Four new terms to describe online deception and misinformation

Daniel Funke, September 12th 2019, Poynter

New terms for the misinformation trade

The language surrounding misinformation seems to change as fast as the tactics used by the people who spread it. Terms that once meant one thing — “fake news,”for example — now mean something else, or are used so differently by different people that they have lost a common meaning. 

For people like us, who write about misinformation as a profession, it’s a little hard to keep up. 

(, by the way, defines misinformation — its 2018 word of the year — as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” The word often works for us in this newsletter as a catchall because we can’t always be certain something is intended to mislead. If we are sure it’s “disinformation,” though, we will call it that.)

Another example of an ambiguous, evolving term is “troll” or “trolling.” In her report last year for Data & Society, “The Oxygen of Amplification,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communications and rhetoric at Syracuse University, noted that “trolling” now encompasses a broad range of online behaviors, “rendering the term so slippery it has become almost meaningless.”

Fortunately, several experts in this space are trying to keep up with the changes and sort out the terminology.

Claire Wardle, the U.S. director of First Draft, a nonprofit focused on ways to address misinformation, last year published a helpful glossary of frequently used — and commonly misunderstood — words and phrases. An earlier Data & Society report, “Lexicon of Lies,” laid out some of the basics. 

Now there are some new additions to add to the nomenclature, from a report (also from Data & Society) called “Source Hacking: Media Manipulation in Practice” by misinformation experts Joan Donovan and Brian Friedberg.

Donovan and Friedberg identify and give terms to ways that deceptive actors try to get journalists and influential public figures to pick up falsehoods. Donovan hastalked about source hacking before, but this new report helps people in the misinformation space zero in on specific techniques used by the manipulators. 

She and Friedberg came up with four terms, and included case studies for each to show how they have been employed in real life.

  • Viral sloganeering, where short slogans are repackaged for social media and press amplification. One of the case studies in this example was the viral slogan “jobs not mobs.”
  • Leak forgery, in which forged documents are staged as “leaks” in an effort to win media attention.
  • Evidence collaging, where image files featuring a series of screenshots and text are arranged in a way that make them shareable.
  • Keyword squatting, where social media accounts or specific terms are used to capture and direct search traffic. They give as an example the proliferation of fake Antifa accounts in 2017.

Will these terms be added to the vocabulary of those who study misinformation? Maybe. Phrases catch on, or don’t, for lots of reasons. But we like the effort to parse for precision. The information system is so disordered right now that the least we can do is agree on the tactics used to spread falsehoods, and what to call them.

. . .   technology 

  • Facebook is making its own deepfakes — highly realistic fake videos featuring actors doing and saying routine things. Why? The clips, reported the MIT Technology Review, will serve as a data set “for testing and benchmarking deepfake detection tools.”
  • In Argentina, Chequeado used a forensic tool developed by The Laboratory of Sensory Research to fact-check a WhatsApp audio file. Forensia can work — though not for free — in Saxon and Romance languages. 
  • Speaking of WhatsApp, a report from New York University found that it, along with Instagram, may pose bigger challenges for 2020 election misinformation in the U.S. than Facebook or Twitter.

. . .  politics

  • Democrats are divided over what policies to pursue to prevent disinformation in the 2020 campaign, Politico reported. The disagreement is over the Democratic National Committee’s reluctance to bring to a vote a pledge to rule out illicit tactics such as deepfakes. Among the party’s presidential candidates, only former Vice President Joe Biden has signed it so far. 
  • Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s campaign has called on the big social media platforms to better police disinformation after a Twitter user falsely said that the gunman responsible for the Aug. 31 mass shooting in Odessa, Texas, had a sticker supporting O’Rourke’s presidential bid on his truck.
  • A new University of Calgary study says the Russians are likely to interfere in the country’s campaigns to serve an interest by the Kremlin in competing against Canada in the Arctic. Here’s a report from the Canadian Press

. . .  the future of news

  • The German Marshall Fund analyzed 13 startups that aim to use artificial intelligence to fight misinformation. Among its topline findings: natural language processing alone can’t identify all forms of fakery, and such technology would likely hit several hurdles before ever being implemented.
  • Reuters, the BBC and other news outlets have partnered with tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to fight online misinformation. The partnership’s early plans include an early warning system for potential disinformation attempts and a joint civic education effort.
  • A U.S. Department of Defense contractor tasked with creating manipulated images and videos to learn more about how to combat them wrote a piece for Nieman Lab. In it, she talked about how it doesn’t take a very convincing fake to dupe someone — it just needs to confirm their preconceived beliefs.

This could actually be the fact check of the month. 

Between Aug. 5 and Sept. 5, the Indian fact-checking platform Boom Live spotted 49 misleading messages about the Kashmir crisis on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp (more than one per day). Fifteen of those messages were posted by Pakistan-based accounts — not  by ordinary social media users, but by prominent journalists, ministers and also leading political parties

Indians are currently divided into two narratives related to the Kashmir crisis. According to the first one, everything is fine and Kashmiris have welcomed the revocation of Article 370, which used to maintain the region’s autonomy. According to the second narrative, Kashmiris are being subjected to brutal atrocities. Pakistanis usually fall for the latter – but have been using old photos and videos to argue it.

What we liked: It is wonderful to see that fact-checkers find the time to publish single fact checks, build monthly databases and even dig up the origins of misleading data. Boom’s high volume of fact checks is an impressive counterweight to misinformation about Kashmir, and its exposure of misleading claims from mainstream actors should be applauded. 

  1. Rolling Stone had a good catch this week. It reported that on Sunday, more than 100 people displaced from the Bahamas were instructed to disembark a rescue ferry bound for Florida because they didn’t possess visas. Bahamians, however, are not required to have visas when traveling to the U.S.
  2. In India, keeps a national database about attacks linked to child-lifting rumours. Since 2012, 45 people have been killed and at least 150 injured in 98 cases — 20 of them happened this year
  3. Aos Fatos, in Brazil, counted 300 false and/or misleading claims made by President Jair Bolsonaro in 294 days.
  4. Malaysian police have filed a police report against several social media users who have been accused of spreading misinformation about the government granting citizenship to Chinese nationals.
  5. Violence-prone regions are the places where Facebook has the hardest time finding fact-checkers to work with to debunk disinformation, company executivestold Yahoo News in an interview.  
  6. People in poverty are more susceptible to disinformation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported, sparking efforts to help them get quality information ahead of Canada’s upcoming election. 
  7. Politico wrote about how Democrats are pushing back against American fact-checking.
  8. A new poll from Gallup found that 92% of U.S. adults want reporters to use social media to correct false or misleading statements made by politicians.
  9. The Washington Post nominated Glenn Kessler and his team at The Fact Checker for a Pulitzer Prize, but they weren’t chosen as a finalist.
  10. In partnership with The Maharat Foundation, the IFCN will offer a free fact-checking workshop in Beirut on Oct. 19. Read about it here