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Outriders Meetup in Budapest: How To Navigate Disinformation

On March 21st, a week after we gathered in Sofia, Bulgaria to discuss cross-border investigations, Outriders Network hosted another meetup, this time in Budapest. Our guests — Sarah Emler an Austrian journalist from ORF, Tommasso Canetta, an Italian fact-checker from Pagella Politica and Meri Jordanovska, a Macedonian investigative journalist working at the MakFax agency — arrived at Brody Studios (possibly the coolest venue we got to host an event in so far!) to talk about disinformation — what it is, how it spreads and how to fight it.

Thank you to our partners, especially K-monitor in organising the event.

Curious about the details of the talks? Dive in!

Sarah Emler, ORF

“Let them eat cake” — do you know that Marie Antoinette didn’t really say that?

  • Disinformation is deeply rooted in our psychology
  • It didn’t start with social media
  • “Let them eat cake” — Marie Antoinette didn’t really say that
  • Great Moon Hoax, New York Magazine was a series of six articles that were published in The Sun, a New York newspaper, beginning on August 25, 1835, about the supposed discovery of life and even civilization on the Moon.
  • Spreading lies if only they are slightly difficult to prove to be lies, e.g. a picture of activist Lyudmyla Kozlovska and Soros named to be a picture of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser — Christine Blasey Ford.
  • Fake news is now a term used for everything
  • Disinformation is different from Misinformation
  • Disinformation is a spread lie
  • Misinformation is a wrong information spread in good faith, more like gossip than a lie
  • Why is it so easy to fall for misinformation? Because an easy solution is something that our brain craves for. We like scandals and are drawn to gossip.
  • A recommended read: “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser
  • There is a limit to complex and complicated information that we can process daily. Which is why we need ‘soft content’ — content we don’t have to digest too much
  • Algorithms recognise soft content as something exciting in spite of irony which we might have expressed while sharing it. Be cautious of what you share and post.
  • An experiment of Gulliame Chaslot, a former Google engineer who set up a program which simulated a user on Youtube videos and then analysed what were the videos being suggested to it. The experiment took 18 months. Most of the suggested videos had titles which we would consider scandalous
  • These algorithms were in part shaped by the infamous bots, but in most part, they were shaped by human behaviour.
  • What happened when we are presented with the truth? You usually only change your mind if “the truth’ is very close to what you believe in.
  • Trump made 8158 false or misleading claims in his first two years in office. That is 11 public claims of that nature per day.
  • Introducing the concept of framing: our belief system is our frame
  • For reference check: George Lakoff, “Conceptual metaphor”, “Embodied cognition.”
  • If we don’t find the ground of the common belief with a person who is trying to convince us to change our minds, we won’t.
  • European talks — an initiative by European media to make two Europeans with different views talk to each other and listen to each other: https://www.mycountrytalks.org/events/europe-talks
  • It is difficult to speak about facts in the context of ideology
  • Repetition → normalisation; every time we want to debunk something, we repeat it and as we repeat it we normalise it and promote it

Meri Jordanovska, Makfax Agency

“Not everyone who types can be a journalist and not every Facebook status is a story”

  • North Macedonia was called the land of fake news; during Donald Trump’s campaign, there were hundreds and hundreds of news site in a little town which few teenagers started spreading out.
  • Nikola Gruevski, our ex-prime minister started the era of fake news in Macedonia. They are close friends with Viktor Orban. They have a similar opinion on how the media should cover stories and how to construct the media ecosystem so, that journalists can’t even prove if something is or isn’t a lie.
  • A few years ago some new websites and one TV station with Hungarian owners appeared. One of the first topics that they have dealt with were refugee camps — they spread fake news about refugee camps being built in North Macedonia and about the threats it posed to the local communities.
  • In North Macedonia nobody seeks asylum, maybe 1% of the refugees do. No one wants to stay there. I don’t want to. However, the news initiated such a hysteria against refugees and their camps in North Macedonia that it ended up in the National News.
  • What you can’t find on these websites is names, surnames, and addresses or “about” information. Also, they are full of adverts. We don’t know how they do it because it is complicated to check how the money flows to the private media.
  • One of these sites published information that my apartment was bought for me by the opposition party. I tried to deny it in any possible way, but there were no contact details I could find to sue them. I said I had a bank loan and their info wasn’t true. It is impossible to prove who stands behind it. Well, I actually know it because Macedonia is a small country, but I can’t prove it at court.
  • It is how fake news spread — they end up quoting them on a national TV, and they call it “quoting”.
  • With some journalists, we then made a website called Mediapedia with a map of all ownership (if transparent) so that it would be possible for you to understand where your news comes from and what funds it.
  • It was then when the secret police started taping me and my friend’s phone. (He was also working on the website).
  • We have found an entire scheme and many companies (indulging offshore like the US or Belize) behind one specific site. We found connections. We have revealed a huge plan. The media was just one small example of how you can use media for business, propaganda and laundering money. It became big, and I am very proud of this work.
  • We live in a very polarised society, and self-regulation here doesn’t work. At the end of the day, people believe what they want to believe.
  • There must be a standard of who can be a journalist in a country. Because not everyone who can type can be a journalist and not every Facebook status is a story.
  • We just went through a period in North Macedonia when many people committed suicide. At some point, the news was born that they were all being kidnapped and killed for organs which were then sold. We were trying to prove that it was just an urban legend, we talked to the victim’s parents, we were trying to explain that the organs are still there, but nobody believed us.

Tommaso Canetta, Pagella Politica

“People want facts”

  • I am a fact-checker and the company I work for checks statements of politicians.
  • One of our clients is Facebook and we mostly sell them debunking. And then another one is a news agency where we actually do fact-check in its traditional sense. We also work with National Television.
  • What is our impact on the readers? We are still quite new, so people do not really know us and don’t really always trust us. They think fact-checkers are partisan and work for interest groups; they accuse us of being biased. It is mostly because we have lots of people calling themselves fact-checkers while they aren’t.
  • However, we do have some success. After the recent elections in Italy, a quite populist party came to power. They recently proposed “the citizenship minimum income”, the word citizenship played a role here suggesting that it is only Italian citizens who qualify. We fact-checked and proved very many times that what they say is actually not possible because of the European treaties, because of the Italian constitution we couldn’t provide this minimum income only to Italians — this is discrimination based on nationality. Every time we were getting attacked by the readers saying that we were biased and partisan.
  • So then the law was passed, and it referred not only to Italian citizens, but also other nationalities living in Italy. It proved that we were not partisan or biased and what we were saying all that time was right. The politicians, on the contrary, were lying.
  • What is our impact on journalists? Working for a news agency (second biggest in Italy) every day, from Monday to Friday, we check statements and then in the evening these statements are given to the media who have a subscription to the agency’s briefings.
  • What is sad is that very often journalists do not use our work; they don’t quote us either. It is actually sad especially in the context of TV where they do have politicians, live, saying the statements which we have already proved are false, and they don’t call them out on them. However, it does change slightly over time.
  • What is our impact on politicians? They can be quite clever; they can slightly change their wording, they do not want to admit they were wrong.
  • Mateo Renzi, the former prime minister of Italy, said that the sudden growth of Italian GDP was the biggest in Europe. It wasn’t true. Spain did it better, Ireland did it better, Cyprus did it better as well. We confronted him and told him he was wrong and he was like “Oh, sorry I forgot about Cyprus, what a big deal.” And he actually forgot about Spain as well, which is not a small country at all. However, even if he did mock us slightly, he did admit to being wrong, which counts.
  • Another example I have is about Salvini, our interior minister, who said that only Italy had 10 mandatory vaccines. It wasn’t true. We checked it during broadcasting (our director was present there), and we confronted him saying that, for example, France adopted a law like that. Salvini then offended him saying that he should study better. But the next day we wrote another statement saying again that we were right. He probably read it… He didn’t change his mind. But he stopped saying untruth...
  • Most of the time, however, the politicians try to ignore us. It is a problem. However, I would like to end it with some optimism. The people are hungry for facts because they want to base their discussions on merit. If the people demand it, the journalists will go after it. I think we are on a growth path and there are more and more fact-checkers across Europe. Of course, we need to make sure that fact-checkers remain independent so that our name stays clean.

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