Fighting fake news on the front line

StopFake.org co-founder Olga Yurkova poses for a photograph after speaking about fighting fake news in the Ukraine at the TED Conference, April 10, 2018 in Vancouver, Canada. (AFP)
Updated 11 April 2018

Fighting fake news on the front line

  • The Ukrainian journalist and colleagues weighed into the battle with a StopFake.org website after Russian soldiers entered Crimea under cover
  • Among stories debunked by StopFake.org was a hotly spreading one about a child of a Russia supporter being crucified in a Ukranian city

VANCOUVER: Olga Yurkova has spent years fighting fake news on the front line.

The Ukrainian journalist and colleagues weighed into the battle with a StopFake.org website after Russian soldiers entered Crimea under cover and their country appeared to become a testing lab for using bogus stories to manipulate public opinion.

“We needed to do something to respond to fakes, to explain what is true and what is false,” Yurkova told AFP on Tuesday at the prestigious TED Conference, where she is among the speakers.

“There is this huge propaganda machine on the other side with money, professionals and systems powering it, and volunteers on our side. But, we do what we can do.”

Among stories debunked by StopFake.org was a hotly spreading one about a child of a Russia supporter being crucified in a Ukranian city.

Not only was the inflammatory tale a lie, the square mentioned did not exist.

On Tuesday, the website that Yurkova took part in launching four years ago displayed unmasked bogus tales including a lie about a US senator saying sanctions against Russia don’t work.

StopFake.org boasted 53,400 fans on Facebook; 25,800 followers at Twitter, and more than 51,000 subscribers.

Propaganda

“Propaganda became a huge problem for the Ukraine four years ago,” Yurkova said.

“When we told the world about this, nobody listened to us. Now, the whole world faces this problem.”

She believes fake news tactics refined in the Ukraine have been aimed at the US, Europe and elsewhere.

A longtime journalist, Yurkova was keenly aware of the need to earn people’s trust. With the spread of fake news, she saw people lose faith in media of all kinds, as well as in institutions.

The mission at StopFake.org was simple — take news and check it against the facts.

“With election meddling in the US and Russian troll farms, the world started to realize the scale of the problem,” Yurkova said.

“Do your research, don’t just believe, is the only way to stop this culture of fake news.”

Biases

Yurkova conceded that it may be futile trying to get truth to people seeking stories that confirm their biases, but saw hope in reaching those without entrenched opinions.

“We fight for the people in the middle in a polarized world,” Yurkova said.

“We spread the idea of checking facts.”

Among simple lessons she shared was that, unfortunately, truth tends to be boring while fake news veers toward dramatic and outrageously emotional ‘click-bait.’

Since fake news is manufactured, it can easily be packed with juicy details.

“The propaganda machine spreads trash; we try to wash it away.”

“It is a really huge machine. It is not just Russian state media, it is private Russian media; useful idiots in different countries who spread misinformation, and a lot of politicians.

And, while Facebook is the website’s main source of traffic, it could be time to find a new way for people to communicate given how the social network has been abused by purveyors of fake news, according to Yurkova.

“I can’t fix human nature,” she said. “The best advice I can give is that when you see something interesting, do something to check whether there is proof it is true. It takes just seconds to Google something.”

StopFake.org has at its website tools that can be used for checking the authenticity of headlines, photos, videos and news.

Since starting as an all volunteer operations, StopFake.org has won grants to help support a team of about 30 people.

“I think every country needs their own StopFake,” Yurkova said.


Google says misinformation campaign used YouTube to target Hong Kong protests

Updated 23 August 2019

Google says misinformation campaign used YouTube to target Hong Kong protests

SAN FRANCISCO, US: Google on Thursday said it disabled a series of YouTube channels that appeared to be part of a coordinated influence campaign against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The announcement by YouTube’s parent company came after Twitter and Facebook accused the Chinese government of backing a social media campaign to discredit Hong Kong’s protest movement and sow political discord in the city.
Google disabled 210 YouTube channels that it found behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the Hong Kong protests, according to Shane Huntley of the company’s security threat analysis group.
“This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter,” Huntley said in an online post.
Twitter and Facebook announced this week that they suspended nearly 1,000 active accounts linked to a coordinated influence campaign. Twitter said it had shut down about 200,000 more before they could inflict any damage.
“These accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter said, referring to the active accounts it shut down.
Facebook said some of the posts from accounts it banned compared the protesters in Hong Kong with Daesh group militants, branded them “cockroaches” and alleged they planned to kill people using slingshots.
China has “taken a page from Russia’s playbook” as it uses social media platforms outside the country to wage a disinformation campaign against the protests, according to the non-profit Soufan Center for research, analysis, and strategic dialogue related to global security issues.
“Beijing has deployed a relentless disinformation campaign on Twitter and Facebook powered by unknown numbers of bots, trolls, and so-called ‘sock puppets,’” the center said on its website, referring to fake online identities created for deception.
“China’s behavior will likely grow more aggressive in both the physical and virtual realms, using on-the-ground actions to complement an intensifying cyber campaign characterized by disinformation, deflection, and obfuscation.”

Misused by autocratic regimes
While social media platforms have been tools for people to advocate for rights, justice or freedom in their countries, the services are being turned on them by oppressive governments, according to the Soufan Center.
“Autocratic governments are now using these same platforms to disparage demonstrators, divide protest movements, and confuse sympathetic onlookers,” the center said.
Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous southern Chinese city and one of the world’s most important financial hubs, is in the grip of an unprecedented political crisis that has seen millions of people take to the streets demanding greater freedoms.
China’s government has publicly largely left the city’s leaders and police force to try and resolve the crisis, but behind the scenes online, Beijing is seeking to sway public opinion about Hong Kong, according to Twitter and Facebook.
“We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change,” Twitter said.
It said it had pulled 936 accounts originating in China that were spreading disinformation.
Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, part of the government’s so-called “Great Firewall” of censorship.
Because of the bans, many of the fake accounts were accessed using “virtual private networks” that give a deceptive picture of the user’s location, Twitter said.
Facebook said it had acted on a tip from Twitter, removing seven pages, three groups and five Facebook accounts that had about 15,500 followers.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” Facebook said.