April 4, 2019

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More misinformation-related attacks

This week, France became the latest country to be stricken with misinformation-related violence.

On Monday, French police arrested 20 people accused of attacking Roma people in the suburbs of Paris. In one attack, about 50 people armed with sticks and knives attacked Roma living in a slum and set fire to their cars.

The Guardian reported that the attacks occurred following the re-emergence of an old online hoax that warns people about white vans that are being used to kidnap women and children — a false claim that has roots in medieval stereotypes about the Roma. Interestingly, the misinformation spread on both Facebook and Snapchat; the latter has mostly escaped scrutiny for its role in spreading bogus claims.

“This seemed exactly like those WhatsApp rumors that were spreading in Tamil Nadu state in India,” said Derek Thomson, head of France 24 Observers, which covered the attacks. “It’s astonishing, it’s terrifying. I report a lot in countries with mob mentalities, and I’m proud of European culture. It’s sort of unimaginable to me that there would be a lynching of someone, a mob attack on someone — but this is what it was.”

Thomson said his team found no evidence of deliberate disinformation like in India; the rumors appear to have spread spontaneously, possibly sparked by an incident in which two minors told police of an abduction attempt but later admitted they were lying. And no one has been killed yet in the anti-Roma attacks in Paris.

But elsewhere, child kidnapping rumors on social media continue to incite violence around the world.

In August, a vigilante mob of more than 100 people burned two men alive in a small town in the central Mexican state of Puebla, the BBC reported. The murder came after a false rumor spread on WhatsApp claiming “a plague of child kidnappers” had entered the country with the goal of harvesting the organs of children.

In India, dozens of people have been killed in public lynch mobs following the spread of rumors on WhatsApp. BuzzFeed News reported in September that, in nearly all those attacks, child kidnapping rumors were the catalyst.

Despite the spread of this kind of misinformation-related violence worldwide, social media platforms have taken no major public actions to try and stem it. WhatsApp has taken piecemeal steps to try and limit the virality of misinformation on the platform, while Facebook has mostly deferred responsibility to its fact-checking partners.

Meanwhile, companies like Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube took swift action last month to curb the spread of anti-vaccine conspiracies after facing pressure from American lawmakers.

As we reported over the summer, there’s a legitimate question about the extent to which the violence in India, Mexico and now France has been directly caused by misinformation on social media or enabled by a lack of proper law enforcement. But it’s clear that tech platforms are playing at least some role — and, as exhibited by the moves they’ve made against antivaxxers, action is possible.


  • It isn’t just Facebook. Over the past few years, YouTube executives delayed taking action against videos that contain harmful content like hate speech and misinformation to keep engagement high, according to a Bloomberg story that cites more than 20 current and former employees.
  • Facebook is considering hiring editors to select “high-quality news” to show users in an apparent effort to combat misinformation, The Guardian reported. CEO Mark Zuckerberg also floated the idea of paying publishers whose work was accepted into a dedicated news section as a reward for publishing credible content.
  • On his blog, Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, wrote that personal information like degrees and experience can be easily gamed and faked on LinkedIn. Meanwhile, Bellingcat has a useful guide for extracting information from LinkedIn profiles to aid in digital investigations.


  • Singapore is the latest country to publish draft legislation that would effectively make producing misinformation illegal. The Financial Times reported that the bill would let the government publish corrections alongside allegedly false claims about public institutions. If passed, the bill would also punish people who post false information with “malicious intent” with fines of up to $740,000 and jail sentences of up to 10 years.
  • India’s general election is scheduled to start next week, and misinformation has become front and center. The Atlantic published an in-depth article about how bogus claims, rumors and propaganda have spread like wildfire in the past few months. The New York Times reported that platforms like Facebook are struggling to cope with the scale — despite taking down hundreds of accounts and pages for inauthentic behavior.
  • Taiwan is banning video streaming services from Chinese-owned companies. The Financial Times reported that the goal is to limit the spread of Chinese propaganda and disinformation aimed at undermining the ruling ruling Democratic Progressive party. Taiwan is also one of the countries that has debated adopting an anti-misinformation law, which would make it a criminal offense to publish false claims online.

…the future of news

  • WorldNetDaily, one of the oldest American right-wing conspiracy sites, has been “sucked into a tornado of unpaid bills, pink-slipped employees, chaotic accounting, declining revenue and diminishing readership,” The Washington Post reported.
  • BuzzFeed News reported that older Americans are more likely to be targets of online misinformation — and they’re not getting the digital literacy help they need.
  • In Ukraine, Russia’s latest disinformation strategy was to pay Facebook users to turn over their private accounts. Then, The New York Times reported, Russian agents would use those accounts to publish political ads or spread false stories.

Each week, we analyze five of the top-performing fact checks on Facebook to see how their reach compared to the hoaxes they debunked. Check Poynter.org on Friday for more on this week’s numbers.

  1. TV Today Fact Check: “Did PM Modi top the list of ’50 most honest politicians’ surveyed in the US?” (Fact: 5.5K engagements // Fake: 31.7K engagements)
  2. Chequeado: “It is false that in the field they throw milk for lack of sales” (Fact: 4.8K engagements // Fake: 18.1K engagements)
  3. Full Fact: “Most of these claims about the EU aren’t true and have nothing to do with the Lisbon Treaty” (Fact: 2.9K engagements // Fake: 468 engagements)
  4. Factcheck.org: “Misleading Post on Electoral College” (Fact: 2.1K engagements // Fake: 2.6K engagements)
  5. Agence France-Presse: “No, this video is not recent and does not show an IS flag in the Paris metro”’ (Fact: 369 engagements // Fake: 3.7K engagements)

Let’s go back to that bizarre fact check from Chequeado.

The Buenos Aires-based fact-checking outlet had to go out of its way to debunk a viral image that purported to show milk trucks draining their product into empty fields due to an alleged lack of sales. Spoiler: They were taken out of context from a newspaper cover in 2008.

Why? To bolster an online conspiracy theory that supermarkets are artificially inflating the price of milk by decreasing their supply. The fact that it was posted by an anti-government Facebook page with more than 400,000 followers is just a bonus.

What we liked: This misinformation falls neatly into the classic, 1990s-era human interest hoax. It hits on several different emotional triggers: Money, food waste and government. And it’s just plain weird.

But Chequeado didn’t treat it any differently than it would have a normal political fact check. The fact-checker consulted with the president of the Association of Milk Producers (which is apparently a real thing) and even obtained official data from the National Undersecretary of Dairy (another real thing) to check the central claims of the post.

  1. For yet another year, The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser diligently catalogued some of the top April Fools’ Day pranks and hoaxes.
  2. Speaking of April Fools’, all those hoaxes could actually be good for researchers studying misinformation.
  3. In the United States, the Jussie Smollett case has spawned a few hoaxes falsely claiming the actor has committed a hate crime. And of course George Soros is mentioned.
  4. Verificat, a new fact-checking outlet focused on covering Catalonia politics, launched this week.
  5. The Washington Post Fact Checker has updated its ongoing database of Donald Trump’s false or misleading claims: 9,014 false or misleading claims over 773 days.
  6. PolitiFact announced a new fact-checking partnership with Kaiser Health News.
  7. Writing for CJR, Maya Kosoff checks in on the state of notorious misinformer Alex Jones. Charlie Warzel at The New York Times also weighed in.
  8. The BBC wrote about the status of Facebook’s partnership with fact-checking outlets.
  9. Lead Stories has publicly stopped using the term “fake news” in its fact checks.
  10. The Pope is still warning people about misinformation. Yeah, really.

That’s it for this week. Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factchecknet@poynter.org.

Daniel and Susan

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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