Battling online misinformation and debunking viral lies

The panel Battling online misinformation and debunking viral lies was not been the first time nor the first year in the International Journalism Festival to discuss about the spreading of hoaxes in the web.

However, while this phenomenon keeps filling websites and social media, there is some good news: the trend to look for and debunk this false information is increasing as well.

This panel discussion showed some successful examples of obstinate journalists who work hard to unveil these hoaxes and to teach other professionals and citizens how to pick out what is reliable and what is not.

Craig Silverman, founder and editor of Regret the Error and Emergent websites, is today an internationally recognised expert on the topic. He introduced the conversation exposing the different players creating or helping to spread this false information.

Some of the most known, he said, are official sources of propaganda; individual hoaxes creators, such as twitter users; and all kind of fake news websites. However, thanks to the social networks, the key rumour’s spreaders today are precisely unintentional propagators. “Those individuals who share something thinking it is real and creating a wave of people replicating it before they realise it was not”.

“Many people want to read things because they find them funny, they don’t care more whether they are true or false”, said Luca Sofri, founder and editor of Il Post. “But this is not just about curiosities such as the woman with a third breast. We are talking about false news about a new Egyptian attack to Lybia or about a vaccination causing deaths, which are published by national Italian media that does not even need to be ashamed the next day.”

Margo Gontar, co-founder and editor of StopFake, works to avoid mainly the first type of hoaxers, those looking for propaganda. Her website was born in 2014 to stop all the faked and twisted information about the Ukraine conflict that Russian media were publishing. “There were dozens of stories, photos and videos taken from other countries or dates and presented as news”.

Verifying this content is easy in many cases. “The problem is that readers of these sites don’t want to research the material in order to realise that it comes from other total different story,” she said.

Jack Werner, social media editor of the Swedish edition of Metro, gave the keys in this line of verification: “A story always needs images, names, a place, a time, a source. Without any of these elements it is not a complete story”, so you can doubt about its reliability.

His Fact-checking website, Viralgranskaren, works to verify or debunk false news and urban myths. He said that the public had been very grateful with this job: “You are working with stuff that nobody was working before and lifting the standards of the whole newsroom”.

From her experience, Margo Gontar said: “It’s hard, but some people have told us about having changed somebody’s mind thanks to our work; showing them that many things they believed were based on lies.”

Nevertheless, all speakers agreed that it is difficult to make people change their mind or accept that they spread some hoax for a lack of verification. “You shouldn’t say to people ‘you are fool because you believed false news’, people want to show that they know more than the others and they will never recognise that,” said Luca Sofri.

Instead of just debunking a story, they concluded, journalists should provide readers with an alternative one. It seems that the future of journalists’ work will not be just about telling what is happening, but about verifying what is true and false from the information already told.

Teresa López