Do no harm: Debunking without amplification

June 11, 2020 and
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and accountability journalism, from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here

A review of the evidence

What role does “the media” play in the spread of misinformation? A literature review published last month in the Annals of the International Communication Association tried to answer that question.

Looking at previously published studies, the piece argues many “fake news sites” wouldn’t get much traction without the attention of more mainstream outlets. The authors define fake news as using, “journalistic rhetoric, formats and reporting styles for the intentional dissemination of false, invented, information.”

For example, they note that in fact-checking misinformation, the media paradoxically must repeat the false claims giving, them more exposure than the claims would otherwise get.

The question of whether journalists amplify misinformation even as they debunk it has long been a topic of debate surrounding fact-checking. In order to debunk a falsehood, it has to be exposed. It’s the double-edged sword of the business.

Is that exposure necessary to stop the spread? Here there is some better news for fact-checkers.

A report published last month by Emeric Henry, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya and Sergei Guriev for VoxEU.org showed that exposing Facebook users to fact-checks or allowing them to fact-check themselves led to a 25% drop in the sharing of false news.

Another study by researchers at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering showed individuals were nearly twice as likely not to share misinformation that had been flagged by a fact-checker compared with misinformation flagged by other sources.

The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center wrote in its March report that the ineffectiveness of fact-checking is itself a myth. The center cited a 2016 study by Thomas Wood and Ethan Porter that failed to replicate earlier evidence of a so-called “backfire effect.”

The authors of the recent literature review acknowledged that there’s a dearth of empirical evidence on the connection between journalists and the spread of false information.

“In order to inform mainstream news media on how to best tackle the challenges fake news pose to the citizenry, much more theoretical and empirical research is required,” they wrote.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

. . . technology

  • We bristle when people use the words “fact-checking” to describe what Twitter is doing to label tweets that contain falsehoods. In fact, even the company says its “focus is on providing context, not fact-checking.”
    • That said, Twitter is now adding labels to tweets that link 5G cellular technology to the coronavirus, Business Insider reported.
  • More than 140 scientists funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote him a letter this week urging him to prohibit President Donald Trump from using the social media platform to “spread both misinformation and incendiary statements.”
    • The letter cites Trump’s recent tweet saying that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which it said “is a clear statement of inciting violence” that violates Facebook’s community standards.

. . . politics

  • The EU’s diplomatic chief, Josep Borrell, told European countries they needed to spend more resources to fight disinformation from China, saying that the bloc was being “naive” in its dealing with Beijing, AFP reported.
  • President Trump tweeted Tuesday a conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old protester who was pushed to the ground by police in Buffalo, N.Y., last week and is still hospitalized “could be an ANTIFA provocateur” and “fell harder than he was pushed.”

. . . science and health

  • Inside Higher Ed’s Elizabeth Reddon has a thorough explainer of an emerging debate over whether scientific papers are being rushed into publication. Advocates of “preprinting” unvetted papers argue that the coronavirus pandemic makes early publication urgent. But others say they can contribute to the spread of disinformation and be used to hijack public debate, she wrote.
    • “Journals have sped up time from submission to publication, and scientists have uploaded thousands of papers to open-access preprint servers without first going through the normal peer-review process,” Reddon wrote.
  • Brazil restored its COVID-19 data website after an order from the country’s supreme court.  Over the weekend, the Health Ministry had stopped releasing cumulative infection and death totals.
    • Brazil has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world behind the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

 

Daniel Funke was a co-author of this newsletter before he left to become a fact-checker at (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact. But we’re not holding that against him. After all, a good fact-check is a good fact-check, and so one of his gets the nod this week.

He discovered that NaturalNews.com, an anti-vaccine website that has promoted conspiracy theories, had rebranded itself under another name to get around a Facebook ban. Last month Facebook prohibited people from sharing NaturalNews stories, saying the website’s use of content farms in North Macedonia and the Philippines to make its stories look more popular than they actually are violated Facebook’s rules against spam.

After that, Natural News started posting debunked claims about the Black Lives Matter protests on a website called Trump.news, which hadn’t (yet) been banned from Facebook. An unproven story on Trump.news about antifa activists traveling to a town in Illinois was shared more than 4,000 times on Facebook. When Funke asked Facebook about Trump.news, the company responded that it, too, had been banned.

What we liked: When misinformers find one path blocked, they will look for another way to get their falsehoods into circulation on social media. Funke’s story is a window into a tactic, domain-switching, that researchers and journalists can pay attention to as they look at how misinformation travels

– Susan Benkelman, API

  1. Last week we pointed to a number of stories in which journalists are helping readers avoid spreading misinformation. The Washington Post’s Geoffrey A. Fowler this week added to the collection.
  2. NBC News’ Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny did a segment, too, with the NBC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, on how people can respond to disinformation such as the viral rumor that antifa activists are headed to small towns in America.
  3. International Fact-Checking Network Associate Director Cristina Tardáguila wrote about how fact-checkers were able to multitask to cover both the George Floyd protests and COVID-19
  4. Twitter is testing a new feature on Android phones prompting users to read an article before sharing.
  5. The Electronic Frontier Foundation offered this explainer of Brazil’s proposed “fake news law.”

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. And if this newsletter was forwarded to you, or if you’re reading it on the web, you can subscribe here. Thanks for reading.

Harrison and Susan