The Week in Fact-Checking: Misinformers target U.S. presidential candidates

Think it’s too early to focus on the 2020 presidential campaign? The trolls apparently don’t.

For all we learned about misinformation in 2016, it’s already clear journalists and the public will need to be on guard early for bad actors spreading falsehoods about the candidates in the next campaign cycle.

They work fast, too. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, announced her exploratory bid for the White House on Dec. 31. In just three days, users on fringe platforms were posting smears aimed at undermining her campaign, according to a report by Storyful, a company that studies social media analytics. The report drew upon the Facebook API and Storyful’s social monitoring technology to isolate where posts including Warren’s name were being shared the most.

Among public Facebook pages, a top amplifier of hyperpartisan content about Warren was a page titled “Elizabeth Warren is batsh#t crazy,” said Kelly Jones, the researcher who produced the report.

Efforts to stir up discord on the American left were particularly prominent on fringe sites like 4chan. One poster called for people to “Pose as a concerned Democrat and criticize her for being white. Criticize her for being a woman. Do whatever it takes to further divide the left and prevent them from unifying behind a candidate for 2020.”

In late 2017, the American Press Institute published a report looking at how newsrooms were woefully unprepared to deal with misinformation on social media in 2016. The question is whether the early awareness of the problem will help this time around — especially given what we now know about how instrumental anonymous message boards like 4chan are in pushing false narratives online.

“Knowing it’s happening so early, and identifying the initial trends, sets the tone for what we could expect,” Jones said.

Similar efforts were seen after Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-Hawaii) announcement of her 2020 plans, with users on 4chan and 8chan urging people to promote her in a gambit to divide the Democrats.

The day after California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris announced her candidacy, pro-Donald Trump conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl inaccurately tweeted to his nearly 180,000 followers that she’s not eligible to run for president because of foreign-born parents. PolitiFact (which is owned by Poynter) quickly assigned his statement a “Pants-on-Fire” rating.

And, by the way, that thing on Warren’s shelf in her kitchen as she was having a beer and doing a live Q&A on Instagram on New Year’s Eve? It’s a vase, not a piece of racist memorabilia.

This is new

  • Almost half of Trump’s promises from the 2016 campaign have been blocked or dropped, according to PolitiFact. And The Washington Post Fact Checker put the number of Trump’s falsehoods at 8,158 over the past two years.
  • WhatsApp is now limiting the number of groups to which users can forward messages from 20 to five in an effort to slow the spread of misinformation. The move comes after similar tests in India and Brazil.
  • NewsGuard, a startup that publishes media credibility scores, gave The Daily Mail the same grade as RT. Now Microsoft Edge users are receiving warnings, according to The Guardian.

The bad place

  • An Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is proving to be fertile ground for misinformation and conspiracy theories.
  • Deepfake porn videos depicting celebrities are increasingly becoming a threat to women online. Fortune posed the question: Do we need a law to stop them?
  • Now going viral on Facebook: Fake news stories that don’t actually link to anything.

A closer look

  • Over the past few weeks, the #10yearchallenge has made the rounds on social media, inspiring users to post dramatic before and after pictures. And — just like nearly everything else on the internet — it was gamed to promote false and misleading images.
  • The Duke Reporters’ Lab is getting close to a product that would allow TV networks to live fact-check speeches or debates in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. election.
  • Last week, activists distributed fake copies of The Washington Post in print and online. April Glaser wrote an excellent piece for Slate about why they didn’t qualify as what most people think of as fake news.

Fact vs. Fake

It was a bad week for fact checks on Facebook. In the IFCN’s second installment of a weekly column that compares the reach of hoaxes to corresponding fact checks on the platform, Daniel found that one Brazilian hoax got about 250 times more engagements than two debunks — combined.

If you read one more thing

  • Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists published its 2018 census of imprisoned journalists around the world — 28 of which were jailed on “false news” charges. This week, Daniel wrote about what it was like for two Cameroonian journalists to be tried on such charges.

10 quick fact-checking links

    1. The Guardian profiled American fact-checkers covering the Trump administration.
    2. Why do people fall for fake news? Gordon Pennycook and David Rand summarize the research for The New York Times.
    3. Brazilian fact-checker Aos Fatos launched a project that archives all of President Jair Bolsonaro’s tweets.
    4. Facebook removed more fake accounts, pages and Instagram profiles from Russia that were posing as news organizations and political interest pages.
    5. First Draft is hiring 12 people to work in its New York City and London offices.
    6. A massive network of Macedonian fake news sites has been dismantled following an investigation from Lead Stories and Nieuwscheckers.
    7. U.S. Lawmakers are paying attention to the problem of “deep fakes.”
    8. BuzzFeed News is hiring two contractors to help produce debunking videos.
    9. Remember that time U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) had a very public scuttle with fact-checkers? Us too. And this week she tweeted about it again.
    10. Add Glassdoor to the list of apps that is being gamed to push fake positive reviews.

Until next week,

Daniel, Susan and Alexios


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