Stories from Iran are keeping fact-checkers (really) busy

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.

Was Soleimani an ‘imminent’ threat?

Those who are following the tension between the United States and Iran saw that President Donald Trump and the national security team have offered shifting explanations for the airstrike that killed top Iranian military leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Obviously, U.S.-based fact-checkers have been following this topic very closely, trying to determine whether the Iranian general represented an imminent  threat.

On Monday, Poynter-owned PolitiFact wrote that Trump’s team has been “inconsistent in describing what the intelligence agencies knew.” The fact-checkers explained: while the U.S. president keeps repeating that Soleimani was preparing an imminent terrorist attack against America — specifically against four embassies — on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on TV that he “didn’t see” any specific evidence of Soleimani planning attacks against the United States.

PolitiFact reached out to The White House but, as of Tuesday, the government had not responded.

Meanwhile, Instagram (the Facebook-owned social media platform) has decided to remove posts and profiles that support Soleimani. The platform has informed it is complying with the sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Iran and, at the same time, obeying its own community guidelines.

In April 2019, Trump designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Instagram (and Facebook) are open about their willingness to ban users who share content that promotes terrorism. Since Soleimani was one of the most important people in the Revolutionary Guard, defending him could fit into the description of promoting terrorism.

According to The Washington Post, so far at least 15 media outlets and journalists in Iran have lost their Instagram accounts. This inspired the Association of Iranian Journalists to send a letter questioning Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri about censorship.

The International Journalists Federation also put out a statement:

“At a time when Iranian citizens need access to information it is unacceptable that Instagram should choose to censor Iranian media and individual journalists and users,” said Anthony Bellanger, the general secretary of the IFJ.

One final note on Iran: We think fact-checking fans around the world should celebrate the great work done by Bellingcat’s team around the crash of Ukraine Airlines flight PS752.

By working collaboratively, the group managed to identify the location of a video showing an Iranian missile hitting the plane and other details about the crash. Wired had a great review about the importance of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) tools.

. . . technology

  • Google announced on Twitter that there was a 500% spike in searches for fact-checking during this week’s Democratic presidential debate in the U.S.
    • Users who like Google Trends will love to see the weekly “horse race” that shows searches done with candidates’ names since the beginning of the year and other maps about what people what to know about about them. Pete Buttigieg, for example, is the most searched one for “how tall is…”
  • American journalists should “take stock” of what happened in recent elections in India and Brazil, where misinformation flooded WhatsApp, wrote Sharon Moshavi of the International Center for Journalists in a CJR op-ed this week.
    • That’s because news, she said, is “heading to a place that presents a whole new set of challenges: the private, hidden spaces of instant messaging apps.”

. . .  politics

  • Sara Fischer from Axios this week spoke with several campaign strategists and social intelligence experts who listed a number of “rules of the road” they expect to take hold for the 2020 campaign cycle in the United States.
    • “Digital platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter are important because they allow campaigns to gather extremely detailed data about voters that they can leverage to boost other campaign efforts later down the line,” she wrote.
  • Media Matters for America, a liberal nonprofit organization, tallied how many supporters of the conspiracy theory QAnon are running for U.S. Congress in 2020. The results of the count are disheartening.
    • “There are now at least EIGHTEEN current or former congressional candidates for 2020 who have embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory,” researcher Alex Kaplan wrote on Twitter. “One of them, in Oklahoma, has run multiple Facebook ads with the QAnon slogan, getting thousands of impressions.”

. . .  the future of news

  • The Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School has launched a “Misinformation Review.” It says the journal is a new format for peer-reviewed, scholarly work in which “content is produced and ‘fast-reviewed’ by misinformation scientists and scholars, released under open access, and geared towards emphasizing real-world implications.”
    • Its lead piece on Wednesday’s launch was a study concluding that “many claims about the effects of exposure to false news may be overstated, or, at the very least, misunderstood.” On a related note, check out Nieman Lab’s recent round-up of the best misinformation and fact-checking research of 2019.
  • Last week, TikTok announced that it was banning misinformation about elections or other civic processes. (Here is the official policy.) Then Reddit said it would prohibit impersonation and deepfakes on its platform — a policy that could include false news websites, which played a central role in misinforming American voters in the 2016 election.
    • “This not only includes using a Reddit account to impersonate someone, but also encompasses things such as domains that mimic others, as well as deepfakes or other manipulated content presented to mislead, or falsely attributed to an individual or entity,” Reddit’s policy reads.

On Jan. 12, The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology alerted the world that Taal Volcano, located on Luzon island, was highly active and would spew ashes on many cities in the region. On the same afternoon, the Philippines saw not only flights being cancelled and schools being shut, but also dozens of hoaxes going viral on social media.

In 48 hours, Rappler’s fact-checking team debunked at least six falsehoods, some of them capable of causing panic. One of them, for example, consisted of Facebook posts claiming that the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council had raised the level of alert related to the Taal Volcano from four to five — meaning it had reached the most dangerous level in the scale.

In an official statement, released Monday, however, the government denied it as the fact-checkers spread the news.

Rappler also debunked a hoax that claimed the weather anchor from ABS-CBN and journalists from BBC said people should turn off their cell phones because they could emit strong radiation due to cosmic rays. This falsehood has been circulating online for a long time.

Some Facebook posts also claimed that the “Pacific Ring of Fire is active” by gathering photos showing recent volcanic activity of Mt. Shintake in Japan, Popocatepetl Volcano in Mexico and Taal Volcano in the Philippines. According to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, however, there are generally around 20 volcanoes actively erupting at any given time in the region.

For the head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, posts like these are “alarmist.” Rappler’s team was fast to spread factual information and calm down some people.

Some good explanatory pieces of content were also written. Here is an example: “What you should know about Taal Volcano.”

What we liked: Rappler’s fact-checking unit worked fast and in three different formats at the same time. It attacked false information that could cause panic. It debunked images and published explanatory articles with facts that could be useful for those who were looking for good information. In times like these, taking just one step to debunk misinformation isn’t enough.

  1. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, warned in a Washington Post op-ed that a Senate impeachment trial against President Trump would bring a new wave of Kremlin-style disinformation.
  2. The Washington Post wrote about how doctored images have become one of the most time-tested forms of misinformation for political campaigns.
  3. Misinformation in the current election cycle means not just fact-checking, but trying to find out who’s behind the misinformation, Associated Press Executive Editor Sally Buzbee told CNN’s Brian Stelter on his Sunday show “Reliable Sources.”
  4. Vaccine confidence has declined, according to a new Gallup poll. “Misinformation has a powerful half-life,” wrote Vice’s Anna Merlan.
  5. Bellingcat wasn’t the only outlet to debunk misinformation about the Ukraine airliner that Iran shot down last week. BuzzFeed News reported that Russian propagandists falsely claimed the crash was actually Ukraine’s fault, and Storyful debunked a variety of unsubstantiated claims about the crash on Twitter.
  6. EU DisinfoLab dug into a media outlet called “France Libre 24” and found Polish right-wing activists at its source.
  7. “What’s Crap on WhatsApp?”, the voice note show created by Africa Check to fight misinformation on the private message app, has new challenges ahead, such as finding ways to know how many people actually heard it.
  8. After Iran’s missile strike on two air bases in Iraq last week, a New York Post reporter’s identity was stolen on Twitter to spread pro-Iran propaganda.
  9. The Washington Post reported on how hoaxers used the Australia wildfires to spread online misinformation for profit.
  10. Friday is the last day to apply to Global Fact 7 in Oslo, Norway. The IFCN has already received more than 400 applications — and this will be the largest fact-checking summit in history.

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

Daniel, Susan and Cristina