Here's how an anti-refugee hoax went viral across Europe

The Week in Fact-Checking 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.

Dissecting a viral xenophobic hoax

It was one of the biggest hoaxes in Europe this week — and a prime example of how hyperpartisan groups regularly take footage out of context.

A minute-long video, now removed from YouTube, shows a group of veiled women in the water and a production crew standing on the beach. In Czech, a male voice claims that a TV news crew is staging a scene of drowning migrants on a beach in Ierapetra, Crete, in late July.

Since then, dozens of websites and social media pages in several countries have shared images from the video, which was posted early on by Czech Facebook page AntiKavarna. Agence France-Presse reported that the video had racked up more than 1.2 million views on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as of Wednesday.

But the video doesn’t show a TV station fabricating a story. It depicts a camera crew on the set of a documentary about the 1922 exodus of Greeks from Asia Minor.

Jacques Pezet, a fact-checker at Correctiv, first debunked the story. Writing for the German site, he found the location of the video using Google Maps, then reached out to a nearby restaurant to see if they knew anything.

The restaurant told him the video was from a documentary featured at a local film festival, and they sent Pezet a link. He confirmed that by identifying and contacting members of the crew.

Gülin Çavuş, a former IFCN fellow who studied how hoaxes spread about the refugee crisis, told Daniel in a message that the debunked migrant video is an example of how hyperpartisan groups take content out of context to delegitimize the press.

“These kinds of false information and miscaptions try to create an idea that journalists or some politicians overreact about refugee problems,” she said. “Social media users or politicians claim that the conditions of refugees are not really bad and many refugees live more comfortable lives. This can be seen in similar examples, like ‘staged drowning’ or ‘fake boat footage.’

Çavuş said fact-checkers should provide that context when debunking misinformation about refugees to give readers the clearest picture of what’s going on.

Brazil debate
Brazilian presidential candidates faced off during a RedeTV debate on Aug. 17, 2018. (Screenshot from YouTube)

This is how we do it

  • Aos Fatos got a helping hand from Full Fact to live fact-check a Brazilian presidential debate using automation and annotation.
  • Factly, an Indian fact-checking project, was awarded the IFCN’s flash grant for the Asia-Pacific region. It will use $10,000 to fact-check a dedicated website the Modi government launched to herald its achievements.
  • Agência Lupa hired an ombudswoman to field feedback from readers during this fall’s election campaign.

This is bad

  • A new study from the University of Texas at Austin found that exposing people to “elite discourse” about fake news leads to lower trust in media and less accurate identification of real news. (Should we give up our jobs?)
  • Another hoax from Christopher Blair (republished on several fake news sites) has been shared by several local police and sheriff’s departments in the United States.
  • Fox News used a photo of Patti LaBelle in its obituary photo for Aretha Franklin, who died from pancreatic cancer last week.

This is fun

Coming up

  • The IFCN is awarding two $2,500 fellowships to fact-checkers who want to embed with an organization in another country. Apply by Aug. 31.
  • Are you a Brazilian fact-checking project looking for $10,000 to launch a big project? Apply for the IFCN’s flash grant by Sept. 3.
  • On Sept. 17, the IFCN and First Draft are hosting a workshop on how to fact-check misinformation beyond the major platforms, with a focus on three U.S. battleground states. Apply by Sept. 7.

Line bear
Japanese messaging app Line has its IPO at the New York Stock Exchange, Thursday, July 14, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

A closer look

  • On Line, one of the most popular messaging apps in Southeast Asia, misinformation is everywhere. Daniel wrote about how scammers regularly profit from peddling bogus health stories, and Splice Newsroom profiled a fact-checking project that debunks them.
  • Facebook told The Washington Post it is now rating the trustworthiness of users (on a scale of 0-1) who regularly flag content as untrue in order to cut down on the number of false reports. The company clarified to Gizmodo that the rating is specific to reporting content.
  • Speaking of Facebook, The New York Times reported that the company removed 652 fake accounts, pages and groups trying to spread misinformation in the U.S., U.K., Latin America and the Middle East. The move came almost a month after Facebook detected another influence operation.

If you read one more thing

Slate looked at the type of misinformation that spread during this summer’s presidential election in Mexico — and many of the top-performing hoaxes were from domestic sources.

12 quick fact-checking links

  1. Malaysia has repealed its anti-fake news law, which critics say was a veiled attempt to regulate the media.
  2. Axios’ Sara Fischer published a roundup of the ways that misinformation has gotten more sophisticated since 2016.
  3. Here’s what Poynter’s MediaWise project learned about digital literacy from teaching high school students fact-checking.
  4. In India, an ex-serviceman, still working for the Defence Ministry, recorded a viral video that the Army called a "fake video of an imposter.” It’s not.
  5. Facebook is rolling out a feature that shows when a page was created and where its managers are based.
  6. A French fact-checking veteran shares his frustration that people are still sharing fishy claims from anonymous tweeters as facts (in this case, false allegations about the mafia and the Genoa bridge disaster).
  7. PolitiFact turned 11 this week. A year ago Alexios wrote about its impact on political fact-checking around the world.
  8. The Ringer is hiring several ex-ante fact-checkers in New York and Los Angeles.
  9. Fake experts. Fake advocates. Fake crowds. John Oliver’s Aug. 13 deep dive on "astroturfing" is a must-watch for fact-checkers.
  10. This headline oversells what’s going on but in minor good news: A major content recommendation platform is going to use fact checks from IFCN verified signatories to demonetize false news.
  11. Italian debunker David Puente looks at the strange case of an alleged fan of one party sharing an incendiary, widely shared post attacking the leader of the party he probably actually supports.
  12. India’s government told WhatsApp it must establish a formal presence in the country to help stop the spread of misinformation.

Until next week,

Daniel and Alexios

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