August 15, 2019

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.

2 regions, 1 misinformation problem

As Kashmir enters its 11th day on a strict lockdown in which India has imposed a communications blackout, misinformation has taken off in the region.

Fact-checkers for the Agence France-Presse in Southeast Asia have debunked several false and misleading claims about the lockdown, which was imposed last Monday after New Delhi moved to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy. The border region has been hotly contested with Pakistan for decades.

Much of the false information AFP fact-checked on social media was out-of-context photos or images, which purported to show armed conflicts between the Indian and Pakistani militaries. Some hoaxes, debunked by Boom Live, another Indian fact-checking site, even made their way into mainstream media outlets. The outlet rounded up other rumors in a YouTube video.

This kind of false information has been spread on social media despite the internet shutdown in Kashmir, which is not the first time India has taken such action. And people in Kashmir don’t have access to reliable information at all.

“As a fact-checker, I don’t know what communication the people in Kashmir are subjected to. We don’t know what the local rumours are. And if the locals want to verify information, there is no means for them to do that,” said Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Indian fact-checking site Alt News, in Dawn, an English-language newspaper in the country.

Meanwhile, nearly 4,000 kilometers away, another deluge of misinformation is plaguing social media — but the circumstances are completely different.

Amid ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has been accused of spreading disinformation and propaganda about the demonstrations. The New York Times reported that the Communist Party and state-controlled media outlets have falsely claimed the protesters are paid and have manipulated photos and videos to make them look violent to cut down on their support.

Other social media rumors focus on potential Chinese action against the protests. CNN reported on one a viral tweet that warned the military was about to impose a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown.

“In Hong Kong, there’s virtually no way to avoid misinformation,” the outlet reported. “In the subway, fake news is anonymously AirDropped onto commuters’ phones. Rumors and speculation posted by both individuals and local blogs are plastered over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and shared on messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram.”

In Kashmir, misinformation has proliferated both in spite of and due to the absence of internet access in the region. But the Chinese government has taken the opposite approach, rapidly censoring pro-democracy speech on social media platforms and saturating the networks with propaganda and disinformation.

Both situations are concerning developments in the global struggle against political disinformation, and how governments intrinsically play a role in it. They show that falsehoods don’t exclusively spread on a free and open internet — they also spread widely in highly censored regimes, as well as regions where there’s no internet access at all. And fact-checkers have their work cut out for them.

. . .   technology 

  • Meedan, a journalism and tech startup based in San Francisco, launched a new tool to help fact-checkers receive hundreds of reader-submitted tips and, at the same time, automatically distribute their conclusions in private messaging apps. Cristina interviewed Ed Bice, the company’s CEO and co-founder, who managed to get WhatsApp approval and technical support. 
  • Google has published a 29-page document in Chinese to show how the company “uses algorithms to elevate authoritative, high-quality information in its products”. In 2018, Google laid out its “roadmap for supporting the growth of an Intelligent Taiwan.”
  • Get this: In the U.S., the Democratic National Committee created a deepfake video of its own chairman to warn about the threat the technology could post to the 2020 presidential election. Meanwhile, Claire Wardle from First Draft worked with The New York Times on a smart PSA about deepfakes, in which she impersonated Adele.

. . .  politics

  • Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide is a case surrounded by misinformation, conspiracy theories and some questions with no answers. U.S. President Donald Trump shared a tweet suggesting former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were involved in the case. PolitiFact reported that that theory, as well as a similar one connecting Epstein’s death to Trump, is unfounded. Interestingly, BuzzFeed News reporter Jane Lytvynenko revealed that Epstein’s death was on 4chan before officials announced it.
  • Roll Call pointed out that lawmakers looking to do something about the spread of misinformation on social media are largely only looking at platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But fringe platforms like 4chan and Reddit play huge roles in the spread of fakery, too.
  • Chequeado’s team has put together a detailed article (in Spanish only) explaining what Argentinians should look for when reading the results of an electoral poll. The country will elect a new president in October and misinformation around poll results exists.

. . .  the future of news

  • BuzzFeed News’ Craig Silverman wrote about how there has been an uptick in digital disinformation campaigns aimed at influencing politics in the Philippines. That development came in spite of Facebook’s expanding fact-checking partnership and removal of inauthentic accounts, he reported.
  • In Indonesia, fact-checking site Mafindo and the Google News Initiative are teaming up to teach media literacy skills in 17 cities. The program is targeting “youths and housewives,” according to the Jakarta Post.
  • Going back to Epstein for a moment, several reporters commented this week that the misinformation that followed his death expose how Twitter is complicit in the spread of hoaxes. Abby Olheiser wrote in The Washington Post that the platform “has become the perfect vehicle for conspiracy theories,” while The New York Times’ Charlie Warzel wrote that the conspiracies “are a grim testament to our deeply poisoned information ecosystem.”

Mass shootings are not only a sad and controversial topic in the United States. They can be confusing too — even for presidential candidates.

On Saturday, during an event in Iowa, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, one of the Democratic frontrunners in the 2020 election campaign, falsely remembered the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 

During a speech, he repeated twice that survivors had visited him while he was vice president and even added details about that meeting. When they arrived on Capitol Hill, Biden said, they were “basically cowering,” not wanting to see politicians. “They did not want to face it on camera.” 

But Biden wasn’t even vice president in 2018. He left the White House on Jan. 20, 2017 — more than a year beforehand.

Bloomberg was the first news outlet to call Biden out on his astonishing inaccuracy. Biden’s team explained later he was actually thinking of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when he misspoke. That attack took place in December 2012.

What we liked: Bloomberg was quick to call Biden out on a blatant falsehood made during a pivotal election stop. It didn’t take much to refute the claim, but it highlighted how some political misinformation isn’t necessarily all that complicated. Plus, the fact check came from an organization that doesn’t have a dedicated fact-checking department.

  1. Alexios Mantzarlis (Remember him? Former author of this newsletter? Bueller?) has a new gig as the information credibility lead at Google. He will help coordinate efforts to fight misinformation through both product and partnerships.
  2. The IFCN’s Daniela Flamini wrote about how fact-checkers in Turkey and Bosnia are being personally attacked for their work.
  3. The Washington Post Fact Checker has updated its ongoing tally of President Trump’s false or misleading claims: 12,019 over 928 days.
  4. First Draft spoke to reporters about what it was like to cover the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, through the lenses of extremism and misinformation.
  5. A QAnon blogger made six figures from a book about the conspiracy theory, The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reported.
  6. Know an enterprising teenager interested in journalism? Have them apply for MediaWise’s Teen Fact-Checking Network!
  7. The New York Times wrote about how foreign disinformation campaigns are contributing to the rise of far-right nationalism in Sweden.
  8. Brazilian fact-checking site Aos Fatos has been nominated for an Online Journalism Award in the Micro Newsroom category.
  9. The New York Times informs that YouTube’s search and recommendation system appears to have “systematically diverted users to far-right and conspiracy channels in Brazil.”
  10. The IFCN will be in Medellín, Colombia, during Gabriel García Márquez’s Festival, and will offer a free 4-hour fact-checking workshop for a group of 40 participants. Applications are open until Aug. 21.

That’s it for this week! Send feedback and suggestions to

Daniel, Susan and Cristina

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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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