Caravans, ISIS Fighters, and the Effectiveness of Debunking Fake News

It’s the picture that took the internet by storm. Depicting just one family within what has been dubbed the “migrant caravan,” photojournalist Kim Kyung-Hoon’s piece has sparked both mass outrage and mass speculation over its authenticity over the past week, as exemplified by the tweets below.

Looking at the raw emotion behind both of the above tweets, it’s hard to imagine the so-called migrant-caravan began only a month ago in October — back then, it was a grassroots media campaign by Honduran activists calling upon Hondurans to migrate north in protest of their president. One month later, the uproar and disbelief generated from Kim’s work is just the latest example of how the caravan’s movement toward the U.S. has been the target of dispute and widespread misinformation, and serves as a perfect illustration of how fake news stories are spread rapidly online. Consider the tweet below:

Tweet by twitter user Mike Allen — October 21, 2018

Seeing the gruesome photo attached to this tweet, it’s not difficult to understand why so much fear has exploded around the migrant crisis. However, a simple reverse image search of this tweet using a downloadable tool called Tin-eye presents a link that reveals the picture was actually taken six years earlier during 2012 riots in Mexico City, in which police officers detained over 100 protesting students.

A reverse image search — October 31, 2018

The above image search took less than 10 seconds. And yet, when twitter user Mike Allen expressed his outrage, more than 9,332 other users retweeted this image — not to mention the over 10,000 likes — without questioning any of its content. Is the tide of fake news then motivated by blatant disregard for the truth or, alternatively, sheer laziness? Unfortunately, such an analysis of fake news is unfair. Most news stories surrounding the caravan crisis have not been as black-and-white as the above one. Take this tweet by Twitter-certified user Charlie Kirk, which was retweeted over 17,000 times:

Tweet by twitter user Charlie Kirk — October 28, 2018

Unlike the example of the Mexican riot police, Kirk’s claims were not unfounded and were echoed by other twitter users as well. According to an article printed in the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said,“We have arrested almost 100 people highly linked to terrorist groups, specifically ISIS.” Right-wing advocacy group Judicial Watch also published a piece entitled “100 ISIS Terrorists Caught in Guatemala as Central American Caravan Heads to U.S.,” citing the original Prensa Libre article as its source.

To add a final degree of legitimacy, President Trump tweeted that there were “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” mixed into the Caravan. Here, we have a primary source from Guatemala, tweets sourcing each other, and a presidential stamp of approval. By taking this story and its alleged sources at face value, the typical reader would assume the migrant caravan had been infiltrated by ISIS.

But such an assumption is incorrect. Further investigation by well-known fact-checking website Snopes revealed that while President Morales had made his announcement on October 11, 2018, the originally 160-member caravan began forming the next day on October 12th in Honduras, and did not cross the Guatemalan border until October 15th. These two examples display the inherent paradox at the heart of fake news dissemination: the near impossibility of distinguishing those who intend to misinform from those who spread information — whether via tweet or retweet. Some are simply unaware the information is false. So, if we cannot distinguish intent, as consumers of information, we are only left with one option: learning how to distinguish the real from the fake.

The simplest method of uncovering fake news is through a reverse image search, through platforms like Google or Tin-eye. However, when a news story lacks an image or the image is screen-capped from a video, it becomes more difficult to track down a story’s origins. At this point, social media users should turn to fact-checking platforms such as Snopes and Politifact to see if the news story has been debunked. If fact-checking website fail you, it’s important to question the sources of content curators’ claims. Take the tweet below as an example:

Tweet by twitter user @ExLibrisJJR — October 21, 2018

Politifact contacted the original photographer, Associated Press’s Fernando Antonio, to discover that the original was taken at a protest in Honduras. Although it was held in support of the caravan, it occurred after the participants themselves had left Honduras and passed through Guatemala. Fortunately for Twitter users, one of J.J. Rothschild’s replies questioned the validity of the story. Take a look at the result below:

Here, we present an open-question on the effectiveness in debunking fake news. Despite Twitter user @MignonetteBooks ’s declaration that “the article you [Rothschild] quote states that these people are in Honduras…so they can’t be a part of the caravan,” Rothschild simply replies “Where do you think most of the caravan people are coming from?!”

This exchange, while minimally impactful in terms of generating engagement, demonstrates that even when fake news stories, their authors, and their disseminators are questioned and even disproven, content curators simply deny the criticism or simply shrug off the mistake and continue to allow the tweet to be re-tweeted without any sort of clarification. Is the crusade against fake news thus doomed by the confirmation bias of social media users and the immortality of anything that goes up on the internet?

Further investigation is required to tackle such a broad question. For now, this small snapshot of the misinformation surrounding the caravan story demonstrates the imperativeness for vigilance and doubt when consuming media online. And of course, keep in mind that the story that is retweeted 20,000 times is in no way more inherently correct than the story retweeted 20 times. In fact, it may deserve an even more skeptical eye.

Be on the lookout for more investigations by the Human Rights Center’s Disinformation Team to help combat the disinformation surrounding political discourse and human rights.

The Human Rights Investigations Lab is a part of the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law. To learn more about HRC or the Lab, click here.

Human Rights Center

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Mahshad Badii

Written by

Researcher at the Disinformation Team at the Human Rights Investigations Lab, UC Berkeley Human Rights Center

Human Rights Center

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