April 23, 2019

After news broke of a fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris last week, misinformation about its origins started almost immediately. And some of the rumors made their way to mainstream cable networks.

In a timeline published last Tuesday, BuzzFeed News outlined how false rumors that claimed the fire was an attack carried out by Muslims made their way from social media platforms to talking points on Fox News. In one instance, anchor Neil Cavuto hung up on a guest mid-conversation once they started floating the conspiracy. Later, one of Tucker Carlson’s guests continuously brought up terrorist attacks carried out by Muslims.

In the United States, that kind of blatant amplification of misinformation is still relatively rare. And it often only occurs during breaking news events; in fall 2017, a guest on CNN floated a conspiracy about the identity of the shooter behind the massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

But in Turkey, seeing misinformation on TV is fairly common — and it’s not only confined to breaking news.

Last week, a leading television station in Turkey aired a doctored photo of the mayor of Istanbul. In a broadcast on Wednesday, CNN Türk, a localized version of the American news outlet, broadcasted an image that purported to show Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu shortly after he was elected.

In fact, the photo was doctored; the original depicted Mansur Yavaş, mayor of the Turkish capital Ankara. And CNN aired the fake after Teyit, a Turkish fact-checking site, had already debunked it.

For Mehmet Atakan Foça, it was just another day at the races.

“It may seem not an important mistake,” Teyit’s editor-in-chief tweeted on Wednesday. “But putting fabricated or false connected visual materials on screens is not rare for TV channels in Turkey. And no one apologizes for those.”

After being made aware of its mistake, CNN did later issue an apology. And it revealed a chief problem with the way that most TV stations in Turkey get a lot of their content.

According to CNN’s apology, they ran the manipulated photo after receiving it from a Turkish news agency. Atakan said TV stations frequently lean on these agencies, which function in much the same way as the Associated Press or Reuters, for content to fill the 24-hour news cycle. Once misinformation makes its way across the wire, it’s harder to contain.

“Most of the websites and TV channels don’t (see the) need to verify this content from news agencies,” he said in a phone interview. “If misinformation comes from a news agency, all TV channels and news websites publish misinformation — there is no point in the middle between news agencies and TV stations.”

In the U.S., that kind of misinformation distribution sometimes occurs when the AP makes a mistake and has to issue a correction. The problem lies in the fact that, once something moves across the wire, news organizations are far less likely to follow up and check that a correction has been issued. The results are factual errors that live on for months, even years.

Turkey has that problem on steroids. And sometimes TV stations just air unverified information from social media to fill time slots.

When wire services make mistakes, misinformation spreads quickly

CNN Türk is a particularly egregious offender — it has amplified misinformation at least four times over the past few years, according to Teyit. Last spring, the news outlet aired a video that claimed to show a cat playing with a photo of its owner on a smartphone.

That’s bogus, Teyit’s fact-checkers wrote. In fact, the video was staged; it had been uploaded in 2016 for a competition.

Atakan sent Poynter three other examples in which CNN had aired rumors or bogus content on live television. In one example from 2016, the news outlet aired a bizarre video of people smashing their TV sets while U.S. President Donald Trump gave a speech.

Teyit debunked the video, reporting that the clip was a popular video collage from YouTube, and that it was created by mashing up footage of Trump with unrelated segments of people smashing their TVs.

Despite being relatively trivial, those kinds of viral internet hoaxes are regularly picked up by media outlets in Turkey. And it’s not just TV stations — sometimes newspapers fall for rumors and bogus content as well.

In 2017, at least six news outlets published a false claim that a soccer ball from the U.S. Challenger hit the International Space Station — 30 years after the shuttle exploded after takeoff (it didn’t; the ball was found near the Challenger launch site). A year later, several media organizations even aired the now-infamous altered video that purports to show an airplane doing a 360-degree turn in mid-air.

Why are Turkish news outlets so bad at fact-checking misinformation before they publish it? Atakan said it comes down to two things.

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First, Turkish media houses rely on news agencies for a lot of their content. And when multimedia or articles come from those agencies, journalists are far less likely to independently verify them.

Second, news organizations in Turkey — like most other places around the world — are strapped for time. News producers are pressured into getting images and video on air so that they can drive the 24-hour news cycle.

“They don’t have enough time to check that. I believe that most of this kind of misinformation that has been aired on TV is not intentionally publishing on there,” Atakan said. “They don’t want to publish this kind of false information on there, but they have to be hurried and catch the screen time. They have to put something on screen to show what’s going on around crises and other updates.”

Finally, there’s a lack of journalistic talent in Turkey, whose press Freedom House has rated as “not free.” Atakan said that most experienced journalists have been exiled from mainstream news organizations for their criticism of the government. Now, they’ve mostly taken to publishing on small blogs and YouTube channels.

As a result, inexperienced journalists who may be less likely to verify information are now heading up big TV broadcasters — and misinformation makes its way onto the air.

“They don’t have enough time to get training or get more education for their job, so the big organizations should create enough time and enough space for their workers for getting more information about checking content on the internet,” Atakan said. “The worst thing, really, is they don’t correct their mistakes … They think if they accept their mistakes they would get more reaction from users.”

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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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