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Who's checking the fact checkers?


Disinformation was a big problem before the war in Ukraine. Now it's even worse with the rise of fake fact-checkers. You've probably seen real fact-check articles online, news organizations debunking rumors and fake news circulating on social media. Several channels on the messaging app Telegram look like independent fact-checkers, but if you look closer, you see they're actually pro-Russian propaganda outlets spreading fake news about the invasion.

Kevin Nguyen has written about the latest front in the information war for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and he joins me now. Welcome.


ESTRIN: Can you briefly walk us through this? When someone opens up their Telegram app, what are they seeing?

NGUYEN: So Telegram is a encrypted messaging app. If you are using it to follow the invasion of Ukraine and you're following these kind of fake fact-checking outlets, you would never know that they're actually - they don't specifically tell them - tell you that they're Russian-aligned. But if you were to go into them, what you're going to find is exclusively anti-Ukrainian, what appears, or what it positions itself, as sophisticated forensic analysis of events, of specific videos and of specific events within the Ukrainian invasion.

ESTRIN: So give us a specific example of one of the fake fact-checking channels that you've been looking at.

NGUYEN: One example I looked at was the attack of the TV tower in Kyiv, which is the Ukrainian capital. Look how strange these bodies are positioned. Look how close the morgue is to this TV tower. Isn't that suspicious? And here's a picture of Google Maps showing you that it's quite close to each other.

ESTRIN: So the claim was that Ukrainians allegedly had brought bodies in from the morgue to stage that there were deaths in that attack?

NGUYEN: Yes, it's just unilaterally false information.

ESTRIN: So these fake fact-check channels we're seeing primarily on Telegram.

NGUYEN: Yes, yeah.

ESTRIN: Well, how much traction do these fake fact-check channels get?

NGUYEN: It's difficult to say. Telegram's a bit harder to read than, say, Twitter in terms of its reach or its impressions. The issue with Telegram is not just that you're going to this group and that's all you're seeing. It's that Russian officials - other accounts are taking these exact claims and running it as well.

ESTRIN: Well, Kevin, what is the goal? I mean, are they trying to convince Russians with these fake posts or are they trying to dupe, you know, people around the world?

NGUYEN: This is a tactic that's kind of emerged. I mean, we've seen fake fact-checkers before, fake media outlets before, but it's - in terms of how it's getting other outlets to report on it as well, Russian state media has been very effective over the past couple of years of actually getting a lot of other people to run their lines of rhetoric. A really good example of this is Russia has very specific language about how it frames this invasion of Ukraine. They call it a Ukrainian Special Operation. And you see that parroted by Chinese state media. So just a few hours ago, the People's Daily in China is very specifically calling it a Ukrainian Special Operation.

ESTRIN: And...

NGUYEN: So and that's kind of new. And this - the Telegram and the fake fact-checking through this is just a bit of an extension of that.

ESTRIN: Well, the end result is if you flood the zone with a lot of fake news, you create doubt. And then people think twice about sympathizing with Ukraine.

NGUYEN: Yeah. When you - when doubt flourishes, you become reluctant to even sympathize.

ESTRIN: So before I let you go, what advice do you have for average news consumers? Not only do they have to check their sources when - before they share something on social media, but when they see a fact-check, are they supposed to be verifying the verifiers now?

NGUYEN: What should be happening is that there are people who have proven - have a proven track record of doing it really, really well and doing it in this service of truth. And if you are looking specifically for fact-checks, check the ones that you know have a proven track record. It's interesting because me saying the next line plays into it, but sometimes you don't want to disbelieve it on the first go and you need to take that extra step. But if you're going to take that extra step, take it with someone that you trust.

ESTRIN: Kevin Nguyen is a reporter and producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Thank you so much, Kevin.

NGUYEN: Thanks so much, Daniel. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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