Craig Silverman: So many people around the world are afraid and anxious and this is unprecedented for basically all of us, to experience a global pandemic. And so the groundwork is there to have just tremendous amounts of false and misleading information.
Arja van den Bergh: Fake news. Je hoort hier de Canadese journalist die de term ‘nepnieuws' populair maakte en door wie we die term allemaal zijn gaan gebruiken. Hij heet Craig Silverman. Hij schrijft over nepnieuws, doet er onderzoek naar, en wordt overal ter wereld uitgenodigd om over de oorzaak én bestrijding van nepnieuws te praten. Zo ook in De Balie in Amsterdam, waar hij begin dit jaar een lezing gaf. Ik wilde hem heel graag spreken, want ik volg Craig al sinds 2016, nu vier jaar geleden. Toen ontdekte hij, in aanloop naar de Amerikaanse verkiezingen, honderden nepnieuws-sites over Donald Trump. Het bijzondere daaraan: al dat nepnieuws was te herleiden naar Veles, een stadje in het Oost-Europese Macedonië. Toevallig precies het land waar mijn familie vandaan komt.
Craig: I feel that I was naive about a lot of things, particularly about technology and social media. I was very positive about these things for a long time. And now we're really starting to see the downsides.
Arja: Mijn naam is Arja van den Bergh, ik ben redacteur bij Tegenlicht en ik sprak Craig over nepnieuws, ook nu tijdens corona, en: wat we er zelf tegen kunnen doen.
Arja: So, how about Macedonia? This year?
Craig: Hahaha. I haven’t checked to see what the case level, infection level is there, in Macedonia. How are things there, I have no idea…
Arja: Ik vraag naar Macedonië, want dat was zijn grote scoop in 2016. Als ik hem spreek in De Balie zie ik een energieke veertiger, hipper gekleed dan je van een journalist zou verwachten. Met een transparant brilmontuur en een aanstekelijke lach. Craig werkt bij Buzzfeed News, een grote Amerikaanse nieuwswebsite met een flinke onderzoeksjournalistieke afdeling, ook in Canada. Hij staat dus bekend als de man die de term ‘fake news’ populair maakte – en daar heeft-ie inmiddels een beetje spijt van. De term dekt de complexiteit namelijk niet, en het wordt nu als wapen tégen journalisten gebruikt. Precies het tegenovergestelde van hoe hij het ooit bedoelde.
[fragment] Donald Trump: 'You're fake news', tegen CNN-journalist Jim Acosta.
Arja: De man die tegenover me zit, onderzoekt nepnieuws al meer dan tien jaar. Hoe kwam hij destijds aan dat verhaal in Macedonië?
Craig: The funny things about the Macedonian teen story is that we weren't looking for financially driven actors. We weren't looking for anyone in Macedonia. We were actually looking for evidence for Russian efforts to influence the American elections. So, being familiar with particularly Russian efforts in Ukraine that we've seen since the annexation of Crimea, that we've seen since the downing of MH17, in the summer of 2016 Isort of thought: there is a decent chance that Russia may try to use some of the tactics that it has developed in the US election.
Arja: En toen ontdekte hij die honderden nepnieuws-sites, vol positieve Trump-verhalen. Niet uit Rusland, maar uit Veles, een stadje zo groot als het Drentse Hoogeveen – op een uurtje rijden van de Macedonische hoofdstad Skopje. Gerund door tieners.
Craig: What I saw first, was people that really understood how to get stuff to move on Facebook. Yes, they were often plagiarizing content or, you know, sloppily aggregating it from other places, but they understood how to reframe it and they understood how to use Facebook to get more engagement for their version than the original. So one: they seem pretty savvy, and then two: when we looked at, what are the most viral articles from the sites that we found, it turned out that they were false claims. And that was a different angle and a different understanding there. And that, for me, that’s when the light bulb went off, and realize that, you know, they’ve just figured out what’s working on Facebook, and what’s working on Facebook is the most extreme stuff. And often the most anti-Clinton or pro-Trump stuff. So for me, at that moment, these Macedonians actually explained the Facebook economy to a certain extent. And yes, it’s wild that there is young as teenagers, and yes, it is wild that they are just purely financially driven and don’t care, but to me the main message of that was: look how broken digital advertising and Facebook are.
Arja: Jongeren die bevangen zijn door digitale goudkoorts. Velen nog tieners, opgegroeid in het digitale tijdperk, die dus precies weten hoe ze internet naar hun hand kunnen zetten.
Maar er zitten ook twintigers tussen, hoogopgeleid, die goed Engels kunnen, maar die geen baan kunnen vinden. In een land met een werkloosheidspercentage van rond de 20 procent, is elke kans op werk er eentje om te grijpen.
Hoe deden ze dit? Een site als Donaldtrumpnews.com in de lucht gooien, en vervolgens via extreme koppen over Clinton of Trump op Facebook kliks en verkeer naar die websites leiden, die volstonden met advertenties. Per klik op die advertenties leverde het de jongeren een fractie van een cent op. Dat klinkt misschien als een schijntje, maar voor een Macedoniër, met een gemiddeld loon van 350 euro per maand, telden die fracties van centen op tot vier of vijf keer dat maandloon – een riant salaris.
Ze hadden dus vooral een financieel motief. Maar maakt dat iets uit, de motivatie erachter, voor ons als internetgebruiker?
Craig: You know, in general, for any type of actor, whether its teens in Macedonia or others, the motive is really important. Because the content and the sort of things that they produce – whether it’s articles, or Facebookposts or video’s, oftentimes you can have people with completely different motivations who end up actually creating the same type of stuff. The trolls were a very professional organization, there with, doing a ideological mission, interfering the US election, hurting Hillary Clinton, helping Trump. You look at the Macedonian teens, they ended up gravitating towards very pro-Trump material, they ended up gravitating towards stuff that was very anti-Clinton, but that wasn't because they necessarily cared about who won or who lost. What they cared about is what performed best on Facebook. What actually got them the most clicks from the stuff from Facebook to their website for them to earn money.
Arja: Er is een onderscheid tussen trollen met een ideologische missie, die verkiezingen willen beïnvloeden, en deze Macedonische jongeren bijvoorbeeld, die via kliks en advertenties geld probeerden te verdienen. Belangrijk is dus het doel van het nepnieuwsbericht. Waarom wil iemand dat je klikt? Om je denkbeelden te beïnvloeden, om simpelweg geld aan je te verdienen? En hoe herken je dat?
Craig: So, the motivation is really interesting. One, because if we're going actually to expose people and talk about who's behind it, we need to understand that. But two: because I think this helps making a larger point, that you can have people with completely different motivations, but for those different reasons they gravitate towards the same thing. And that creates a difficulty for the average person, of understanding what the motivation is behind something you're seeing. And, I mean, I have two kids, and they're in school, and one the earliest media lesson they received is: looking at a message, and figuring out what the goal of that message is. Is it to inform, it is to pursuade, is it to enrage? I think that's a really interesting problem we're all struggling with.
Arja: How do you research the motivation? How do you do that?
Craig: There is definitely a combination of looking at the message of the content itself, but you can't make a judgement just based on that. And so you absolutely have to figure out: where did this come from, who originated this message, but also: who is propagating it and why? And then figure out who those people are. So that element of attribution and then: yes, talking to people, and weighing what they're telling you against other pieces of evidence that you can find, you know, they may tell you one thing as a journalist and they may post another thing to a friend on social media... That's a really essential piece of it. It's one of the things actually that I think the platforms themselves are struggling with right now, because Facebook and Google and Twitter now have dedicated teams trying to identify attempts to break their policies to mislead people, to deceive people on their platforms.
Arja: Grote techbedrijven als Facebook en Twitter doen inmiddels meer om nepnieuws te bestrijden, zoals meer factchecken en direct verwijzen naar overheidsinformatie, bovenaan je tijdlijn. Diepgravend onderzoek naar de beweegredenen van mensen of organisaties die desinformatie verspreiden… Dat is onder andere de taak van de journalist, zegt Craig.
Craig: When they anounce these takedowns, they're using technical material they've gathered, they're using content analysis and other elements – but they typically don't talk to people! And we found this, we've gone and we've messaged people running accounts. You know they might be running a website who's accounts have been deleted from Facebook and Twitter, and we've asked them what they're doing and you know, you get very different answers and very different responses from them a lot than what the platforms have said. And so, this is an interesting place where journalists are doing something that the platforms and a lot of these researchers and information security firms aren't doing: which is go and actually talk to the actors, and see what they say. Now, they may lie to you, obviously, so you can't just take it at face value, but that is an essential part of the process of journalism, and that's a piece that's often not done by the other people interested in this area.
Arja: Ik vertel hem dat ik zelf ook contact heb gehad met iemand in Macedonië, die op deze manier een tijdje geld verdiende. Hij vond Amerikanen maar dom en zei cynisch dat het buitenlandbeleid van Westerse landen er mede voor had gezorgd dat Macedonië nu een van de armste landen van Europa is. Geld verdienen aan Amerikanen die in nepnieuws trappen? Prima, net goed.
Craig: Yes. This is absolutely a point of view that I have heard express. There are some people who say: listen, I'm just trying to earn money. But there are other people who – they're not neccesarily trying to influence the American election, but for them they see – well, this is payback, in some ways. One basic response you hear is: well, there's an opportunity here, and this is content Americans like, and if they're too stupid to know the difference, then what's the problem with me putting it out there. But you also do hear about the American hedgemony, American imperialism, as a justification for this. And this is one of the strange things about the scenario specific to Macedonia – is that the American government has – for years – been pouring money into trying to raise up an independent press there. And US Aid is active in Macedonia, and there is American money flowing into Macedonia. I don't know if the average Macedonian is aware of that, cares about that, or sees any effect from it – they may see a very different piece of it, where they feel like in some cases they are punished by American foreign policy.
Arja: We moeten ons realiseren dat het Amerikaanse buitenlandbeleid wordt gebruikt om dit soort praktijken te rechtvaardigen. En, benadrukt hij, dat het niet beperkt blijft tot Macedonië.
Craig: One of the things that's really interesting and telling is that we're seeing this happen with very young people, not just in Macedonia, but also in Kosovo, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, in India. These are places where young, tech savvy people start to understand these platforms, understand the dynamics of content, and they see a fantastic opportunity for upward mobility financially, and selling social media manipulation services and spreading content that, you know, really they don't really care about the content. They just want to earn some money from it. And so understanding, you know, that this is not something that is small for them. This is actually a very big economic opportunity for them. If we don't understand that and I think it's very difficult to actually go after the financially driven aspect of it, because it's a transformative opportunity for a lot of these folks.
Arja: Ik vraag Craig of we hier in het Westen genoeg snappen van de sociaal-economische context in al die landen. Of we genoeg weten over hun blik op de wereldpolitiek, en over de omstandigheden van waaruit mensen vatbaar kunnen zijn voor economische of ideologische prikkels om nepnieuws te verspreiden. En of we van de trol geen stereotype maken.
Do you think we exoticize trolls… too much?
Craig: Right. I mean, I think there is no question that the idea of the Russian troll has become... not necessarily romanticized in the American mind, but now we have this horrible scenario where people who disagree with eachother are calling eachother Russian trolls on Twitter and elsewhere. And it's become ridiculous. And there's frankly been also a lot of really bad journalism pointing at things as: well, this is a Russian operation. And that does feed a sort kind of Russia-phobia, which I think is not healthy. And so, I think you have to be aware of those contexts. I think you also have to be aware of the Putin government, and how they operate, and the actions they're taking.
When I can go there and meet people, and when you can understand a little bit of the history – because I only understand a little bit – suddenly your human empathy comes out a lot more and you don't write about it just as, oh, look at these terrible people and what they're doing on the Internet. And I think actually that's a piece that is often missing from this stuff. And it's not just Macedonia, it's in countries around the world. And I feel like: we still don't fully understand, particularly for those of us in the West, what conditions create people wanting to do this in these countries.
Arja: Vanuit welke omstandigheden kiest iemand om geld te verdienen met nepnieuws? We verdiepen ons er nog te weinig in, volgens hem.
Craig: The difficult thing here is... how complicated and intertwined a lot of this is. And people go looking for very simple answers. One of the reasons why the term fake news I think became so big and global, is that Americans went looking kind of for easy answers to explain how Trump won, when nobody expected he would.
Arja: Inmiddels is het voor individuen en organisaties in het ene land moeilijker geworden om informatie te verspreiden over de politiek in een ander land, vanwege betere regulering. Toch neemt de hoeveelheid nepnieuws niet af.Naast snel en makkelijk geld verdienen en een ideologische drijfveer, is er nog een motor achter nepnieuws: verwarring zaaien. Met misleidende berichten, van complottheorieën tot complete onzin. En dat komt nu allemaal tot een hoogtepunt tijdens deze corona-pandemie.
[fragment] Pieter Derks over 5G-nepnieuws op Radio 1.
Craig: The corona virus seems to have unleashed probably the worst global outbreak of disinformation, misinformation… so many people around the world are afraid and anxious and this is unprecedented for basically all of us, to experience a global pandemic. And so the groundwork is there just to have a tremendous amount of false and misleading information. And because this is connected to a medical issue – it’s life threatening. So the stakes are about as high as you can get. And the spread of misinformation and disinformation I think – is maybe a highpoint of what we’ve seen, in the social media age and the internet age. Because so many people around the world are affected, and so we’re seeing things like: you know, text messages and Whatsapp-messages, telling people that – you know, if you drink water you can kill the virus – and it’s being spread from one country to the next, from one language to the next. So it’s a truly global infodemic event, and I think it is one that is going to be studied, because it’s the best kind of globall case study of disinformation we’ve probably ever had.
Arja: Met de verspreiding van het virus is dus ook de verspreiding van nepnieuws tot een hoogtepunt gekomen. Het virus verenigt ons allemaal, maar het verenigt ook complottheoristen.
Craig: I think one of the things that we’re also seeing happen, is a convergence of a lot of different alternative reality communities. So whether it’s 5G or people who think, you know, 5G is going to make us sick, anti-Vaxxers, anti-government, people queing on conspiracy theorists – basically everyone is converging on this, because it is the big global event, it is what everbody’s worried about. And so they’re finding common cause, these different and desperate communities… these fringes have come together and everyone’s attention is focused on this.
Arja: Hoe heeft Craig de afgelopen weken gekeken naar de totstandkoming en verspreiding van informatie over Covid-19? Van het aantal besmettingen, en doden, de interpretatie van overheden, tot de complete onzin over hoe je corona kunt voorkomen.
Craig: There has been a few fases, of how the corona virus and disinformation has spread. The early part of the year where it was really seen as a China issue. You saw stuff around China, and then as the world kind of started to wake up in February, and then certainly as we get into March, you have people realising, no wait, this is going global. And so, at that point you start to see information, and disinformation about the origins of the virus – so very early on people trying to say that this was a bioweapon that got out of the lab in China.
And then there was a wave of sort of panicked disinformation about how do you protect yourself, how do you prevent it, how do you sort of cure it. So there you had horrible advice about how drinking water will prevent it, sunlight will disinfect you, and these kind of things.
Now it feels like wat the focus of the disinformation is, is around the lockdowns, around social distancing and around the models that were produced about how many people will be infected and how many people will die. Because people are suffering economic and mental health hardships as a result of the lockdowns. So the conspiracy communities are basically trying to frame it as: the government is trying to control you and keep you down, and Bill Gates wants to inject you with a mind control vaccine – so we have to end these lockdowns, it is a matter of freedom. That’s really, I think, a big focus right now: undermining the justification for lockdowns, and undermining the scientific models so that people can just kind of get out of their house.
Arja: Is de lawine aan misleidend nieuws te overzien, en is het überhaupt tegen te houden?
Craig: I think there’s been a lot of efforts to try and push credible information. I mean this is the biggest global factchecking effort that has ever existed, in the history of humanity. That’s the reality of it. All of the global factchecking organisations are working overtime – they’ve done more factchecks probably than they ever done about an individual thing. And they are really rallying to it. But the reality is that, because our anxiety is so big, because this is a global pandemic, there’s just a constant stream of false and misleiding information. So we’re never going be able to fully beat it back. And so that’s kind of a difficult reality to face.
Arja: De Wereldgezondheidsorganisatie spreekt inmiddels van een ‘infodemie’ – een mixwoord van informatie en epidemie, ofwel: de strijd tegen valse informatie. En dat helpt volgens Craig wel. Veel overheden zijn, heel begrijpelijk, gefocust op de medische kant, maar hoe deze pandemie verloopt, hangt ook sterk af van informatie. Binnen een land, maar ook tussen landen.
Craig: One of the big things that is happening in countries and between countries right now is: we basically have a government propaganda battle between China and the United States. United States government in reaction mainly to people criticizing the slow reaction from the federal government, have kind of try to shift and say: well, what about China? This all started in China, and maybe it started in a Chinese lab, and this is China’s fault, we should all focus on China. China is basically trying to fight back and say that it started in the United States, and try to question the United States’s data. And so we have the two global superpowers engaged in a blame and disinformation warfare with eachother. And so that is something that is I think a really dominant narrative. A lot of what’s happening is: neighbourly peaking over the fence to other countries, to say like, well, in this country they're doing it this way, in this country they're doing it that way. And sort of question what's going on in your own countries.
The other part of it, that is difficult and frustrating, is that fundamentally, the peope who believe the virus is a hoax, or people who think the lockdowns are unnecessary, they don’t trust governments in the first place. So even if governments are making a big effort, to try and push back on this stuff, that’s just gonna get woven into the narrative – oh, this is governments trying to control you. So it’s a tricky scenario.
Arja: Is er dan nog íets wat we in deze ingewikkelde, eenzame, en soms uitzichtloze situatie kunnen doen? Waar moeten we op letten, hoe maken we het zelf niet nóg erger?
Craig: The first step is the awareneess of it. Of cultivating this, saying, I've read this, I am aware how I am feeling in this moment. And having this pause before you act. And it really is something that you have to practice.
Arja: Wait and see.
Craig: Wait and see. You know, recognize that you've had a big reaction. Recognize that you were about to click 'like' or 'share', or message it so someone you know, and taking that pause and thinking about it. And you can go and dive in more or can simply just kind of take a breath and relax on it and not take any action in that moment.
We are talking about health, we are talking about life and death here. And the thing to keep in mind for a lot of people in this specific context is that science is in a lot of ways a slow process. And so right now we all urgently want cures and vaccines, and we want the best possible data. But we are dealing with a lot of imperfections. You are not going to get the perfect thing and the perfect information right away. And so I think the wait-and-see approach still applies, because it’s actually going to take time for us to know for example what treatments and existing medicines might actually help with the corona virus. So looking for a quick fix – if that’s something that you’re hungry for, that’s understandable – but it’s probably not going to happen. Be aware that, as part of the disinformation, a big part of it is just undermining science and scientific expertise as a whole. But if we abandon that, then what do we really have to fight back against the virus.
Arja: Hij hoopt dat we begrijpen dat de wetenschap een proces is dat langzaam verloopt. Dat een vaccin maken tijd kost. Dat er fouten zullen worden gemaakt. Maar dat we daarom niet zomaar honderden jaren aan wetenschap kunnen weggooien.
Craig: You’re going to get a lot of advice and tips and tidbits of information from family members and friends… you’re gonna get messages sent, and the more urgent a piece of information feels to someone, the more likely they are to pass it on in a moment like this. And so, it’s important to receive it, and realise it’s coming from someone maybe you know, and you love and you trust, but that’s a great time to kind of pivot away from that one message you received, and go seek out some credible sources… so you know, go to some of the authorities in terms of medical and scientific information, see what’s being reported by multiple, different outlets. And just compare and contrast. Because you’re going to receive information that feels urgent and necessary, that is maybe upsetting, and you’ve got to be able to kind of move to the side of that and look for other places to compare and contrast it.
Arja: Onze honger naar kant-en-klare duiding en snelle cijfers is begrijpelijk, maar de wetenschap is een langzaam proces. Krijg je opzienbarende berichtjes doorgestuurd, van familie en vrienden? Wacht, en denk na over het doel van het bericht: is het om te verwarren, geld te verdienen of je minder te laten vertrouwen op de overheid? Bij twijfel: zoek naar nóg een bron.
Craig: It’s hard to try and predict what will happen with all of us, and what lessons might come from the disinformation from the corona virus, because as much as there’s gonna be case studies done about what we saw and what worked in terms of approaches to combat, and what didn’t, I think some of the bad actors and conspiracy communities are gonna do the same, and think about, well, you know, this type of messaging was really effective, maybe we should build on that and adapt that. So it’s gonna be interesting to see who learns the lessons, and who applies them best. Whether it’s the people trying to stop this stuff, or the people trying to push this stuff.
I think, you know, I feel that I was naive about a lot of things, particularly about technology and social media. I was very positive about these things for a long time. And now we're really starting to see the downsides.
Arja: Maar, we kunnen stappen zetten, door betere beslissingen te maken over de informatie die we tot ons nemen. Om de economische prikkel voor nepnieuws, zoals in Macedonië, te verminderen.
Craig: We have to figure out good models for building a resilient populations that can actually adapt to this very confusing information environment. It is totally understandable why it's hard for people in this environment. It's very different from ten or twenty years ago.
It is about making steady progress. It is about reducing the incentives for people to do this kind of stuff. It is about building up your resilliancy in your population. So that people just make good informed decisions about information. If you can really attack that and find ways of helping people navigate this information environment in a better way, that doesn't mean, you know, teaching them what to think. It means teaching them basic skills about checking out what they're seeing. That would be a big help.