What was your role in your organisation?
I was working as a coordinator of the fact-checking department at AFP for Central Europe covering three countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. For five years, I was the head of the Agence France Presse office in Warsaw, and between June 2020-January 2021, I was dealing only with fact-checking. I contributed to the creation of the fact-checking department in the AFP’s European sector. I was involved in the reading, discussing, and final shaping of the fact-checking articles that AFP published. It was a tedious work, but at the same time very stimulating. This is an extremely important task in terms of the work of journalists in our times, especially in a situation where we are being flooded with false information, which is damaging both to society and democracy, and independent thinking. At the end of my almost 50-year long career as a journalist, I took up something that I believe is very useful.
How would you describe your organisation's mission and expertise in the field of media literacy/ critical thinking/ fact-checking/ countering disinformation?
It is about helping people not to fall victim to false information. The Internet, which has certainly done a lot of good for people, also has its dark sides. The net spreads incorrect information, all kinds of conspiracy theories, and accusations which have a negative impact on social life, political life, people’s understanding of the world. Disinformation often causes fear, because the basic instinct that governs public opinion is fear. Those who produce false information most often pray on this fear. Of course, they are sometimes financially motivated because you can also earn money by spreading fake news. Our mission is to stop this massive wave of disinformation, to debunk particular cases of false information, and at the same time to teach people to recognise fake news and not to give in to it. That, in short, is how I see our mission.
What are the primary resources developed by your organization you'd be willing to share?
We fight against disinformation at the primary, fundamental level. It is important, though, to have someone analyse disinformation, discover its sources, financial flows hidden behind it, as well as political or social motivations. This should be done by scientists, analysts, or experts. Meanwhile, we are trying earnestly to respond to statements containing false information. For example, a conspiracy theory appeared that Bill Gates was at the forefront of Covid-19 pandemic with an aim to reduce the world’s population. We proved that this claim was not true, explained on what basis we thought so, and how this could be verified. We are merely trying to convince people who, unfortunately, are willing to believe in such theories. This is again the case where fear works, and makes people look for a straightforward explanation of events. And we are trying to provide an answer to that.
We also have conspiracy theories that the 5G network is somehow linked to Covid-19 and that it has a terrible adverse effect on human health. Such a theory is being disseminated in many parts of the world. Our fact-checking service operates in 39 countries. We could see that this conspiracy theory has been spread in the United Kingdom, in Italy, even in Africa. When an antenna mast in Italy burnt down, fake news immediately appeared – despite the fact there was no 5G antenna there – that “the opponents of the 5G network did it. This network is a deadly weapon of a world conspiracy, but fortunately, people burnt this mast”. No part of the world is free of such conspiracy theories, and that is dangerous.
In your opinion, which are the three most significant current challenges related to countering disinformation in your country?
What is most difficult for us is that we have both political and international challenges. There are, unfortunately, groups of political activists, as well as secret services of some countries, which have a clear, specific interest in producing false information, and they are doing it better and better at it. It is a significant challenge because fake news is constructed convincingly, and false information is presented if the form of seemingly reliable scientific arguments. They even include links to some research that may not have existed or is also bogus. This is a very serious challenge which should be handled by experts, because it is probably beyond an average journalist or fact-checker’s capability to debunk. We are trying to fight it. We discover and verify such high-quality fakes.
Interestingly, fake news appear in almost identical form in different countries. The articles are practically literal translations of the same text. Some of them are aimed at combating, for example, NATO, the European Union, and others – at sowing mistrust or fear in society, which is also a destructive factor in social and political life. It is one of the most critical challenges. Unfortunately, the second challenge is the lack of a certain level of knowledge and curiosity among the Internet users. It is perhaps arrogant what I say, because it looks as if people did not know, and we knew better. But unfortunately, this is the way it is. People do not seek to search for accurate information from serious sources, which they often find boring or difficult to understand.
The third challenge, perhaps a little less dangerous, is that people who express their opinions on the Internet tend to be very emotional. They do not approach the problem as a riddle, which needs to be considered, studied, and answered somehow. There are specific issues that give rise to strong emotions, and Internet users respond to them. They sometimes fight against our fact-checking activities, and I suspect that they also fight against scientists, although they probably have less access to them. Therefore, certain Internet users are blaming us for being a part of a conspiracy network. We were accused of being on the payroll of Bill Gates, for example, or large pharmaceutical companies, or some secret services. Fortunately, however, we are not on anyone’s payroll. We are trying to do our job, which we consider essential. Unfortunately, however, these emotions are difficult to counteract because it is impossible to explain anything to people who spread conspiracy theories. It is the third challenge.
Could you recommend solutions how to counter disinformation, strengthening societies' critical thinking skills, and building civil resilience to disinformation?
We have three solutions. One is to “bounce the ball” – that is, to debunk individual false information, one by one. And we are successful in that. We work with Facebook. When we describe some information as incorrect, Facebook adds our article to the post on the web and the false post is covered up with it. It does not mean censorship. Facebook casts a kind of “grey curtain’” on it, with a caption: “This post was deemed false by an independent fact-checker, and you can read about it here.” Anyone who wants to read the fact-checked version, will read it, and you can also read the original post with false information. Facebook is the vehicle through which 60% of the information reaching people from all over the world today goes through. Independent research has shown this. Unfortunately, good old, printed newspapers have not been doing very well recently.
Another essential solution to educate people. To make them realise that there is so much fake news. People should be aware of this from the beginning. And when they know that there is a danger, they may be able to recognise it better. But it is necessary to teach them how to distinguish facts from opinions, to explain how fake news looks like and how it is made, as well as who produces it and why. I hope this kind of knowledge will allow at least part of the population to get immune to disinformation. So that people stop believing that if something appeared on the screen of their computer must be true – as in the past when you said that something was printed in a newspaper, it was considered true.
The third solution is to raise the standard of living and education of societies. It seems that people who are less frightened by the changing world, and who live a more comfortable lives, will have more time for their own and independent reflection about what is true, and what is not, as well as a better understanding of what is happening.
I am glad to be a news agency journalist, producing over the years the same information for all kinds of media: right-wing, left-wing, independent, and others. I managed to learn to avoid expressing opinions in a hidden way in texts that I wrote or supervised. For a news agency journalist, especially in a global agency, this is a necessity. We write for the Palestinians and the Israelis, for the Americans and people from Iraq or Afghanistan. We give dry facts. It sometimes may seem that our texts are less appealing because the reader needs an opinion, sharply expressed and illuminated in some way by the person who is writing the text. But that is the difference between news agencies and opinion-making media. I worked all my life in a news agency, and it seems to me that this approach is possible. At the same time, I understand that it is difficult for the majority of readers to separate facts from opinions, and that they will read, even subconsciously, what corresponds to their beliefs. Someone is choosing Gazeta Wyborcza to read, and someone else – Gazeta Polska.
Of course, it does not mean that agency journalists have not their own views. The very selection of the facts we are describing, deciding which one is essential and which is not, can be perceived as expressing an opinion to some extent. What title and “lead” is given, what can be found in the last paragraph that the reader may or may not read. That’s why we are also sometimes accused of manipulating information in some sense. We try to avoid this as much as possible, using the so-called “human interest” criterion, that is: what is essential to people? We write about this in the most neutral way possible. There was even a maxim, which was difficult to apply, that value-laden adjectives should be avoided. For example, we do not say that someone delivered a good speech. We simply state he or she talked about this and that. Whether it was good or bad can be seen from the reaction, whether the speech was received by applause or whistling. And these are the facts that we should convey.
What are the prevailing disinformation narratives you have observed in the media space last year?
A dominant one: Covid-19, but also anti-vaccinationists, seemingly unrelated to the pandemic, but some people are linking both that it is the same conspiracy.
Have you been relying on any fact-checking tools?
False information is often based on the abuse of different kinds of images, photographs or films. A movie made in Afghanistan may be taken to illustrate what has happened in Israel. Or a picture of some big demonstration may be taken as an illustration of an entirely different event. For example, a protest against the Slovak Government after the death of the journalist Jan Kuciak was used to illustrate a demonstration against vaccines, attended hardly by anyone. It is relatively easy to identify these tricks, and we have tools which allow us to quickly find the pictures used and check where they came from and what they really depict. As for the tools, these are search engines like Google Image, for example, but there is also Yandex, a Russian search engine –sometimes even better than Google. Algorithms are also now being developed that make it possible to find a lot of vital information through keywords. Suppose we identify false information containing a string of words. In that case, the algorithm can find other texts with the same content on the Internet. Simultaneously, algorithms are already being developed, enabling us to find false information through emotional language. Thanks to Facebook’s help, we use a much simpler tool to find information that may be inaccurate and analyse it. On the one hand, this is information that goes viral on the Internet and, on the other, the one that gets a lot of negative comments. We then carry out an independent investigation ourselves to see whether this is true or false – because there is also accurate information that gives rise to comments of this kind.
At the beginning of the pandemic, our fact-checker in Slovakia found a video, reportedly showing Wuhan’s town, where the pandemic began. There were plenty of beautiful skyscrapers, bridges, and motorways. With our Chinese department’s help, the journalist discovered that this video did not show Wuhan’s city at all. It showed various other Chinese cities, not Wuhan. This investigation was very long and tedious. In this compilation of beautiful skyscrapers, all the towns where their photographs came from had to be identified. But the article was awarded the title of “fact-check of the week” by an independent international fact-checking network.
We also received information from Belgrade that a patient died due to the ventilators’ failure in the hospital to which he had applied. The Minister for Health said that this was not true, and his words spread across the net. We established that the Minister was wrong, we described the case, which brought about a sharp reaction from the Serbian Government. However, we had substantial evidence to support our claims, and we managed to get away with it without any problem.
In your opinion, who are the best performing actors – in your country and the EU – playing crucial roles in the field of media literacy today, and why?
Institutes and university programs are slowly emerging, which are starting to deal with the problem of disinformation. I think we are at the beginning of this process, but we move in the right direction. A relatively large number of fact-checking services has also been set up, and this works at our level – information agencies and media. In Poland, we have several of them, not only AFP but also Kontakt24, a department of the Discovery group, TVN television. There is such a department – as far as I know – even in Gazeta Wyborcza daily; there is CyberDefence24, FakeHunter in the Polish Press Agency (PAP). There is also the Demagog group, which operates in several countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia. So there has been some reaction to disinformation.
We also have the European project, which is only just starting, to fund these efforts on three pillars. The AFP participated in this tender organised by the European Union. It aims to create a common academic, journalistic and communication platform, reaching out to the public. Researchers and universities will run these three pillars. Still, there will also be fact-checkers involved, as well as organisations which will educate society very broadly: via open conferences and other types of events. We already have events of this kind in France, for example, “Media Week in Schools”. Different types of organisations with journalists’ participation appear in secondary schools and explain how media work, as well as how to deal with false information. My French colleagues have been working with teachers, briefing them what to tell students about it in their classes. If these European platforms are set up – and the EU has a budget for this – there will be anti-disinformation centres in key EU countries. We are witnessing the development of measures designed to respond to false information and its spread at the EU level. START2THINK – as far as I know – is also a part of this European offensive, and that is very good. In Poland, the Polish Press Agency is trying to organise online workshops or conference with different fact-checking communities so as to exchange experiences and move forward. So a lot is going on, but we are still in status nascendi.
Interview from March, 2021.