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Facebook Fact-Checkers: Ukraine Targeted By 'Unprecedented' Coronavirus 'Infodemic'

Long on the frontlines of Europe’s information wars, Ukraine has now also become a hot spot for what the World Health Organization terms an “infodemic” of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and fake news about COVID-19 that spread even faster than the disease itself.

Facebook ranks as the country’s most popular social network, according to traffic analyses. In late March, the U.S. company expanded its fact-checking operations to Ukraine, signing on two local groups, StopFake and VoxCheck, as local partners. Among post-Soviet countries, such a partnership had previously only existed in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Like other third-party Facebook fact-checkers, scrutinizing information about the coronavirus pandemic has become the Ukrainian team’s priority.

Who Checks For Fake Facebook Posts In Ukraine

Practically all of the false information that the Ukrainian fact-checkers have uncovered in a few weeks of work with Facebook is connected with the coronavirus.

“I’ve never seen such a volume of fakes and manipulations before,” commented Maksim Skubenko, editor-in-chief of VoxCheck, a fact-checking organization set up in Kyiv by the economic-political analysis center VoxUkraine.

The findings include everything “from harmless recipes for homemade tea that will strengthen your immunity and save you from the coronavirus to disinformation from China and Russia about what the coronavirus is, how it appeared, and that, in the future, it can lead to the removal of sanctions against Russia,” Skubenko elaborated. “That is, they [ the fake-news creators] are already laying some kind of foundation for the next several years.”

Fake information about the Ukrainian army characterizes much of the false news about the pandemic spread among Facebook’s Ukrainian users, noted StopFake fact-checker Olena Churanova. Such posts can claim “that they allegedly shoot those who get sick with the coronavirus, that doctors are being fired, and don’t want to treat sick military personnel.”

Such information threatens not only how well people understand the crisis, but also their health, she underlined.

“For example, understating the pandemic’s danger can influence citizens’ attitude toward quarantine rules, toward safety rules promoted by the WHO [World Health Organization]: hand washing, social distancing, and similar things.”

Facebook, which works with more than 60 fact-checking partners in over 50 languages, emphasizes the need for local input in combatting fake information about the pandemic. “We can’t do this on our own, and we also don’t consider that we can act as arbitrators and decide what is the truth and what isn’t,” said Kateryna Kruk, the Facebook public policy manager for Ukraine.

The network asks local partners to focus on identifying “the worst of the worst; clear disinformation and fake news that can be harmful and cause confusion,” she said. “And, of course, in the current situation, fake news concerning the outbreak of COVID-19 has a high priority.”

Eight people from StopFake and six people from VoxCheck now are checking posted information for Facebook. It can take them anywhere from 20 minutes to several days to verify a single post.

To become a partner of Facebook’s fact-checking program, organizations have to go through an outside review and sign the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network’s Code Of Principles.

StopFake and VoxCheck’s talks with the social network lasted around a year and a half, but sped up considerably when the coronavirus pandemic started.

Both groups have a long track record for fact-checking in Ukraine.

StopFake, part of the Media Reforms Center, a non-governmental organization connected with the Kyiv Mohyla Journalism School, has worked since 2014 on checking and rebutting thousands of incorrect news items about Ukraine from Russian media.

“Of course, the ones that cause the biggest stir are the most ridiculous,” commented Churanova. Allegations that Ukrainian children are forced to play with plush Hitler dolls or that Ukrainian military personnel are taking away civilians’ cattle in the disputed territory of Donbas are among those instances, she said.

VoxCheck began its own work in 2016 with classic fact-checking of Ukrainian politicians and, later, experts and media as well. To date, it has released around 7,000 “citations,” as the team calls its fact-checked materials.

More or less every prominent Ukrainian politician has come under the VoxCheck fact-checkers’ scrutiny, said Skubenko.

Thanks to the infodemic, he expects VoxCheck’s database of fact-checks to expand to as many as 10,000 within the next six months.

What And How Do Fact-Checkers Check Information?

Checking information for Facebook does not essentially differ from the usual checks that these two organizations conducted earlier.

News that generates a lot of complaints from users is not the only content that comes under their scrutiny.

If Facebook’s algorithm detects that symbols are used in a news item or post to circumvent prohibitions on certain words or if a post is instantly picked up by 100-some groups these trigger alarms.

Facebook fine tunes its algorithms in parallel with the fact-checkers’ work. “We use information from the checks to study our model of machine learning so that we have the option to catch more potential fake news and do that faster,” said the social network’s Kruk.

Facebook recently has come under strong criticism for missing much false information that is distributed in languages other than English. The network has announced plans to highlight fake news at the top of users’ feeds and to direct them to the World Health Organization’s list of coronavirus myths.

Skubenko concedes that the fight against coronavirus misinformation in Ukraine is still just getting started. “In this area [of fact-checking], Facebook still hasn’t had to deal with the Ukrainian and Russian languages very much,” he said.

The Ukrainian fact-checkers handle everything that surfaces in the newsfeeds of users registered in Ukraine, no matter what the post’s origin.

Information that the two groups determine to be false, however, will carry that tag throughout Facebook. VoxCheck is now clarifying whether the project will also be able to check information that is not circulating among Ukraine-registered users, but is aimed at Ukraine, added Skubenko.

While greater experience fact-checking makes for faster verifications, the Ukrainian fact-checking team does not expect to be able to verify all information that Ukraine-based users share.

“This isn’t realistic. No one can ever do this,” said Skubenko. But once a post is blocked, even if it has been shared 200,000 times among Ukraine-registered users, they won’t see it anymore, he noted.

What Happens To False Information

After verifying that a piece of information is inaccurate or misleading, a fact-checker always writes an explanation to substantiate the finding.

A post that contains manipulative or false information can be “significantly” demoted in users’ newsfeeds or even lead to a block on the community on whose page it was first published.

“Pages and domains that are constantly sharing such news will lose the possibility of monetizing and advertising their content,” commented Facebook’s Kruk. Also, aside from being designated as questionable information, a link to the fact-checkers’ analysis will be attached to the information.

“Besides that, when we notice a new iteration of a content fragment that has already earlier been defined as a fake and rejected, we send it to our fact-checkers to verify,” said Kruk.

The Easiest Ways To Identify Fake Information

But ordinary users can often figure out that they’re looking at false information without waiting for a fact-check and official tagging.

The first thing worth paying attention to is the source of the information, the Ukrainian fact-checkers noted.

“If a gardener from Madrid writes that the coronavirus can be cured with a such-and-such medicine, then it is possible to believe this post? Does the person have the expertise to write about this?” elaborated VoxCheck’s Skubenko.

The content’s emotionality is the second sign. “If you look at how information wars are conducted or how situations are fired up, they use emotions, sometimes profanities, a sensational shock,” Skubenko continued. “I won’t say that such information is 100 percent fake, but there’s a very large likelihood that it’s either fake or an attempt at manipulation.”

Besides that, whether or not the comes from a reliable, qualified source is important.

“In good journalism or in a post, you won’t run into the phrases ‘according to the opinion of many sources,’ ‘everyone says,’ ‘you all know that,’” underlined Skubenko. “There’re always some kinds of references there; for instance, if an economist said this, and not someone who, in the end, turned out to be a janitor.”

Misrepresenting illustrations is more difficult. “The simplest analysis with the help of Google Image Search will show whether they used this photograph five years ago in a completely different context,” said StopFake’s Churanova.

She noted that manipulation of information, rather than outright lies, has become popular now. Published information can include authentic facts that are misrepresented to support a given conclusion.

Both StopFake and VoxCheck underline that a more reliable way to check information is to send it for verification through feedback forms or social networks.

“You know this joke: ‘Why have all my friends on Facebook suddenly become infectious disease specialists? They used to be such good political analysts,’” commented Skubenko.

“This isn’t just a top topic,” he said of the coronavirus pandemic. “I already don’t know where to hide from it and am nostalgic for the days when politicians’ lies were my biggest problem. [By comparison,] that was a wonderful time!”

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