March 11, 2021

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. Sign up here to receive it on your email every Thursday.

In your traditional mailbox: pizza coupons and COVID-19 disinformation

Germany, the United Kingdom and Ireland have each been plagued by a new method of distributing COVID-19 misinformation — regular mail. The leaflets are being distributed through the encrypted messaging app Telegram by groups fleeing the scrutiny of larger social media companies like Twitter and Facebook.

German fact-checking organization Correctiv was tipped off to this tactic by a reader in October 2020. The team crowdsourced a collection of 186 distinct fliers from readers across Germany, which came from several networks of Telegram groups that spread anti-lockdown messaging and COVID-19 disinformation. From Nov. 16-26, Correctiv found 650 groups such groups spread out across Germany with a total membership of around 66,000 users.

Two of the most prominent networks were tied to an anti-lockdown activist fact-checked several times by Correctiv. The investigation found he was using the fliers as a way to boost the groups’ membership on Telegram away from the scrutiny of more prominent social media companies.

Writing for Coda Story, Isobel Cockerell found eerily similar tactics being used in the U.K. Her reporting dug up groups using Telegram to spread the fliers and give instructions on how to print them. Some of the fliers include QR codes to make it easy for recipients to find the group online.

One of the groups cited in Cockerell’s story had sprung up on Telegram after being banned on Facebook in December 2020. She cited a leader of the group as saying its Facebook membership had been roughly 43,000, and its new following on Telegram had reached around 26,000.

In Ireland, a report by the Business Post found Telegram groups are using offline fliers to spread awareness about “The Great Reopening” — a movement aimed at lifting lockdown restrictions that has since become rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories. Reporter Peter O’ Dwyer found some of these groups have tailored the messaging in their fliers to attract more members, like one group switching a flier’s wording from, “Wake Up! Rise up!” to “Lockdown kills more than Covid.”

Fact-checkers have found these groups increasingly hard to trace. Yuliia Zhaha, a fact-checker with the Ukrainian fact-checking organization VoxCheck, told Poynter in January that her organization was stretched thin keeping track of falsehoods being spread on larger social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But as fact-checkers and platforms increase their efforts to fight digital COVID-19 misinformation, we may see a growth in analog distribution.

Harrison Mantas


Interesting fact-checks

Reproduction from THIP Hindi

  • THIP Hindi: “Can You Eat Sugar-Free sweets in Diabetes?” (in Hindi)
    • Fact-checkers are now using a ventriloquist dummy to spread their messages and reach new audiences. In the first episode of “Fake Mat” (“Don’t Bluff,” in Hindi ), Anil Singh interviews a doctor with Mr. Chanky’s support to make sure people understand that it’s wrong to believe that sugar-free sweets are completely safe. The Healthy Indian Project’s channel on YouTube has almost 2 million subscribers.
  • Chequeado: “How transparent are COVID-19 vaccination campaigns across Latin America?” (in Spanish)
    • Latam Chequea, the group that brings together more than 30 fact-checking organizations in Latin America, published a study showing that even though the region answers for one-fifth of all COVID-19 deaths registered in the world, only 5.4% of vaccines have been taken there. The collaborative work also alerts that in many Latin American countries, vaccinations have been affected by irregularities and fraud.

Quick hits

From the news: 

From/for the community: 

  • “Fact-checking vaccine hoaxes? Apply now to the Vaccine Grant Program,” from IFCN/Poynter. In partnership with WhatsApp, IFCN will distribute a half million dollars to projects that can scale up the fight against pandemic rumors. Applications are accepted until March 22. Applicant must be a verified signatory of IFCN’s Code of Principles and/or a member of the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance.
  • “State-led and coordinated: ICFJ dives into online attacks vs Maria Ressa,” from Rappler. The International Center for Journalists released a research on attacks against Maria Ressa, the CEO of Philippine fact-checking outlet Rappler.  The study found that almost 60% of the attacks extracted from Facebook and Twitter were designed to undermine Ressa’s professional credibility. The research also showed that many posts were fueled by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s public statements and that there is “direct evidence that the online violence targeting Ressa has offline consequences.”
  • “Mainstream media funds fake news,” from IFFY. This article lists a series of actions media outlets (and fact-checkers) can take to avoid amplifying misinformation while reporting about it. What is good and what is bad about screenshotting a false tweet, for example? Take some time to read it. Good food for thought.

If you are a fact-checker and you’d like your work/projects/achievements highlighted in the next edition, send us an email at factually@poynter.org by next Tuesday.

Any corrections? Tips? We’d love to hear from you: factually@poynter.org.

Thanks for reading Factually.

Cris and Harrison

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the author of the Business Post story. It has been corrected to reflect the actual author, and we regret this error.

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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