Kaufholz on fake news: “The first job is to learn how to fight lies”

by Jane Whyatt
ECPMF Chair Henrik Kaufholz has delivered a stirring call for Europe’s journalists to defend the truth. He urges them to challenge and counter the viral spread of fake news with well-researched facts.

Kaufholz in Belgrad Henrik Kaufholz speaking at the South East Europe Media Forum in Belgrade (screenshot: twitter/ECPMF)

Kaufholz warned that traditional newspapers and TV networks are losing the battle for audiences to social media. This means that, on many instances, lies and rumour are taking the place of honest journalism.

Speaking at the South East Europe Media Forum (SEEMF) in Belgrade on 22 November, Kaufholz earned warm applause in the conference hall. He also sparked a storm of debate in the Twittersphere and drew approval from Renate Schroeder, director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), as reflected in one of her tweets.

Kaufholz in his speech mentioned the revelation by popular site BuzzFeed that fake news was being manufactured in the small town of Veles, Macedonia, during the United States Presidential Election campaign – largely pro-Donald Trump and on at least 140 platforms launched for that purpose. He noted that the 17-year-old Macedonian running told BuzzFeed he started the ad- and click-supported platform as an “easy way to make money.”

Fighting lies where they are

Over the past few weeks, especially surrounding Trump’s election as president, the issue of widespread fake news on social media and their possible influence on voters’ decisions has gained public attention internationally. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg claims that most bogus news stories are “commercially motivated spam” and that the social network has already put new measures in place to stop it, as they “understand how important the issue is for our community and we are committed to getting this right.”

Kaufholz, a veteran political correspondent with the Danish newspaper Politiken, stated during his 22 November speech:

We are living in a world where the agenda is set by social media and not by mainstream media. (...) We have to adjust to new media realities and the first job is to learn how to fight lies.”

Kaufholz suggested that the first step in combating the phenomenon “is to learn how to use social media. How to tweet, how to send effective messages on Facebook. We have to break into the bubbles, where lies are held for truth. At the same time, we shall, of course, live up to our traditional values and do good and reliable reporting. We still have an audience for that.”

However, he also observed that such an audience is dwindling: “We from Neue Zürcher, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Guardian, Le Monde, Politiken, are still read by the elite, but social media are going to take us out. For our readers, Brexit, AfD (right-wing populist party in Germany) and Trump are a puzzle. On Facebook it’s the other way round. We are the puzzle.”

Based on further BuzzFeed analysis, the media industry platform has noted that, in the lead-up to the U.S. Presidential Election, viral fake news stories drew more engagement on Facebook than articles coming from established news outlets. One of the challenges to fighting misinformation is the process of searching, monitoring and translating these stories being spread internationally across various social media channels.    

Ongoing efforts

One response comes from Sweden, where Viralgranskaren has produced a video in English and Swedish showing how social media can create global online lies because no one is checking the facts before they share news and pictures. The example they use is the story of a town in Sweden where there are no Christmas lights. Somehow the rumour spreads that this is because of ”respect for Muslims who do not celebrate Christmas”, but this is totally untrue. The Viralgranskaren video has so far received more than 2.6 million views and 142,100 shares on Facebook.

Meanwhile, just as Kaufholz was speaking in Belgrade, Jenni Sargent of the online media platform and resource hub First Draft News presented their findings at the WAN-IFRA International Newsroom Summit in London. She showed how hoaxers had mimicked real news sites to spread lies about the Pope and Donald Trump.

First Draft’s recommendations for tackling the problem of fake news include using the ICANN register (the internet’s official record of who owns each website and domain name) and joining the First Draft News network of partnersto help report suspicious sites.

About 6-in-10 Americans get news from social media

Besides elections, one major thread of misinformation being spread online concerns asylum-seekers in Europe. In Germany, the arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict over the past year has resulted in a spate of hoaxes – in which new arrivals are blamed for crimes and other fictitious deeds. As a counter to this phenomenon, the Hoaxmap – product of the work of concerned citizens – plots the rumours and reveals the facts based on reliable sources (more).

These fact-checking and correction initiatives may start to affect the level of trust that social media users have in the news being fed to them, encouraging them to do more research before liking, clicking and sharing. As the latest Pew Research statistics show that 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media – as opposed to 49 percent in 2012 – the need for more action via trusted sources and professional journalism is clear.

ECPMF’s Ana Ribeiro contributed to this report.

Get in Contact

fact finding mission analysis