they do is – with little time, few resources, faced with uncertainty, polarization, and scale and pace – and how important it is.”
  6. Another contender for quote of the week: “Counting fake news exposure is like counting people in a fun house,” David Lazer told Wired about his new study.
  7. Alexandria Neason writes in the Columbia Journalism Review that journalists “should feel obliged to have their books fact-checked,” either by themselves or someone else.  
  8. Writing in the Intercept, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting’s Trevor Aaronson suggested that a federal law known as the Information Quality Act could serve as a protection against Trump’s efforts to mislead the public.
  9. 4chan trolls coordinated to harass BuzzFeed employees who were laid off last week.
  10. Four Egyptian human rights activists have been charged with “spreading false news” and “offending the Egyptian state” after meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Cairo.

That’s it for this week. We hope you like our new design. Let us know what you think by emailing factchecknet@poynter.org!

Daniel, Susan and Alexios