On the surface, the Momo Challenge looked and sounded terrifying. According to the reports shared on social media and in the news, young people would receive a message via Whatsapp, urging them to take their own lives or commit violent acts. In the UK stories about the challenge had been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook within the space of 24 hours, mostly by frightened parents. Celebrities were calling on authorities to act urgently. Children, meanwhile, were haunted by the image of the profile picture, a distorted woman’s face with bulging eyes. It didn’t matter that no-one had received a Momo Challenge message. That’s the power of false information with the intention to mislead, also known as disinformation.
“Last year everybody thought there was something to it. We thought, there’s no proof or evidence that it existed,” head of cybersecurity at digital education coordination platform Restena Cynthia Wagner told Delano.
Delano asked the Luxembourg government about the extent to which the Luxembourg population is exposed to fake news. At the time of publishing they had not responded.
But, we gain a rough idea through our own lived experience of the scale of the problem. Wagner points out that disinformation isn’t always about spreading fear, like with the Momo hoax, it could be motivated by financial gain. “I often saw on Facebook these campaigns that say “subscribe now to Amazon and get a €20 voucher and it wasn’t true. People shared it because they thought they would get a voucher,” she explained.
Perhaps the most familiar kind of disinformation being circulated today is that which seeks to discredit people and organisations, also known as propaganda. Wagner suggests that its use as a tactic by political leaders like US president Donald Trump has helped raise awareness about the ease with which some people are willing to make false claims. Luxembourg was on the receiving end of this tactic after Xavier Bettel made light of the empty podium when UK prime minister Boris Johnson refused to give a press conference outdoors next to a group of protesting Britons on 16 September. Some pro-Brexiteers, who apparently wanted to use the event to justify Britain’s departures from the EU, responded by spreading false claims about Luxembourg on social media.
Among the claims circulated was the idea that Luxembourg received 3,304% of what it pays into the EU. UK factchecking website Fullfact was quick to challenge the claim, saying the proportion was closer to 105% and that 16 other EU countries received a higher level of spending compared to what they paid in. Wagner says that traditional news organisations have an important role to play in stopping the spread of fake information by “checking their sources” before publishing.
But sites like Fullfact, while effective, need time to respond to false claims and this is one of the challenges facing traditional media.
Colm McGlinchey, pictured, has been working on content verification since 2013. Photo: Colm McGlinchey.
Catching the fakes
“Part of my job is discovering news content from social media, verifying it and then publishing it for Enex’s partners to use,” Colm McGlinchey, a journalist from the European News Exchange (Enex) in Luxembourg, explained. User generated content such as photos and videos help news outlets to ensure almost global coverage of events. McGlinchey said: “There’s no corner of the world we can’t get content from at the moment,” thanks largely to the widespread use of smart phones and greater internet access. The challenge for journalists like McGlinchey is verifying this content in a breaking news scenario when time is of the essence for Enex’s global partners.
“People are always trying to spread fake weather videos,” he said. “If someone says there’s a breaking news situation with a tsunami in Samoa, if you go online and search tsunami Samoa, I guarantee someone will have scraped and reposted videos from the 2011 tsunami in Japan.”
Fakes in which old footage is repackaged as a recent disaster can drive huge amounts of traffic which can then be monetised. Sometimes, they are not even generated by human but manufactured by bots, the journalist explained.
McGlinchey has been working in content verification since 2013. He explained that many of the tools he was using six years ago are now defunct, as social media platforms change how they operate. It means that ensuring journalists have the skills and tools for content verification in a field that is constantly changing is hugely challenging. “The thing every journalist in this day and age needs to understand is verification. It’s going to become more and more difficult going forward,” McGlinchey said.
Much is said about the need for social media platforms to do more to combat the spread of disinformation. Facebook’s recent policy change exempting political advertisements from fact-checking, does not inspire confidence.
And while some critics like to peg the blame on traditional media, often misusing the fake news label in attempt to censor real journalism, an equally important player in the fight against disinformation is the wider public. As former TV reporter and anchor Christina Nicholson said in her 2018 Tedx talk “Fake News. It’s Your Fault” addressed at the general public: “You also need to remember social media is media. So, when people are blaming ‘the media’ for something, they’re blaming you.”
Her call to urge the public to think twice before sharing, commenting or liking something they are not sure is true is one that Wagner underlines in our interview. “Use common sense, a critical mindset, check the evidence if possible. That’s what I always tell people to do in order to avoid fake news, and not to share anything,” she said.
Given the high education levels of Luxembourg’s residents, most of us hope we would spot disinformation whether a photo, video or meme, but would we always? Studies suggest that older Americans are four times more likely to share false information on Facebook. The truth is people of all ages and nationalities are vulnerable, particularly when the disinformation preys on our weaknesses.
This is why online education platform Bee Secure is launching a fake news awareness-raising and education campaign on Wednesday. Check Delano.lu later to find out more about this campaign.
Readers can also find out more about how Luxembourg combats disinformation at the Cyberday conference on 17 October. More information can be found here.
Helpful fact checking websites
Independent UK factchecking charity.
The oldest and largest fact checking site investigating urban legends, hoaxes and folklore.
Non-profit consumer advocate combating confusion and deception in US politics
Collaborative platform challenging fake claims made in French.