Watching Out for Disinformation

As disinformation has become a global problem, a couple of new initiatives want to help Venezuelans to better recognize and dismiss what some still call “fake news.”

Photo: PolUkr retrieved

As the rise of xenophobic attacks against Venezuelans in Peru has turned into an actual issue, a video appeared on social media, showing the alleged lynching of a Venezuelan in Lima. The video turned out to be a fake, yet this serves as evidence of a bigger problem.

“The video wants to create an emotional effect with ill-intentions,” comments Leon Hernandez, journalist, college professor and current coordinator of the Venezuelan Observatory of Fake News (OVFN) a project started by NGO Medianalisis in late July. “Some people replay old news and unrelated videos, but this is no longer about bad faith, this is part of a larger strategy to create confusion.”

He’s not exaggerating: A recent report by the Oxford Institute of Internet raises alarms about the extent and sophistication of disinformation campaigns around the world, and Venezuela is not only a battleground, it’s a major active player, one of the twelve nations mentioned to have “high cyber-troop capacity“, described in the report as:

“…large numbers of staff and large budgetary expenditure on psychological operations or information warfare… These teams not only operate during elections, they involve full-time staff dedicated to shape the information space…”

A long time after the days of #TROPA, the State took over the operation. The same report also says that Venezuela is one of seven countries (like Russia, China or Iran) that Facebook and Twitter have confirmed to be involved in foreign influence operations.

“The only way to understand what’s happening with disinformation in Venezuela is to read prior records and their lessons,” says Adrian Gonzalez, Venezuelan engineer and director of Cazadores de Fake News (“Fake News Hunters”) another initiative looking to help users to recognize false information about Venezuela. In his view, the OII report confirms the “disinformation networks“ established by Nicolás Maduro.

Cazadores de Fake News (CFZ) began as a forum on Telegram, in June of this year, after offering bulletins through WhatsApp. Since August, CFZ launched with support from fact-checking organization VerifiKado and NGOs Fundaredes and ElMedioEresTu.

The fact that both CFZ and the OVFN started their work around the same time isn’t much of a surprise: Venezuelans have been forced to depend on digital news sites and social networks to find out about what’s happening, as traditional media either self-censors or have shut down as a consequence of the hegemony.

But even if both share the same mission, they’re different in their methods. The OVFN uses six “detectors” in six Venezuelan cities, who find news articles and other content (voice messages, videos) that could be misleading or false. A proper analysis is made and the results are presented in bulletins delivered on their site and by email.

CFZ is more open-sourced: any member of their open Telegram group can make a consultation and several others verify and discuss. Sources and images are searched and, on some occasions, deeper investigations are required. Like OVFN, they share their findings on their website and bulletins.

Other important difference between both comes over the dilemma of choosing speed over quality, or the other way around. For Hernandez, even if the quantity of “fake news“ has grown exponentially in Venezuela (40 in August alone, according to their count) and “reviewing takes time,” they prefer to “bet on quality.”

For Gonzalez, the issue of speed takes more precedence: “After 72 hours, most fake news slows down their spreading. In that period, they make the most damage. Users read it, share it and assume it as true. Even if an article refutes it a week later, it’s not ideal.”

Gonzalez thinks that there’s no problem with other similar fact-checking sites, although he warns: “The discussion must reach the people, be more accessible, more friendly. More than refute false news, it’s important to give tools to those interested in verifying what they read.”

Hernandez agrees and considers that “new perspectives will rise so people don’t put value on false content and promote credibility on their communications. Social media is the only windows of freedom left for us, and it’s vulnerable. Without it, we’re in darkness.”