What I learned when fake news got personal
I began to write about disinformation in 2016; for me, it was a real, but remote problem. Then, a few months ago, it got personal.
On September 20, a friend who works at a Georgian magazine messaged me that “journalists are talking” about my “statement.” I hadn’t made a statement, but I wasn’t surprised. I’m no politician, but my father — former president Mikheil Saakashvili — is a major opposition figure in Georgia, so hoaxes have tried to link me to politics before. This time, a Facebook page called “Corridor of Shame” had spread a fake statement by me saying I was entering politics and founding my own party. Hundreds of people had already shared it. Now, even journalists were beginning to ask questions.
I wanted to correct the record, but how could I get anyone to see my correction? Then I remembered an article I had read a few months ago.
As the editor of Spanish fact-checking site Maldito Bulo wrote in Poynter, fake news often comes “in the form of images, videos, memes and screenshots instead of URLs.”
So her team decided to learn from the hoaxers:
We decided to copy the “bad guys” in order to fight back. We decided to debunk hoaxes in the same format of the hoaxes that had proven so effective at reaching citizens.
This is what their fact-checks look like. “Bulo” means falsehood in this case:
So I tried to do something similar. I wrote a status debunking the false statement, but I also added a crude, but clear image, where I took the original false statement and scribbled the Georgian word for “lie” on top of it, like this:
Then I asked a few friends to share my post, and began to wait.
The post found an audience and partly accomplished its goal. But at the same time, it showed the limits of fact-checking. I won’t bore you with the details, but here’s what the experience made clear to me:
1. Fact-checking works well on a very specific target group: Mainstream journalists who try to stay within certain professional boundaries, and their friends. This group reading my status helped keep the hoax from becoming a mainstream news story.
But fact-checking doesn’t work equally well on others. A 2016 statistical study in the U.S., for example, concluded that “interest in [fact-checking] is skewed towards more educated and informed members of the public. Republicans also have less favorable views of the practice than Democrats.”
So it’s not surprising that my fact-check got almost no engagement from the people who had shared and commented on the original hoax.
2. Truth is not the most important factor in determining whether a claim will spread. This might be a pessimistic view, but it fits the situation.
As media theorist An Xiao Mina writes in her book Memes to Movements:
“It’s tempting to think of fake news as a series of falsehoods. The very framing of this word, however, misses the broader point, because it orients you toward whether the claim is true or false…it assumes that people share things online because they’re 100 percent concerned about accuracy. By this logic, simply pointing out the inaccuracy will help stem the flow of falsehoods on the broader web. But people share, as I’ve explained, because of deeper political allegiances and viewpoints.”
In fighting online misinformation, we shouldn’t forget that Facebook is first of all a social network and only then a forum for exchanging news and political ideas. Social motivations will usually trump other reasons, like truth and accuracy, when someone is deciding whether to share something.
Already in the year 2000, internet theorist Douglas Rushkoff had arrived at a similar conclusion:
“Content is just a medium for interaction between people. The many forms of content we collect and experience online, I’d argue, are really just forms of ammunition – something to have when the conversation goes quiet at work the next day.”
A fake news story is ammunition. It helps you communicate what values you stand for and who your enemies are; it lets you bond with friends over your outrage or delight. It lets you express your identity. That’s what the false story about me did, as well — it gave Georgian Facebook users yet another chance to assert who they were.
Perhaps some of them wondered whether I had really made the politically combative statement that they liked, read, and shared on their feed. But accuracy is probably not the primary dimension in this experience. Casting all who spread the fake story as either gullible or malicious is a little like hearing a joke and responding: “Come on, do you really think they would let a horse into a bar?”
In the end, my “fact-check” was often shared by those to whom it is important to show that they respect “truth” and “facts,” or who wanted to express support for my family. In this case, both the lie and the correction became, in Rushkoff’s words, social ammunition.
This week in Coda
We’ve previously reported on Fresh News, a government mouthpiece website in Cambodia. Now, reporter Andrew Nachemson returns with another dispatch on the government’s latest efforts to use it for propaganda, publishing confession videos that some say were made under duress.
- Renee DiResta is a fascinating writer and thinker on disinformation, and her recent talk on “pseudoevents” and “pseudorealities” is worth a listen. (Ribbonfarm)
- Fake Russian-run Facebook pages in Africa. (NYT)