“‘Now is the time’: the journalists fighting fake news before the EU elections”, The Guardian
Daniel Boffey, Copenhagen, Thu 16 May 2019
With warnings of likely Russian meddling, Europe’s debunkers are picking up the pace
“Our job is to debunk stories,” says Thomas Hedin from his Copenhagen office a stone’s throw from Denmark’s seat of power, familiar to many in Britain courtesy of the political TV drama Borgen. “Our job is to say whether something is misleading, fake or true. Thats why we are here.”
Just over two years ago Hedin, 48, was appointed as the first editor of TjekDet, a factchecking spinoff from the Danish equivalent of the Economist magazine, Mandag Morgen, or Monday Morning.
“The whole fake news as a concept started spreading at the time of the US presidential election and we thought, well, now is the time.”
It is set to be a busy few weeks. Hedin’s team of three full-time reporters and five student researchers has been bolstered in numbers ahead of the European parliament elections on 26 May and the Danish parliament elections on 5 June.
Denmark’s intelligence services have warned it is “very likely” Russia will seek to manipulate the former, infecting the latter, through a wave of eurosceptic, anti-immigrant content.
The European commission has summoned up visions of an enemy exploiting a “weapon of mass disinformation – a WMD for the modern age” in a clash between populist nationalism out to destroy the EU and defenders of liberal democracy.
Brussels announced in April 2018 that it would support “an independent European network of factcheckers” who would “establish common working methods, exchange best practices, and work to achieve the broadest possible coverage of factual corrections across the EU”.
Participants, the commission said, would be selected from EU members of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), an offshoot of the US Poynter Institute, a centre for media studies based in Florida.
A year on – and after an EU investment of €1m (£867,000) – eight factchecking organisations in six EU countries have been approved as members of this Brussels-backed collaborative platform, known as the Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis (Soma). Two are IFCN signatories. The network is incomplete, and still not up and running with days to go before Europeans have their vote.
At the heart of why Europe’s defences are not as ready as some may have hoped lies the thorny issue of how the fourth estate – a network of factcheckers – can be propped up financially at a challenging time for media organisations while ensuring those involved maintain their independence from political institutions.
TjekDet is not involved with the Brussels scheme. It is instead one of a group of 19 factcheckers operating across 13 member states as part of an independent FactcheckEU platform established by IFCN.
A $60,000 IFCN grant enabled the Paris-based Libération newspaper to build infrastructure that allows each unit to seek help on a story or flag up a development. It was launched in March.
Recent articles include: “No, this photo does not show the Luxembourg prime minister and his husband”, in reference to a miscaptioned picture of the singer Conchita Wurst designed to mock Xavier Bettel; “No, 20,000 refugees with credit cards have not crossed the Croatian border” and “No, 500,000 Danish jobs do not directly depend on the EU single market”, an article written in response to recent claims by pro-EU politicians.
The EU-backed Soma project has asked for the two factchecking networks to work together and exploit the impressive array of analytic tools that Brussels has funded, offering the chance to examine doctored photographs, rigorously examine the output and true identities behind Twitter accounts and access EU databases and official positions on developing news.
But the perceived risk of their factcheckers getting too close to decision-makers with an agenda is proving an obstacle.
“Some factcheckers have been involved with the Soma projects and some haven’t, and that is done from a personal position of each organisations,” said Clara Jiménez Cruz, a member of IFCN’s advisory board and co-founder of Maldita.es, a Spanish member of FactcheckEU.
Cruz said FactCheckEU “preferred to create our own alliance following our code of principles and methodology rather than being involved as an institution in another project that didn’t necessarily have to meet our principles”.
Each factchecking organisation is different and “quite private about our data, and one of the things that entail working with EU tools is that they ultimately have access to our data”, she said.
In response to mooted financial support from the EU, Cruz added: “If we’re factchecking towards a European election in which there are political parties that sustain that they want out of the EU, we, as factcheckers, cannot be funded by a party involved in such conflict.”
The standoff is clearly a cause for frustration, although the Soma project still hopes its network will be ready and significantly larger by the time of the elections.
“They have been a bit sceptical of the European commission being part of this initiative,” admitted Soma’s project coordinator, Nikos Sarris, of the IFCN, “but we are explaining to everyone involved that the European commission is not affecting the process; they are just providing funding for the project. They are not trying to monitor or influence the platform; they are just providing support.”
Back in TjekDet’s offices, Hedin and his team – Caroline Tranberg, 27, Andreas Rasmussen, 27 and Rasmus Kerrn-Jespersen, 30 – are not dogmatic on funding. TjekDet has independently taken a European parliament grant but they can reel off a list of their successes, whether it is highlighting a photoshopped image of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, an erroneous analysis of voting trends published by the European parliament or videos from Algeria mislabelled as being of riots in Copenhagen sparked by a far-right Islamophobic political party.
For all that Russia is an issue – “We hear the same as you”, they say – it is often local figures who push disinformation. If it is shaping the country’s political narrative, TjekDet asks questions, and publishes two to three debunking articles a day.
Kerrn-Jespersen admits that at times it can feel like a losing battle, not least when a well-known politician repeats a lie they were told was untrue days earlier.
Hedin says there is no alternative. “We will never win 100%,” he said. “As long as we can get some readers saying: ‘Thank you for writing about this; I thought this story or that was true’, if that happens I am satisfied. Because just leaving the scene to people sharing fake news is not an option either.”