News Clip: Quick update on our top story. Breaking news of multiple attacks. Right now police are trying to put together exactly what happened here, but here’s what I can tell you, I’m being told– We’re hearing more heartbreaking stories about the victims. It’s astonishing. It’s momentous. It’s has no precedent in modern times.
Jordan: A lot of people spring into action. The moment, major news breaks. Especially when that news is a tragedy. First responders, of course, are first, but also governments and reporters and editors in news organizations, and they’re far from the only ones. Because as soon as a story hits. Particularly if the news is global and especially if it’s politically charged another industry ramps up. This industry exists on social media. It specializes in hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other forms of disinflation. These things are designed to elicit an emotional reaction to drive engagement and to drown out all the credible reporting that’s being done by legitimate news gatherers. And far too often it achieves exactly that purpose, unless someone can debunk at fast enough and get the word out far enough to stop it from spreading. That would be where today’s guest comes in. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Jane Lytvynenko is a disinflation reporter at Buzzfeed news. If you follow the headlines this week, you know, she’s probably been busy.
Jane: That’s right. Perpetually online.
Jordan: And so I, and I say this without meaning to be a sarcastic, but how of the past 48 hours been for you?
Jane: It has been overwhelming. Breaking news situations, create an information vacuum. Uh, everybody really wants to know what’s going on, but details take time. Um, and in that information vacuum, disinformation is just rampant. It’s everywhere. It’s all over the place. Um, so it’s, it’s, it’s really overwhelming to see the amount of falsehoods out there, the amount of conspiracy theories, um, and now we’re sort of just waiting to see which one of them will take hold.
Jordan: Can you explain, I guess what it is you do in the moment when something like that happens? So, for example, Tuesday night word starts to come out that Iran has fired missiles at US bases in Iraq, and that’s kind of all anyone knows. What do you do?
Jane: So, like everybody else, I immediately go on social media. I start by searching what people are saying. I have two separate sort of streams that I look at. One is a stream of reporters, researchers, uh, um, news outlets. Anybody who I know to be a reliable source. Um, and stream is important because even though in the moment, uh, people who know their stuff will get things wrong, you can sort of see the information that’s coming in and the general outline of it so you know what you can expect. And then the other stream is what’s popular, what is spreading on social media, uh, what is getting a lot of retweets, getting a lot of shares, getting a lot of comments. And that’s when we sort of start looking for disinformation. In this case, the majority of disinformation that we saw were images and videos. So what this means is as soon as I saw something that was claiming, it was featuring, um, an image or a video of the attack, I would fact check it.
Jordan: How do you do that?
Jane: It can be very easy and very difficult at the same time. Um, so in order to know that you need to fact check something, you need to understand what the situation is already. And a part of that is sort of understanding what was this missile strike like, what were the weapons used, what would it have looked like? And then you sort of go through– you go through the associated hashtags, the associated keywords and you look for images that don’t seem right. You know, if it’s an image of a big explosion or a big rocket firing, that doesn’t really match with the type of weapons that were used. And from there, it can be pretty simple. If it’s an image, you can just right click and reverse Google search, uh, the image and see whether it is from tonight, or if it’s appeared somewhere else before. So we’ve seen images, uh, from– going back as far as 2009 used and attack, it used to represent attacks in the last few hours. Videos are a little bit more difficult than there’s some tools that we use. Um, but there’s also just false information. One of the biggest pieces of disinformation that we saw was people claiming false casualty counts. And as a matter of fact, the words US 30, or rather 30 US sorry, started trending within the US uh, because that’s how many people were spreading this bad information. There were no U S casualties that we know of on either basis so far, but people were spreading this false hoods so widely that it showed up in the Twitter trending tags, which reinforced the false hood.
Jordan: Right. And where did it come from originally? Were you able to track down where it started?
Jane: That’s a really good question and it’s very difficult to quantify. We’ve seen quite a few, uh, campaigns online, trying to sow confusion both from, um, pro-Iranian, uh, um, narratives, anti-Iranian narratives. Saudi Arabia got in on the action. And um, people in North America who were watching, who didn’t know what was going on or maybe had some political aim. We’re also spreading this information. So there are a lot of people sort of transcending digital borders and piling onto the situation at a time when nobody knew, which makes it extremely difficult to trace back individual pieces of disinformation. Especially because content on the internet, you know, it doesn’t live very long and sometimes you have to really dig to find out who the originator is.
Jordan: So in general in the moment, cause now I want to ask this question cause you mentioned that you have two feeds and one is the reliable information and one is what’s popular. Tell me they overlap, like at least in general.
Jane: Sometimes. We are very lucky because we still have reporters, uh, who were in, um, in the area who could explain what was going on. Um, there are researchers who are keeping an eye on this sort of stuff, and sometimes they do overlap.
Jordan: And that shows up in the popular stuff as well as the misinformation.
Jane: Yes. But the thing with misinformation and disinformation is that it’s very emotional. And when it’s emotional, people share it much more than a straight lazed here’s what’s happening in the situation. And so unfortunately, in breaking news situations, much of what we see of the top content is that false content.
Jordan: Why do people do this? Is it, I mean, I know there’s a political bend to it. We’ve kind of– we all have heard about how Russia is attempting to sow discord in the US but for political purposes for engagement, do you make money doing this kind of stuff?
Jane: There are definitely people who are seeking to profit financially from breaking news situations, but that’s not always the biggest reason why people do this. In a breaking news situations, there’s people whose interests lie in that situation being interpreted a certain way. So for instance, uh, Iran showed false images of the attack because, I’m speculating here, they looked much more impressive than the images of the actual attack. Um, likewise, you know, saying that there is a, that there have been US casualties does also potentially play towards Iran’s agenda because they want to look like they are intimidating. They want to look like they’ve caused damage. Um, but there’s also clout chasers, people who spread disinformation just to be popular on the internet, just for it to get pickup, just for it, for their name, for their image to be associated with a popular piece of information to get more followers.
Jordan: You’ve been doing this kind of thing for at least a couple of years now.
Jane: Three years, yeah.
Jordan: Are the people who spread this stuff and share this stuff getting better and more sophisticated, or are we getting better at sussing it out, or maybe both?
Jane: It’s definitely a little bit of both. Um, so there’s a few different actors that are involved in disinformation. One is the audience, and I am extremely proud of the audience because people are learning to verify the information that they share or are learning to hold back information that they think might not be verified. Um, so many people contact me and say, Hey, I don’t want to share this because I don’t know what’s up, but I’m just want to make sure that you see it. And that is really great. It shows a level of social media literacy that we might not have had a few years ago. Then there’s the social media networks. Um, you know, it’s a big question of how they respond to disinformation. And unfortunately, even though they have put in fact checking measures, um, and have created fact-checking partnerships, uh, we do still see very slow or a lack of action from social media networks to take this down.
And the last part of this, of course, as you mentioned, is the people who spread disinformation. And you’re right, they are getting much more sophisticated. They don’t always need to, um, fake images have. Are very easy to spread. You know, you, you, you save and then you upload. And then you say that it’s from a certain night and then you’re done. But, uh, in taking a step back and outside of breaking news situations, we see professionalization of disinformation. We definitely see people offering disinformation as a service. Um, we see—
Jordan: What do you mean by that?
Jane: This is from a separate report that, uh, we just published, um, with my colleagues at Buzzfeed news. And what we’re seeing is PR firms offering disinformation, uh, the spread of disinformation as a service. Um, so whether it’s false news articles or. Or fall fake personas on Facebook, writing comments to bolster somebody’s reputation, um, or spreading around memes and videos, which, uh, in my opinion, is the most dangerous form of disinformation because it’s just so catchy. Um, we definitely see bad actors sort of double down on their efforts to continue spreading disinformation.
Jordan: They’re offering the service in public, on the marketplace.
Jane: Yeah, sometimes. Absolutely. Yeah. You know, sometimes you have to know who to call, but, uh, we sampled investigations from all around the world, and we found that in many places, disinformation, or social media manipulation, uh, really is a, a fairly prevalent and popular service that PR firms offer. Sometimes PR firms that aren’t on the books, but they’re still there.
Jordan: If the bad actors are also getting better and the audience is getting better, but the networks aren’t, what’s one big thing in your mind that if, if the social media networks wanted to take this more seriously, they could do that would make a real difference in what you see on there?
Jane: Am I allowed to just say, take away the share button?
Jordan: The person who invented the retweet button has come out and said that maybe that was a bad thing.
Jane: It was a mistake. But I think, um, I think. There are a couple of things to take into consideration. One is that it’s people who are spreading this and it’s people who are falling for it and we need to understand the human, the human portion of this problem. There have been online scammers for as long as there has been an online, um, and that’s never going to go away. But for social media networks, they need to reconsider how they rate popularity of the content and how they calibrate their algorithms. Um, there have been many advocates for algorithmic transparency who argue that people need to understand why something has been put in front of their eyes. Um, if you think about it on Facebook, it’s not a newspaper. You don’t have any control to figure out why something was put on the front page, and I think that that is an argument that makes a lot of sense.
Jordan: You mentioned back at the beginning of this conversation when we were talking about the two feeds that you sometimes see responsible media people caught up in disinformation campaigns by accident. What happens when you debunk those myths that are spreading in the moment. Do you see retractions and followups and do they actually fix the problem?
Jane: Well, that’s the big difference between a professional reporter and someone who’s not part of a professional organization, is that professional reporters do have an obligation to issue a correction, to issue a retraction. And also they have a legal liability if they spread a disinformation. Um, and a lot of people don’t sort of understand that, and not everybody is going to see that retraction or that correction when it comes, but it also means that you do have a reliable source of information who you can trust to issue that retraction. Unlike with, you know, anonymous accounts who are out there trying to tweet the news or, uh, post the news on Facebook and Facebook groups. The difficulty is that we’re all susceptible. We’re all humans. We all making mistakes. We’re all going to fall for a mistake. And I would say that in a breaking news situation, the best thing you can do as a person who wants to know what’s going on is just follow a handful of people. Um, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, diversify the reporting that you’re looking for. Look at a few different outlets. If one of them will make a mistake, then the other two will not. And that’s sort of the best thing we can hope for. And it’s, it’s, it’s a lot to ask of people. Um, it is a lot to ask of people, but what the situation that we’re in now, it’s sort of the best approach that we can have during breaking news situations.
Jordan: Once something like 30 US starts to take hold. Does it ever get put back in the bottle?
Jane: No, never. Uh, we see, uh, what we call zombie hoaxes, uh, resurface years after they began. Absolutely. Um, the most famous one is, I think. Many people have seen an image of a shark swimming in a highway. Um, you know, looking as if it’s taken out of a car window. And that image has been around since 2012 that is eight years of the same hoax being circulated. And unfortunately, there are still people who fall for it. Um, so once something is out there, it very rarely gets put back in the box.
Jordan: Great. That’s a cheery note to end on.
Jane: Yeah. Very sorry to be the bearer of bad news here.
Jordan: Thank you so much for helping us kind of unpack this.
Jane: Thank you so much for having me. Please think before you share
Jordan: Jane Lytvynenko, a disinflation reporter with Buzzfeed news. That was The Big Story. 100% true. No hoaxes, no conspiracies. If you want more of them, they’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca. We are also on Twitter along with the rest of the world. You can find us at @thebigstoryfpn if you want more podcasts, we are in every podcast player you could possibly hope for if it allows you to do so. We would love it if you’d give us a rating. Give us a review. Tell us what you like. And if you must tell us what you don’t. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of the big story. Ryan Clark and Stephanie Phillips are our associate producers, Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening and we will talk on Monday.
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