Fake news debunkers prepare for French and German votes
The offices of Correctiv, a German journalists' collective, seem a bit crowded already.
Its East Berlin newsroom has a stage area where a photo shoot recently ended. There are piles of books and a British telephone box, amid second-hand furniture and bits of modern graphic design.
In one corner, a group of exiled Turkish journalists was planning their new project, when EUobserver recently visited.
But space is being made for more people. From early April, a team of four or five fact-checkers will be based here looking for false news to debunk ahead of German elections.
David Schraven, a journalist who founded Correctiv, said it was a no-brainer to launch a fact-checking service.
"Disinformation is a real threat to our society. We’re doing this because we want people on election day to make their decision on the basis of facts," he explained.
The election campaign of Donald Trump in the US was marked by wild allegations and conspiracy theories in partisan and often fringe media, prompting concern that people in Europe could also be made to vote one way or the other by being fed online nonsense.
France, which holds its presidential election in April and May and parliamentary elections in June, and Germany, which has its general election in September, are especially worried. They have put pressure on social media companies to do something with the false stories that are widely shared on their networks.
The threat of regulation has seen Facebook, in particular, dwell on its role in the rise of extremist views.
"We thought that if we just connect people, good things will happen, but that view is now becoming more sophisticated," said Richard Allen, Facebook's director of policy in Europe, at a recent conference in the European Parliament.
The social network says it takes down news stories if they break its rules, for instance if they contain hate speech or if they are posted by people using fake identities.
The giant US firm does not take down stories just because they are not true, however.
"There are some religious beliefs, or health claims: people are perfectly entitled to share them, as long as they don't cross a line, for instance on hate speech," the Facebook boss said. Some politicians do not think that this is enough, and want fake news to be removed altogether.
Facebook is also promoting its users’ media literacy and working with third-party fact-checkers in other initiatives on the issue.
Under a pilot scheme to be launched in Germany next week, Facebook users will be invited to flag dodgy stories, which will be sent to Correctiv for verification.
If the fact-checkers say the story is false, Facebook is to change its algorithm so that it pops up lower down on people’s feeds.
The US firm already launched a similar project in France earlier this month.
It brings together some 30 media outlets, including Le Monde, a French newspaper of record, which launched its own fact-checking section, known as Les Decodeurs, even earlier, in 2014.
For now, there are not that many fake news stories emerging through the system, Maxime Vaudano, a Le Monde journalist, told EUobserver.
"It's not that there aren't any, but the Facebook tool is still new and people don't yet have the reflex of reporting,” he said.
He added that Les Decodeurs only checks “viral stories, meaning they have been published on at least three websites”.
French and German security chiefs have warned that Russia, whose online propaganda machine backed Trump in the US, would interfere in their votes.
But so far, most of the dodgy stories seem to come from activists of French mainstream parties.
Francois Fillon, the centre-right candidate last week accused the incumbent president, Francois Hollande, of orchestrating leaks to the media that made him looked bad. But he may have read it on the internet, since the unsubstantiated Hollande accusations had been circulating for weeks.
Some partisan websites have also accused "the media" of taking sides by writing little about the row involving the socialist presidential candidate, Benoit Hamon, while writing lengthy stories on Fillon scandals.
But the two cases were very different - Hamon was accused of insulting someone on Twitter, while Fillon was accused of embezzling public money - which Le Monde pointed out in its editorial reasoning.
The French centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, is said to have been a target of Russian propaganda.
Some time ago, Russian TV said he might be gay and the rumour was spread on social media.
Le Monde’s Vaudano said that news of this type could not be fact-checked by journalists. Finally, Macron denied the claim.
Whatever their impact on public opinion, debunking projects are becoming increasingly fashionable.
RT, a Russian state-funded TV and online firm that is said to be a Kremlin mouthpiece, recently launched its own version.
Politicians have also started to check the fact-checkers.
In the first TV debate of the French presidential candidates, the anti-EU and far-right contender, Marine Le Pen, held up a graph.
It showed figures from the OECD, a Paris-based club of wealthy nations, which said that industrial production went up in Germany after the euro was introduced in 2001, but that it went down in France.
Les Decodeurs denounced the “manipulation”, saying Le Pen was wrong to have used 2001 as the base year because it falsely amplified that year’s importance.
The Le Monde unit published another graph using 2010 as the base year which showed a different trend. It noted that levels of German production were linked to labour market reforms and welfare cuts (Agenda 2010) as well as to the single currency.
Le Pen replied on her blog that criticism against her 2001 comparison was unjustified and called the journalists unpatriotic.
Predictably, Le Monde did not convince Le Pen fans, one of whom wrote on the far-right leader's Facebook page: "I'm sure you are right about the euro and about the closing of borders. My husband was fired two years ago. The factory moved to Poland. Soon they will cut his benefits, we don't know what to do. I agree 100 percent that it is time to change things."
Another one added: "What journalists don't understand is that we want Marine to be in power, she will take her own decisions without thinking about what others think."
Vaudano, who spoke to EUobserver before the TV debate, said he was aware of the limits of fact-checking.
"We are not trying to convince those who don't want to believe in facts, but to warn those who do," he said.
But how objective is Le Monde itself?
The French daily branded Le Pen's information as fake news without mentioning that many experts agree the euro has benefitted Germany, which could be called a biased story on its own part.
Would it not be better to take on a discussion with Marine Le Pen's ideas, rather than saying she's wrong because of a graph?
Les Decodeurs had earlier faced criticism for branding Fakir, a left-wing magazine, as being “unreliable”, while giving full credibility to Valeurs Actuelles, a publication accused of promoting reactionary, if not far-right views.
David Schraven, the Correctiv founder in Germany, said he was sure there will be mistakes when his fact-checking starts operating.
"Shit happens. Then we will have to have a debate about it, present different views and let the public decide," he said, not referring directly to Le Monde.
He said the pitfalls in his work do not mean it cannot make a positive contribution to media transparency, however.
“There are fake stories out there and people believe them and make decisions based on them. I don't want to sit and wait for the perfect definition of fake news. This other people can do. I care about the problem," he said.
The article was corrected on 28 March to remove an erroneous description of the RT fact-checking service. It said the RT project publishes screengrabs of Russia-critical stories in mainstream EU and US media with a red stamp that says “Fake”. In fact, it is the Russian ministry of foreign affairs that publishes screenshots of Russia-critical stories with a red "Fake" stamp.