This document draws on a conversation during a panel at RightsCon 2022, co-organised by EU DisinfoLab and the Dangerous Speech Project. The panellists were Anna Gielewska, vice-chairman of the Reporters Foundation; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne CEO of Watchdog Sri Lanka and Senior Researcher at LIRNEasia; and Thanos Sitistas, Senior Editor at Greek fact-checking organisation Ellinika Hoaxes.
What is disinformation?
We understand disinformation to be deliberately fabricated or manipulated content spread to deceive – and misinformation to be false or inaccurate content that is reshared with insufficient care or context.
What is dangerous speech?
Dangerous speech is any form of expression (e.g., speech, text, or images) that can increase the risk that its audience will condone or commit violence against members of another group. Online disinformation and hate speech constitute dangerous speech when they include elements that can lead to offline discrimination and brutality.
Dangerous speech is commonly false, as it seizes on existing stereotypes, biases, and polarisation to negatively portray a specific group or minority. Unfortunately, in moments of crisis, people are more prone to believe in and spread mis- and disinformation. In the face of frightening events, information may be scarce, resulting in data deficits. Meanwhile, the pressure to provide explanations and answers may be high, so hoaxes quickly become and fuel dangerous speech. Crises like the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine clearly illustrate how mis- and disinformation narratives proliferate and overlap with dangerous speech.
Hereafter, we report the case studies of Greece, Poland and Sri Lanka, where three organisations are researching and countering dangerous speech.
Disinformation and dangerous speech in context
Founded in 2013, Ellinika Hoaxes is the first Greek website focused on counter misinformation and the only concerted effort to dismiss Greek-speaking inaccurate publications online. Every week, the organisation receives a few dozen to hundreds of requests to check news claims, either through messages on their website’s dedicated page or their Facebook page. The fact-checking organisation has also created a Facebook group to encourage people to submit claims and help them debunk them.
In Greece, verifiers are witnessing similar narratives to those seen worldwide concerning the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Ukraine-related disinformation has spiked in recent months, in particular fake stories about migrants and Ukrainian refugees, like a recent fabricated story about migrants defiling a church. The caption read: “For some Greeks to distinguish the difference between ‘hospitality’ and ‘taking away my homeland’!”. There have also been stories claiming that women refugees from Ukraine threaten Greek families because they will seduce the men. However, the anti-refugee misinformation is not limited to Ukrainians in a country where migration is a polarising topic. There is a plethora of misinformation against refugees and migrants, ranging from the diseases they may carry to claims that they received fake vaccination certificates or even free brothel coupons in Greece. The stories have diminished in the past year because everyone’s attention has turned towards the pandemic and Ukraine, but the dangerous speech still exists and remains a severe issue in Greece.
Founded in 2010, The Reporters Foundation is the first non-profit journalistic organisation in Poland entirely focused on independent, cross-border investigative journalism. It is part of the OCCRP network, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium of investigative centres that collaborate on cross-border reporting. The Reporters Foundation has been focusing on disinformation narratives and propaganda, including Kremlin propaganda in Poland and Central Europe, since 2017. Besides monitoring far-right and extremist propaganda, in 2022, the organisation launched an Extremism Tracker to monitor and release investigative reports on coordinated disinformation campaigns inflicting violence and hate.
With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Reporters Foundation has turned its focus to monitoring and reporting on the anti-Ukrainian speech circulating in the country, investigating specific narratives and the tools used to spread them.
As Anna described during the panel, support for Ukraine (and Ukrainians) has been strong in Poland. So instead of pushing pro-Russian narratives, the “Kremlin propaganda machine” has targeted this support by spreading narratives about the economic and safety-related costs of accepting refugees, along with messages antagonising Ukrainian refugees and minorities. People in Central Europe are familiar with Kremlin propaganda and are learning quickly how it works, but the disinformation is organised, including social media accounts, far-right politicians, and biased websites, as seen during the pandemic and the global anti-vax movement.
On Easter Sunday in 2019, bombs went off in three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In the aftermath, rumours and speculation swirled about the bombings. In reaction, the government blocked access to social media platforms (i.e., Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Viber). However, this did little to stop the circulation of potentially violence-inciting rumours pinning the blame for the attack on various groups and suggesting, for example, that the country’s water supply had been poisoned. A small group of volunteer fact-checkers stepped in to debunk inaccuracies, in this chaotic situation. They have now grown into an organisation called Watchdog Sri Lanka, founded by author, researcher, and activist Yudhanjaya Wijeratnah.
As Yudhanjaya described during the panel, the danger of the misinformation circulating in Sri Lanka was that much of it targeted minorities. In moments of crisis like the pandemic, this kind of misinformation can easily become dangerous speech, mobilising its audience to commit or condone violence against members of another ethnoreligious community (e.g., Muslims, Christians, Tamils, or Hindus). Moreover, tensions leading to Islamophobia have risen since the 2019 Easter bombings. Watchdog found dangerous and divisive deceptive rumours “stapled onto pre-existing narratives”, which were being used as an excuse to call for violence and war.
While the crisis was ripe for this kind of dangerous speech, this is not a new phenomenon. Yudhanjaya described an old rumour, suggesting that a Muslim restaurant owner served food containing contraceptive drugs in order to sterilise the majority community. Evidencing the contamination between online and offline spaces, the falsity eventually led to violence and property damage. As Yudhanjaya explained, “it was an easily weaponizable rumour. You could point it at minorities. You can point it at someone you don’t like. There is an already primed audience that believes it.”
Threats posed to fact-checkers and disinformation investigators
Being in the information frontline and responding to disinformation can be dangerous work. Not only do professional debunkers have to manage a massive amount of work that even includes disturbing content in a fast-paced online environment. They also often become targets of disinformation, harassment, or threats to their credibility. This section reports some experiences shared by disinformation frontline experts during the panel at RightsCon 2022.
As a member of the International Fact-Checking Network’s anti-harassment working group, Thanos described how frequently his colleagues face harassment in the field. “Our work demolishes common misconceptions, but it breeds toxicity, which manifests in many ways”, he explained. He and his colleagues have been doxed: their pictures and home addresses were published by online media and even printed in the press. They have been accused of working for “vague external enemies of Greece”, and received both veiled and direct threats of physical violence. Sometimes this abuse takes the form of legal actions, such as SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, which drain financial and time resources and serve as cautionary tales for other fact-checkers, “especially the younger ones”.
In Anna’s view, “this risk is part of the job”. Of course, pro-Russian propaganda sources are recurrent attackers, but there are also other actors like domestic disinformation actors, business actors, and the so-called “black PR firms” that try to manipulate narratives to benefit their clients, also advancing SLAPPs and legal threats. Meanwhile, Russian actors are more likely to use harassment and cyber-threats against investigative journalists, who increasingly risk having their data stolen.
In Sri Lanka, much of the disinformation that Watchdog is hunting down comes from government sources. The common route was to silence journalists and fact-checkers through physical intimidation. As Yudhanjaya describes, “beaten up journalists would return as government mouthpieces”. The playbook was “kill, shoot, disappear”. Since 2010, the government has started to rely on intimidation and obfuscation, with police officers showing up at journalists’ doors, taking them to the police for questioning, and dragging them into a slow-moving and costly legal system.
All the speakers described similar attempts to discredit their work by questioning their funding. When Watchdog first began, they were accused of being funded by the government and, more recently, even by the CIA and “Western interest groups”. In Greece, Ellinika Hoaxes’ credibility was challenged by Greek government officials following their entry into a fact-checking partnership with Facebook in 2019. Critics labelled moments of the Reporters Foundation as “Soros agents”.
Can we have a first response to dangerous speech?
“There are firemen, there are EMTs, there are people who respond to different kinds of crises. There should also be a journalistic equivalent”, Watchdog commented. Yet, effective counter-disinformation responses need data. Transparency and access to reliable information from ministries and government bodies are essential to countering mis- and disinformation. Prompt access to official data speeds up fact-checking operations, especially when politicians reference numbers and specific claims. Yudhanjaya also recalled the role of the international community: the Sri Lankan government is reliant on international aid, so international pressure for transparency can help improve things.
In Poland and Central Europe, there is a need to strengthen capacity beyond fact-checking and find solutions to root causes to investigate the actors behind organised disinformation campaigns and hold them accountable. In this regard, Anna compared the situation to money transfers, organised crime, and off-shore companies. Beginning by exposing networks of proxies – i.e., the financial and technical infrastructure – it is possible to eventually identify the actors behind these networks. Similar goals also requires more access to data as an intermediate response.
It is often up to the platforms to implement first response actions through content moderation and real-time investigations into phenomena like Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour (CIB). There is a huge space for improvement across platforms, particularly regarding non-English content. According to Anna, a legal framework is needed to ensure that platforms improve their practices. A more standardised way of international labelling, reporting, and framing disinformation will help investigate cross-border networks.
In Greece, it is always possible to go immediately to the authorities and testify about threats, but a multi-pronged approach is needed over the longer term. Media alliances and public relations resources are crucial to ensure fact-checks reach the wider public and that the public understands the work of the fact-checking community more concretely. Crisis management training is also valuable for fact-checkers: for instance, the International Fact Checking Network partners with a communication agency to provide professional training in this area. In June 2022, the IFCN also launched a legal fund program to assist members whose lawsuits are based on frivolous claims. Finally, the political environment also needs to evolve since politicians are currently responsible for spinning false narratives against fact-checkers.