There is a growing assault on facts. The dark forces that scientists, doctors and scientific skeptics have fought for decades have now rapidly metastasized and forcefully exploded into the mainstream with the rise of concentrated misinformation and fake news that are reinforced by filter bubbles. People isolate themselves in social media communities that block contradictory information from ever reaching them. The intention to provide people with personalized results has had terrible consequences.
Those in power and those who profit from obscuring the truth are making every effort to destabilize democracy and undermine confidence in the mainstream media as well as scientific and medical organizations. This has led to the notion that we are currently taking part in the so-called misinformation wars and pro-science advocates are currently struggling with how to revolutionize science communication and skeptical outreach.
However, even darker clouds loom on the horizon. Besides pushing misinformation with fakes news, pretending that propaganda and real facts are on level playing field by labeling the former as “alternative facts” and relying on filter bubbles to keep believe from escaping irrational ideologies, extremists have now been developing fake fact checkers. These attempts to outwardly mimic established fact checkers but without any of the internal intellectual honesty or rigor, just like how pseudoscience parasitize on the credibility of science. With their biased selection of issues and faulty characterization of real news as “fake” with extensive use of misdirection and manipulation of facts, these fake fact checkers threaten to undermine one of the best tools we have for fighting nonsense and misinformation on the Internet.
What is the backstory?
Katerina Janouch is a Swedish journalist and relationship/sex counsellor with roots in Czech Republic. She is no stranger to controversy, having pushed national birth quackery and publicly supported a group of ~100 hooligans who went around in the Swedish capital distributing extremist flyers and physically attacking people who looked like immigrants. She later admitted that the latter was a mistake and that she reacted before having all the facts.
On January 9, a video with Janouch taking part in a 30 minute long interview by Martin Veselovský was posted on the website of the Czech television channel DVTV. In this interview, she repeated recycled far-right myths about Sweden that Debunking Denialism has refuted many times before. Mainstream media in Sweden also wrote extensive refutations of her claim and scolded her for contributing to fear and ignorance coming from the far-right. This reinforces the false and misleading view that people in some eastern European countries have gotten from the many dozens of fake news websites and initiatives run from Russia.
A new study from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs indicates that the spread of misinformation and fake news from Russia is on the increase even in Sweden, most likely related to the issue of whether Sweden will join The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or not.
Mediekollen: fake fact checker trying to impersonate a real one
On January 10, a new page called Mediekollen appeared (or at least became more well-known) on Facebook. Its mission statement appears deceptively attractive for unsuspecting visitors (my translation):
In a time when the exchange of information goes faster than ever, when society’s media compete about the number of “clicks”, when true as well as fake news become vital hits, the importance of questioning and critical evaluation of sources more and more important. The mission of Mediekollen is to critically examine the news and the Internet phenomena that goes viral on social media.
They posted a story about Janouch and give it a green “true” sign (contrary to all other fact checkers) and the post was even shared by Janouch herself.
There is just one problem: Mediekollen is, in fact, a fake fact checking page. That’s right, now there are not merely fake news websites, but also fake fact checkers.
First, all of their stories promote common conspiracy theories and errors promoted by the far-right, such as the claim that the damaging information that Russia was somehow just a myth created by 4chan, that there is an alleged increase in crime based on year-to-year fluctuations and reported crime rates (instead of rates as reported by crime victim surveys) when there is a long-term decline in crime, and so on.
Second, it attempts to impersonate a well-known real fact checking entity in Sweden called Viralgranskaren. Viralgranskaren is an initiative by Swedish Metro and works similarly to Snopes. This is done by using the same imagery for designating a claim as true or false that Viralgranskaren originally created. Presumably, their hope is that unsuspecting people will scroll past their fake fact checking in their Facebook feed and be misled by the Viralgranskaren true and false stamps.
The fate of Mediekollen
If one tries to visit the Mediekollen Facebook page, one is met with the following message from Facebook:
There was no available cached versions of the page on archive.is or the Internet Archive. However, Debunking Denialism managed to find a Google cache that had not been replaced by the new defunct page and took an archive.is cache of it. This can be found here. The page had at least ~770 likes and ~890 followers.
On January 20, Metro Viralgranskaren contacted Facebook to complain about the page. They also wrote a critical article debunking Mediekollen. Strangely, Mediekollen quickly took notice and wrote a response. After the people behind Viralgranskaren commented on this status update, the page was deleted (or possibly unpublished). It is unclear if the page was removed by the owners themselves or deleted by Facebook. The people behind Viralgranskaren thinks that it was done by the people behind the page since they had not gotten any information from Facebook.
It is unknown who was behind the fake fact checker Mediekollen. It was run completely anonymously and gave out what looked like pre-written replies to people who asked about who they were or who were backing them that did not answer any questions. However, there was a clear far-right extremist bias in virtually all of their fake fact checks and they repeated the same canards the far-right typically deploy. It is likely part of a larger movement dedicated to spreading misinformation and fear about immigration. It is unclear why the people behind the page would take it down after it had been up for just 10 days. Perhaps they got intimated by the fact that they got caught so easily and rapidly.
However, it could also be possible that this was merely a way to test the waters and explore the possibility of pushing fake fact checkers to further destabilize and undermine mainstream media, democracy and critical thinking. At this point, there are reasons to suspect that fake fact checkers could be the next step for groups pushing fake news and misinformation. Imagine the massive damage that large and well-funded fake fact checkers could do. It would almost be incomprehensible.
The misinformation wars are rapidly intensifying. Many people do no longer seem to care about truth or reality (post-truth), fall for deceptive falsehoods (fake news) masquerading as real news, isolate themselves in social media communities where little to no opposing information exists (filter bubbles), and push relativist approaches to facts (“alternative” facts). Now we are also facing a new adversary (fake fact checkers) that attempts to leech of the credibility of real fact checkers to push misguided propaganda.
Some people say that an intellectual winter is coming.
In reality, it is already here.
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