Faktiskt.SE is a real fact-checking website build around a collaboration between five mainstream news websites in Sweden. They each publish their own material that is aggregated on the Faktiskt.SE website and they follow international guidelines for fact-checking. Now, an imposter website (Faktiskt.EU) has arisen that tries to mimic the name, URL, logo and methodology of the real one, while having none of the fact-checking credibility.
The misinformation wars
For decades, false information has been spreading on the Internet. However, with the advent of social media and growth of quackery in the mainstream media, this problem has rapidly spread and grown in size. There are quackery proponents out there with millions of fans on social media and even more monthly unique visitors to their websites. Entire website networks have grown up selling fake “treatments” and shady supplements for real conditions, making millions by deceiving vulnerable and sick people.
This hit critical mass with the growth of anti-science movements (e. g. against vaccines and GMOs) and the pseudoscientific bigotry pushed by Donald Trump and his supporters. We are now in the fake news era. Political pundits insist that so-called alternative facts are real. Mainstream media amplify quackery with false balance. Social media and search engines put you inside filter bubbles by feeding you information they think you want to monetize your preferences. It is getting more and more difficult to survive and flourish in the misinformation wars.
The rise of fake fact-checkers
Unfortunately, the problem has grown even larger and more deceptive. Not only are there plenty of fake news and “alternative facts” out there, plenty of people who uncritically share it on social media and millions of social media bots.
Enter the rise of the fake fake-checkers. There are also fake fact-checkers. Not only are fake content pushers trying to impersonate real news websites, they are also trying to impersonate credible fact-checkers.
One of the earliest known examples of a fake fact-checker was the Swedish Facebook page Mediekollen. Their stories pushed well-known conspiracy theories and errors of fact that is common among the far right. They insisted that the Steele Dossier was just a myth created by 4chan, abused crime statistics and many other deceptive claims. They then applied very similar true and false stamps to their claims that a real Swedish fact-checker uses. You can read more about it in the Guardian article In the post-truth era Sweden’s far right fake fact checker was inevitable.
The real fact-checker, Viralgranskaren, is an initiative by the Swedish newspaper Metro and has many similarities to Snopes. The likely goal was to fool people into thinking that Mediekollen was somehow a legitimate fact-checker and that people scrolling their Facebook feed would not read too carefully and therefore be misinformed.
Viralgranskaren, the real fact-checker, contacted Facebook to complain about the page and they also wrote a critical article about how Mediekollen where parasitizing on their credibility. After a little while, the page was unpublished or deleted. It was unclear if the page owners or Facebook took it down. Since they had not gotten any information from Facebook, journalists working with Viralgranskaren think that the page owners took it down themselves. It is unknown who where behind it. It was run anonymously. Perhaps this was just a way to test how easily it would be to start and run a fake fact-checker.
This fake fact-checker was exposed in early 2017. There were reasons to suspect that fake fact-checkers could be the next step for fake content pushers. Because fact-checkers are starting to be more and more common, those promoting false information has to figure out a way to counter it. A well-funded fake fact-checker could do massive damage.
Now, yet another fake fact-checker arises from the murky underbelly of misinformation on the Internet. What is worse is that this imposter is even harder to spot than Mediekollen. It was first reported in an editorial by Patrik Oksanen in the newspaper Hela Hälsingland.
First, let us look at the real fact-checker that is being impersonated.
Faktiskt.SE: The real fact-checker
Here is how the real fact-checker Faktiskt.SE looks (click to enlarge). The headline states that “No, there is no association between HPV vaccination and an increase in cervical cancer.
- Sveriges Television (abbreviated SVT, “Swedish Public Television”)
- Sveriges Radio (abbreviated SR, “Swedish Public Radio”
- Svenska Dagbladet (abbreviated SvD, “Swedish Daily News”)
- Dagens Nyheter (abbreviated DN, “News of Today”)
- KIT (a digital publicist start-up, focuses on content marketing, similar to more serious articles in Buzzfeed)
Faktiskt.SE collects fact-checked claims published by these media organizations. These organizations follow the Swedish journalism ethics and standards. In addition, they follow the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles at Poynter. These fact-checking principles are: nonpartisan and fairness, transparency about sources, transparency about funding and organization, transparency about methodology and open and honest corrections.
The goal of Faktiskt.SE is to (i.) fact-check claims in the public debate and social media conversation, (ii.) contribute to an open, inclusive and fact-based debate, (iii.) contribute to critically reviewing sources of claims and (iv.) expose the spread of fake news and related falsehoods.
Fact-checking articles are published independently by the media organizations and then collected on the Faktiskt.SE website. Since they started, fact-checking articles have appears criticizing many different political ideologies, viral images and claims on social medial. So far, no radically false content has appeared on Faktiskt.SE.
Faktiskt.EU: The Fake Fact-Checker
Here is how the fake fact-checker Faktiskt.EU looks (click to enlarge):
The headline states “Investigation into Faktiskt.se – Association between HPV vaccine and cervical cancer”. This fake fact-checking article insists that there is an association, despite evidence to the contrary.
Who is behind this fake fact-checker? The website itself has an about page with content that is very similar in wording as the content on the real website. It also states that Faktiskt.EU is a run by the “independent newspapers NewsVoice and Nya Dagbladet as well as independent freelance journalists that contribute with fact-checks”.
Other articles on Faktiskt.EU has some more information. In the post “Why we started Faktiskt.eu as a response to Faktiskt.se”, the creators behind the fake fact-checking website Faktiskt.EU explain that “Faktiskt.SE risks becoming a PC-product” that fits with “agenda-driven journalism”. According the them, “the world needs to fact-check the elite’s Faktiskt.se, which otherwise risks becoming a troll factory”. Clearly, they have a problem with alleged “politically correct” media and uses phrases like “troll factory” in a misleading way.
In that article, a press contact named Torbjörn Sassersson is listed. Who is he? It turns out that he is the editor and publisher of NewsVoice. It is one of the early “alternative news” websites in Sweden, with content promoting homeopathy, fake cancer cures, fearmongering about Wifi, conspiracy theories about chemtrails and many others. Sassersson is also behind the website Skeptikerskolan, which has the same name as the book Skeptikerskolan, a real skeptical book written by real skeptics. So there is an historical precedent for using similar names as something that already exists.
What is Nya Dagbladet, the second entity behind the fake fact-checker Faktiskt.EU? The same article entitled “Why we started Faktiskt.eu as a response to Faktiskt.se” was also published on Nya Dagbladet. However, it had an additional lead text and a signature list. Perhaps it was first published on Nya Dagbladet and later on Faktiskt.EU. The lead text explains that Faktiskt.EU was created by the editors-in-chief of NewsVoice and Nya Dagbladet. The latter is, from the signature, Markus Andersson.
Nya Dagbladet has been critically investigated by both Swedish Metro and Dagens Nyheter. They have been labeled as a right-wing populist or extremist website and a promoter of anti-vaccine misinformation. In essence, it is one of the new “alternative news” websites that have cropped up in recent years.
What content does the fake fact-checker have?
So what content is published on the the fake fact-checking website Faktiskt.EU?
One article misleadingly claims that HPV vaccines cause cervical cancer. This is false as the vaccine only contains proteins from the virus capsid and not any content that can cause cancer. Another wrongly claims that antidepressants somehow cause a quadrupling of the risk of suicide. In reality, this is not the case.
A third articles claim tinnitus can be cured with laser by referring to a study with 48 participants as “relatively large”. In reality, while there are effective treatments for tinnitus, there is no effective cure and laser is not an established treatment for it.
Two other articles push various forms of Russian propaganda, including denying that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee server and denying that Russia was behind the chemical weapon attack on Sergej Skripal and his daughter Julia Skripal.
What social media spread has the fake-checker gotten?
The main page of the fake fact-checker Faktiskt.EU has 109 interactions on Facebook while individual stories have between ~50 and ~200 or so interactions. This seems small, but keep in mind that it is a fringe website in Swedish and not in English. For comparison, the real fact-checker Faktiskt.SE has 2149 Facebook interactions for the main page. The main spread of the fake fact-checker Faktiskt.EU on Facebook appear to be on certain crank Facebook pages and anti-psychiatry Facebook groups.
The growing assault of truth, facts and reality
The fake fact-checking Facebook page Mediekollen that was covered in a previous article was in many respects a bad imposter. They did not copy the name of their target (Viralgranskaren), did not use misleading URLs and they did not copy core aspects of the logo. They merely copied large parts of true and false stamps.
Faktiskt.EU is much more deceptive. They take the exact name (Faktiskt), use a misleading URL (ending in .EU when the real fact-checker ends in .SE), copy parts of the about text and copy large parts of the logo to give a misleading impression of being the real fact-checker. The domain and the website for the fake fact-checker was also launched before the real fact-checker. This is a massive increase in deceptive potential compared with Mediekollen.
However, it fails in that the structure of the webdesign is different, they do not have any social media accounts, and the content is very small. At the time of this writing, they only have three articles that claims to fact-check something. One of them is a political claim in the Swedish political debate. The other two push classic pseudoscientific claims.