Spreaders of online disinformation are mounting a war on truth. Annelie Frank is ready to help journalists stay the course. She is on the frontline of the battle and she’d like Swedish media to join in and fight fake news more assertively.
Fake news has been making the rounds during the last couple of years and the expression is now a household name. Propaganda, rumors and misleading or false news is nothing new, of course. Even in ancient Athens Plato battled against what he perceived as Homer’s epic war-mongering in works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, and against the democracy-bashing demagogues who were spreading lies in the agora.
With increasing distrust in institutions such as the news media and politics, and through social media and the internet, demagoguery has returned to the public squares of modern democracies.
Populist political movements, foreign state actors and others contribute to the disinformation epidemic. With potentially disastrous results.
Researchers at MIT have concluded that falsehoods spread 10 to 20 times faster than facts. In June 2020, Sensity identified almost 50 000 deep fake videos online, meaning that the amount had doubled every six months during the previous year. And fake news can be used economically too; in a single incident they caused stock market losses of $300 billion in 2017.
Fake news is not news
Annelie Frank, who heads Fojo’s fact checking project Faktajouren, works to halt disinformation, propaganda and fake news in this war of information. She’s not a big fan of the term that has conquered the world in recent years.
“Everyone knows about ‘fake news’, but what is it? It’s not news, because news tells us what’s really happened even if mistakes occasionally are made. I don’t think a lot of people fall for fake news on fake news sites nowadays. The public has been educated on source criticism and on how the media works. The former US president has practically kidnapped the term with his attacks on traditional media. Fake news is not the big problem. But disinformation is a greater threat. These kinds of stories contain quite a lot of truth. A government decision can be described correctly, but relevant information will be left out and thereby the big picture is muddled.”
These, often concerted disinformation campaigns are harder to combat, Annelie Frank explains.
“When 95 percent of the content is true it’s more difficult to dismiss”, she says.
“Disinformation is meant to cause damage. Misinformation is also factually wrong, but not intentionally and its purpose is not to cause damage. It could be a mistake; let’s say if you write that Annelie is 48 years old and not 52. Or if you have a source whom you trust not to lie, like a police officer, but who turns out to provide you with inaccurate information. Or maybe a journalist misinterprets statistics.”
‘How’ is the big queston
Annelie Frank had a lot of experience as a journalist around all of southern Sweden when she joined the team at Fojo in 2018 to lead the effort to bring a Swedish center for fact checking to fruition. Annelie believes that Faktajouren, reaching a few thousand journalists every month through a newsletter, a web archive and trainings, has an important role to fill.
“I’m generalising, of course, but the media could do more to not be a part of the problem. ‘How‘ is the big question? I believe we ought to pay more attention to simple, ethical working methods, to strengthen our routines for checking facts, and not twist headlines or leads to much, since a lot of readers don’t look further than that. Journalists also need to look out more for what’s going on in the dark corners of the internet.”
The global fact-checking community of journalists and researchers who are trying to bring about a more enlightened society and curb the effects of disinformation. The societal ills that are evident in the world today, with a partly toxic public sphere, could be availed with a more urgent outlook on these issues by the Swedish media industry. Annelie Frank elaborates:
“In a sound public discourse, actors are clear on their agenda, they are not hiding behind pseudonyms, sources are accounted for, and actors usually refrain from vicious personal attacks. Disinformation is often not about advocating an opinion, but about promoting polarisation. How can we solve complex problems if people are yelling at each other? I believe Swedish media can learn more from the fact-checking community.”
Frank says she is really more interested in structures and following entire flows of disinformation, than singling out one single fake news item that has done the rounds. However, one event that stood out to her was the recent storming of The Capitol in D.C.
“The digital set-up was truly by the book for us who follow disinformation flows, although these flows don’t often end up in carnage. It was also combined with the concept of the truth illusion – the more you hear something, the more likely it is that you’re going to believe it. In this case the widely spread piece of false information was that the election 2020 was stolen.”
Sweden – a desinformation target
During the Covid-19 pandemic the war of information has spread just as fast as the virus and Sweden has been a particular target of disinformation globally.
“I saw this coming before the pandemic, but everything has accelerated. There are political forces who use Sweden as a scapegoat for their own purposes. I mean, I know how much this pandemic has affected my own life, and then I read in foreign media that Sweden doesn’t do anything to counter the virus. That’s simply untrue.”
So, why Sweden?
“Sweden is traditionally a country that stands for liberal values: feminism, LGBTQ, openness towards migrants. And there are forces out there fighting against these values.”
Annelie Frank would like to see more interest in fact-checking, but she is still quite optimistic about the route a lot of Swedish news media have taken.
“There is more well researched and thought through journalism, that motivates more people to be willing to pay for a subscription. We’ve talked a lot about click bates, but what I saw at the national radio broadcaster, Sveriges Radio, where I worked previously, was that what attracted most traffic was high quality investigative reporting.”