Whilst misinformation is a global phenomenon, each country has its own individual difficulties in tackling misinformation.
Speaking at the Truth and Trust Online conference in London (4 October 2019), panellists from five different fact-checking organisations explained how false claims gains traction in their regions and what efforts are underway to stop it in its tracks.
United Kingdom - Full Fact
False content surrounding health and well-being, as well as dubious claims made about Brexit have been the most prevalent types of fake news that have gained traction in the UK.
But many countries around the world have it much worse, according to Will Moy, chief executive of Full Fact, who said that fact-checkers operating in Britain at least have access to independent data and can operate without death threats or censorship from the state.
As well as working with Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-checking Programme to debunk claims on social media, Full Fact has developed the ability to speed up the process of fact-checking and spot unverified claims they may not have otherwise spotted.
"We’ve built tools that will instantly read the subtitles from the television when a politician is speaking, work out if they have repeated a claim we’ve seen before and flag it so we can act then and there," Moy explained.
Dubbed ‘robo-checking’, the software can then either verify or debunk any claim by using the wealth of data on a wide range of topics to check it, allowing fact-checkers to tackle false claims on the spot and spend less time on repetitive tasks.
Going forward, Full Fact wants to see such technology available in other languages for fact-checkers across the world to use.
Argentina - Chequeado
In Argentina, the biggest challenge for fact-checkers is the unwillingness of public figures to use evidence to back up their claims.
Editorial coordinator of Chequeado Olivia Sohr explained that public figures and politicians in Argentina have mixed responses when their claims are held to account.
"We have public figures that do care about truthfulness sometimes in certain situations and we have some that don’t answer us or couldn’t care less about what we’re publishing or whether what they said was true or not," she said.
As well as this, access to reliable and open data is not as widely available in Argentina as it is in the UK, but it is improving.
The current government is now publishing more data and engaging with Chequeado, by supplying them in advance with a list of sources to support claims being made ahead of the Argentine President’s State of the Union address, an event that the organisation fact-checks live.
However, Sohr expressed concern that their work might be challenged by a potential change in government in the upcoming elections later this month.
"The government that will probably win does not have the best track record with data. They actually manipulated all the inflation and poverty figures between 2007 and the change of government in 2015.
"They say this time will be different, but we don’t really know."
South Africa - AfricaCheck
For the countries that AfricaCheck covers, which also includes Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, one of the most common forms of misinformation circulating on social media and messaging platforms revolve around xenophobic and anti-immigrant themes.
These often take the form of videos and images depicting burning buildings or violence that have come from other countries or from many years prior.
Lee Mwiti, chief editor, AfricaCheck said that as healthcare remains a privilege in many African countries, false health claims that promise quick and inexpensive cures to illnesses such as cancer also do not take long to go viral.
Many African societies are based around local communities more so than ideological views, so information that is shared within those groups is more likely be taken on face value, he added.
This means that tackling misinformation needs a different approach to that of other parts of the world, with Mwiti suggesting community meetings offer a way of validating claims to a wider audience.
"You need to think about how information is taken up in societies in Africa if we are going to craft solutions to combat misinformation," Mwiti said.
AfricaCheck has since produced factsheets on areas, such as crime and unemployment, and created ‘What’s Crap on WhatsApp’, a five minute podcast series tackling misinformation shared through the messaging app.
India - BOOM Live
In the world’s most populous democracy, fake news has not only tarnished political discourse but has also led to loss of life.
Govindraj Ethiraj, founder of BOOM Live, explained that 34 people died last year as a result of misinformation, in particular due to child kidnapping rumours circulating on WhatsApp, used by 200 million people in the country.
Set up in 2014, BOOM Live attempts to challenge misinformation across a variety of issues, including finance, health claims and politics, presenting their findings in English, Hindi and Bengali.
Ethiraj said that the majority of misinformation in India is often centred around an event, some form of patriotism or fostering a communal divide, in particular between Muslim and Hindu communities.
These posts will often use certain elements to attract attention and go viral; the army, as a way to whip up a sense of nationalism, Bollywood and social media influencers, and some element of humour, to make the subject of the post look foolish.
Such posts will often include 'Photoshopped' images or outdated pictures, or videos taken from different parts of the world, used to fit the narrative the false content is trying to present.
Misinformation in the country is far more organised than Ethiraj first thought, with so-called ‘troll armies’ using and manipulating events to spread misinformation.
"The better we understand it, the better our response will be," he said.
Iran - FactNameh
Fact-checkers in Iran face a myriad of difficulties in challenging misinformation, not helped by press censorship and the agenda of state media.
Farhad Souzanchi, editor of FactNameh, explained that the restrictions on freedom of speech have forced them to operate outside of the country, from Toronto, Canada, in their attempts to verify claims since the fact-checking site blocked in its homeland, Iran.
Iran’s largest media company state broadcaster IRIB is not only a source for political propaganda but also spouts misinformation on other topics such as health, promoting ‘Islamic medicine’ in its broadcasts.
However, Souzanchi said that, as there are no transcripts of broadcasts, it is difficult to keep up with the latest claims being made.
To get around government restrictions, instant messaging platform Telegram has evolved to become a hub for Iranians, with 40 million users in the country alone. As with WhatsApp, Telegram in Iran has also become a breeding ground for misinformation in the country, particularly for content that opposes the regime.
One false story from anti-regime website Amad News claimed that former US President Obama gave citizenship to 2,500 Iranian officials as part of the Iran deal. It went so viral that it was picked up by both Fox News and tweeted by President Trump.
FactNameh is now working on developing a bot to verify or debunk claims sent in by Telegram users. Unfortunately, limited technology based around the Persian language is hindering the project’s progress.
Learn how quality journalism can thrive in a fake news-era at Newsrewired.com on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets
Free daily newsletter
- How do narratives spread, and what does this mean for how we report the news?
- Tip: Spotting mis- and disinformation from Ukraine
- Dos and don’ts of reporting on devolved nations
- How journalists and academics can tackle misinformation together
- The truth sandwich: how to cover falsehoods from official sources