Facebook fact-checkers fight to debunk Ukraine war misinformation

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First came a one-minute video taken on the streets of Bucha, a Kyiv suburb abandoned by retreating Russian forces. The footage showed numerous bodies, civilians in winter coats, scattered along the muddy roads like leaves on a fall day.

Then came the deluge of misinformation: On social media, some argued the images were fake, that the bodies were actors pretending to be dead. Others falsely claimed the Ukrainian military had slain their own countrymen.

It fell to Valeriia Stepaniuk, 22, to set things straight.

Stepaniuk fact-checks content for Facebook as part of her job at a think tank called VoxUkraine. After scouring credible news sources — such as a BBC article that said satellite imagery disproved Russian claims that the Bucha footage was staged — she and a handful of colleagues are compiling a report to debunk the misinformation flooding social media.

“It was hard to write about this, to see everything the first several times,” Stepaniuk said from her home in the Western city of Lutsk. “But now I understand I can’t ignore this. Everyone should see the photos and understand the scale of tragedy.”

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Stepaniuk is part of a small group of independent fact-checkers in Ukraine who have long worked with Facebook to identify falsehoods on their social networks. When such outside groups determine a post is false, Facebook decreases its visibility in users’ news feeds and attaches a warning label pointing them to an explanation from the fact-checker.

The role of these fact-checkers has become more critical since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. VoxUkraine started as a blog by economists in 2014, when Ukraine’s president decided not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, prompting a wave of protests. Now, the think tank is part of a nascent coalition determined to slow the spread of misinformation about the war. These groups bolster Facebook’s own algorithms and thousands of content moderators who police content that breaks its rules.

Before the war, there were no groups assigned to fact-check posts in Russia, according to a Washington Post review, and only two examining content in Ukraine: VoxUkraine and StopFake. Now, there are eight additional groups policing misinformation in the region.

The stakes are high, as social media is increasingly becoming a tool of modern warfare. Ukrainians and Russians have both been turning to social media to win hearts and minds around the world as the bloody conflict destroys Ukrainian infrastructure, claims thousands of lives and sends refugees flooding into neighboring countries.

Both VoxUkraine and StopFake have lost workers to the front lines. Those who stayed behind have had to fit fact-checking into days filled with planning for escape to Western cities or taking cover during particularly violent moments.

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“It was very frustrating moment because you need to come to terms with the reality of war,” said StopFake editor in chief Yevhen Fedchenko. “The challenge was how are we going to operate a business in the fog of war.”

Meta spokesperson Ayobami Olugbemiga said in a statement that during the invasion the company has “been providing significant resources to fact-checkers covering Eastern Europe to increase their capacity to help slow the spread of misinformation about the war in Ukraine and help ensure their safety.”

Facebook, which was recently renamed Meta, has long faced criticism of its role in spreading misinformation globally, particularly in the midst of elections and global conflicts.

Last month, the tech giant announced it had taken down a network of accounts that were operating from Russia and Ukraine to target people there with claims that Western nations were betraying their country. A pair of whistleblower complaints filed to the Justice and Treasury departments in December and February allege that the company has allowed sanctioned entities and individuals to spread Russian propaganda on Facebook and Instagram.

The company has hired thousands of content moderators and has trained its algorithms to catch misinformation that breaks the site’s rules on hate speech and other issues. But it also started adding organizations like VoxUkraine and StopFake following the 2016 election, paying independent news outlets and small media organizations to debunk misinformation.

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Those organizations are members of the International Fact-Checking Network, which sets editorial standards for fact-checking organizations and is run by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit research organization. Facebook is also frequently their member organizations’ largest source of revenue.

VoxUkraine, StopFake and others get access to a special dashboard, where they see a list of potential posts and links in a specific region that could be debunked, according to representatives of several fact checking organizations. Then fact-checkers like Stepaniuk can pick what they want to focus on, relying on government records, press reports and software to help identify false statements, misleading news and doctored imagery.

For example, Stepaniuk recently focused her attention on an article with anonymous sources posted on Facebook claiming the United States planned to send the Afghanistan military to fight in Ukraine. She and her colleagues began scouring the Internet for evidence that could support a written explanation about why it wasn’t true.

They found a news report about a news conference held before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which President Biden said he would not send troops to Ukraine. They also noticed that Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, reiterated that argument in March. And they pointed out that the Afghan National Army had collapsed when the Taliban took over the country last August. They posted an article publishing the results of their findings.

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Months before Russia invaded, the Ukrainian-based StopFake was already developing contingency plans in case war broke out. They acted on warnings from foreign intelligence officials about Russia’s increasing aggressiveness, Fedchenko said. He took those reports seriously in part because they kept seeing Russian propaganda that offered new twists on old claims such as Ukraine is a failed, fascist state and the Ukrainian military plans to take back control of Crimea with force.

“We have been looking at disinformation for eight years and for us it was obvious that it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning,” Fedchenko said. “That gives you a very kind of special attitude because we have a very small team of people who are fighting against a huge machinery of lies.”

StopFake started working on an editorial plan to cover the war. The group also mulled potential measures to shore up the security of their technological systems. And they thought about how to ensure their employees could get to safety in the event that Kyiv, where the group is based, was surrounded quickly by Russian forces, Fedchenko said.

Just a couple of days before Russia’s invasion, traffic was unusually high at Russian state-backed propaganda channels on Facebook and YouTube, which were promoting false claims about the war such as that Ukrainians had attacked Russians, according to a Post data analysis.

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The day Russia invaded, VoxUkraine staffers spent their morning Zoom call developing new products to fight misinformation about the war on the Internet, said Svitlana Slipchenko, the head of VoxUkraine’s fact-checking arm. The group decided to further expand their fact checking program beyond Facebook to emerging platforms such as Telegram, where it seemed Russia propaganda was migrating. It also decided to launch a podcast to tell Ukrainians positive news about the war.

After their meeting, VoxUkraine managers began calling on their staff members to check in. Many of them talked about their plans to flee to cities in Western-Ukraine such as Sumy and Kryvyi Rih. Some privately told their bosses they wanted to take a mental health break for a few days before returning to work. For others, debunking viral falsehoods was a welcome respite from the chaos of the invasion, said Slipchenko.

“In some days, I just wanted to sit at the floor and cry about all that’s happening in Ukraine now,” Slipchenko said about the early days of the invasion from her Kviv apartment, where she has heard explosions and seen smoke billowing from the city streets. “The work was the main factor that helped me deal with this situation. I know that I’m on the informational front of this war.”

That day Maksym Skubenko sat in his apartment mulling his next move to fight the Russian invaders. As chief executive of VoxUkraine, Skubenko had already mapped out contingency plans to swap intelligence with the government, and knew his 25-person team could function without him. So Skubenko, 30, chugged a couple small glasses of whiskey and took a taxi to enlist. Instead of using a computer to patrol the digital front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine, he chose to fight with a gun.

“We need to fight,” Skubenko said in a Zoom interview. “We need to become stronger and stronger — even stronger than we are right now — and to fight them because they will never stop.”

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Three employees of StopFake’s 15-member team also temporarily left their posts to go fight in the war but Fedchenko replaced them by recruiting among alumni of the journalism school where he works.

After the conflict began, Facebook barred Russian state-controlled media outlets from advertising and said it demoted its content on its social networks. The company also started reaching out to a handful of organizations in nearby countries to ask them if they could also fact-check content appearing in Ukraine and Russia. And it added additional groups.

Georgia-based Myth Detector is one organization that expanded its capacity to catch viral propaganda about the war. After the invasion, Meta expanded its agreement with the fact-checking site so the group could also debunk falsehoods appearing in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, according to Tamar Kintsurashvili, executive director of the Media Development Foundation, which started the site. To cope with the influx of Russian disinformation, the organization hired one additional Russian speaker and reallocated two others who speak the language to focus on fact checking, Kintsurashvili said.

Latvia-based fact-checking group Re:Check was asked by Facebook to start checking content in Russia and Ukraine. Re:Check editor Evita Puriņa said their three-person team is still primarily focused on checking posts targeted at Latvian audiences, not the posts appearing in the other countries. Purina added that the group’s resources are “quite limited” but they decided to add another fact-checker.

“We realized soon enough we don’t have resources enough to cover the war,” said Puriņa. “Comparing to January, for example, I would say we have tripled our amount of work.”

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Lead Stories, a global debunking website, has also started fact-checking Russian and Ukrainian language content. The group, which also has a partnership with TikTok, said last month it was onboarding at least half a dozen native speakers to handle posts about the war.

“We’re building the runway as the airplane is taking off,” said co-founder Alan Duke.

More than a hundred fact-checking groups around the world have also joined in to help debunk viral rumors about the conflict in their respective countries. The groups are coordinating so they don’t duplicate efforts trying to fact-check the same myths — a strategy they developed while policing misinformation about the covid-19 pandemic. Now, the groups are pooling their debunked posts into a database and posting them on the website, #UkraineFacts. So far, there are more than 1,000 debunked posts on the site.

“The key lesson was like immediate collaboration,” said Enock Nyariki, community and impact manager for the International Fact-Checking Network. “During covid, it was quite slow but I think this collaboration has benefited greatly from our initial working together.”

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Facebook’s fact-checking model — one of its primary methods of policing potential falsehoods on its sites — has some critics. Some have alleged that the outside groups can be too ideologically aligned to fairly determine what’s true. Others question whether fact checking is a function Facebook should be taking on in-house.

The issue has caught the attention of at least one member of Facebook’s Oversight Board, an independent group of journalists, human rights experts and academics funded by the company and tasked with overseeing the company’s content moderation decisions.

“These organizations do not have any oversight,” Oversight Board member Michael McConnell said about Facebook’s fact-checking model.

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On the front lines of the war, many are doing their best.

Kyrylo Perevoshchykov, 23, spends his nights on a mattress on the floor in the underground shelter at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, where he is getting a degree in international relations. During the days, he goes back up to his dorm room where he reads the news, catches up with friends and fact-checks posts on Facebook.

Sometimes, a loud siren warns him that it may be dangerous to be above ground so he heads back down to the shelter or to his windowless bathroom to take cover. Then it’s back up to his dorm to fact-check.

Last month, Perevoshchykov began looking into an online report that alleged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fled Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February. Perevoshchykov debunked it by checking news reports showing interviews and news conferences held by Zelensky in his office during the first four weeks of the war. He also saw videos published by Zelensky’s administration in which he mentions the popular viral piece of misinformation himself, Perevoshchykov said.

Perevoshchykov, who may have to join the armed services when he graduates this spring, said informational warfare is just as important as combat on the front lines, he said.

“It will be success for us that we prevent someone from falling into Russian lies and manipulation,” he said. “But there is also a feeling that you are not doing enough — that you could not only write fact checking, but you could also volunteer or maybe help your soldiers.”

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