Fake News · Information Warfare

Stopping Fake News: The Work Practices of Peer-to-Peer Counter Propaganda


 

Forthcoming in Journalist Studies. Preprint as of March 31, 2017. Please quote or cite the final published version rather than this one.

Maria Haigh, School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, USA & School of Information and Media, Siegen University, Germany. mhaigh@uwm.edu (Corresponding author)

Thomas Haigh, History Department, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, USA & School of Information and Media, Siegen University, Germany. thomas.haigh@gmail.com

Nadine I. Kozak, School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, USA kozakn@uwm.edu

Abstract:

When faced with a state-sponsored fake news campaign propagated over social media, in a process we dub “peer-to-peer propaganda,” a group of volunteer Ukrainian journalistic activists turned fact checking into a counter-propaganda weapon. We document the history of StopFake, describe its work practices, and situate them within the literatures on fact checking and online news practices. Our study of its work practices shows that StopFake employs the online media monitoring characteristic of modern journalism, but rather than imitating new stories it applies media literacy techniques to screen out fake news and inhibit its spread. StopFake evaluates news stories for signs of falsified evidence, such as manipulated or misrepresented images and quotes, whereas traditional fact checking sites evaluate nuanced political claims but assume the accuracy of reporting. Drawing on work from science studies, we argue that attention of this kind to social processes demonstrates that scholars can acknowledge that narratives are socially constructed without having to treat all narratives as interchangeable.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank our informants within StopFake, the anonymous reviewers, Lucas Graves for his comments on earlier version of this article, Christine Evans for her insights into Soviet media, and Dean Tomas Lipinski for

We would like to thank our informants within StopFake, the anonymous reviewers, Lucas Graves for his comments on earlier version of this article, Christine Evans for her insights into Soviet media, and Dean Tomas Lipinski for support given to this research by the School of Information Studies.

Stopping Fake News – 2 PREPRINT of article to appear in Journalism Studies

Introduction

Russia responded quickly when a popular revolt unseated Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Within days its military had seized the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia almost immediately annexed. In the months that followed, Russia channeled arms, volunteers, intelligence operatives, and eventually active duty troops into Eastern Ukraine where they fomented a civil war. This was the story told outside Russia. Russian media reported a CIA-engineered coup in which Nazis seized control of Ukraine and committed atrocity after atrocity. Russia extended its protection to Crimea after a spontaneous uprising by local militias, and it sent only humanitarian aid and civilian volunteers to Eastern Ukraine. This divergence of media narratives is not merely a nationalistic endorsement of Russia’s military campaign, but a crucial part of it. Russia is fighting a new kind of “hybrid warfare,” or “postmodern warfare,” in which military actions, propaganda, political activity, and online campaigns are seamlessly combined (Thomas 2014; Mitrokhin 2015). In 2017, Russia’s defense minister acknowledged the existence of an information warfare group within its military, saying that “propaganda needs to be clever, smart and efficient” (Isachenkov 2017).

In this paper we explore the new kinds of information work devised by StopFake, a volunteer organization, to fight this weaponization of fake news. Founded by young Ukrainian journalists in March 2014, StopFake drew selectively on Western practices of “fact-checking,” an increasingly common and prominent activity in which journalists take a controversial claim and evaluate its truth using publicly available data and the opinions of experts. StopFake’s mission was to analyze a large volume of information and only publish what they could prove false. If the claim seemed untruthful, but was impossible to prove, or appeared to be partially correct, StopFake remained silent. While StopFake appropriated the cultural authority of fact checking, and appealed to the Western concepts of journalistic objectivity and civil society which underpin it, its activist character and decision to publish only debunkings, rather than evaluations, set it apart from Western models such as the PolitiFact (Graves 2016; Stence, 2016).

Several authors examined StopFake’s activity as a case of volunteer fact checking and an information resistance project (Cottiero, Kucharski, Olimpieva, & Orttung 2015; BonchOsmolovskaya 2015; Pomerantsev 2015; Khaldarova & Pantti 2016). We, in contrast, frame our study of Stopfake within the broader study of online news practices and of fact checking work. The monitoring and evaluation activities conducted by StopFake.org have a lot in common with those practiced by other modern journalists (Boczkowski 2010). Between the spring of 2014 and the fall of 2015, our period of observation, StopFake’s work practices functioned via email and social media. A rotating core of twelve people in Kiev, including journalistic, editorial, and technical staff, coordinated work. A larger international network of online volunteers submitted stories for evaluation, provided translation services, and worked collaboratively to locate counter evidence.

In addition to changing practices in newsrooms around the world, the Internet also allows for citizen participation in news reporting. Modern online infrastructure, such as inexpensive web hosting and open source content management systems, makes it much easier for volunteers to collaborate online and to produce a professional-looking website. Allan (2006) notes that with the Internet, “a multitude of users could harness the power of distributed information to connect with one another in meaningful dialogue” (p. 52), leading to citizen Stopping Fake News – 3 PREPRINT of article to appear in Journalism Studies involvement in reporting on events including Hurricane Katrina and the London bombings. Reese, Rutigliano, Hyun, and Jeong (2007) found a complementary relationship between mainstream journalists and citizen media. Indeed, they note “the blogosphere weaves together citizen and professional voices in a way that extends the public sphere beyond the boundaries policed by the traditional news media” (p. 276). This was the case with StopFake, a project that combined journalists trained at the leading journalism school in Ukraine, concerned citizens located around the world with needed language or technical skills, and content both accessed through, and disproved by information found on, the Internet.

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