Alexandre Capron Hoping to find a terrifying criminal organization funded by Jumbo when it starts investigating the spread of disinformation about Covid-19. Posts in the news feeds of five popular Facebook pages have attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of people in Africa and Western Europe. It contains fake quotes from the president and medical authorities that are sophisticatedly designed to exploit the anger of citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Congolese diaspora in France.
Capron, a journalist who works for The France 24 Observer, uses a number of network tracking tools to search for the organization behind the pages. Some of the tools it uses are Hoaxy, whopostedwhat.com, and the Facebook Page Transparency box. Instead of finding an organized criminal group, he found a 20-year-old student and 16-year-old schoolgirl playing. Both are located in Kinshaha, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The 20 year old page admin told Capron: “We created fake information to hook up followers. We provide social media users with news and information they will never find anywhere else. "
One of the Facebook accounts they created was followed by 150,000 followers. The article about Covid-19 that they uploaded was even distributed up to 206,000 times in just five weeks.
Natalia Antelava, Editor in chief Coda Story-A non-profit media in Tblisi, Georgia-said that disinformation has pushed many media to be reactive. According to him, pursuing organization and motivation in disinformation is a better step.
"Dismantling (hoaxes) has distracted journalists. We have to make proactive coverage and not only react to certain parties' agendas, ”explained Antelava.
Last February, Coda Story browsed the FB Group Stop5G International page which shares false information to attack 5G data technology. During a pandemic, this information resulted in a vandalism against more than 70 cell towers in the UK. The perpetrators believe in the narrative that 5G technology has damaged the immune system and thus contributed to spreading Covid-19.
The Coda Story team tracked the Facebook page manager to a secret underground near the city of Zurich, Germany. Journalists who carry out the coverage must be scanned with a radiation detector before being allowed to interview the actor behind the page. However, instead of writing articles that are cynical or exposing various claims of odd information about the 5G data network, the report reveals the motives and fears of page managers.
In May, the Armenian reporter Tatev Hovhannisyan found some misleading and reckless information about the pandemic created by the local health news site, Medmedia.am. One of them contains an appeal to Armenians to reject all potential vaccine programs. The news was read 131,000 times in Armenia, with a population of only 3 million.
He also saw that the second most read news on the site was unfounded news about the mortuary offering money to families who wanted to sign a statement that their family members had died from Covid-19.
The site, which he later discovered was run by a far-right and anti-LGBTQ doctor, also claims to have a grant program from the US government's state department. Hovhannisyan was suspicious of the veracity of this statement. Instead of exposing false information in the news on this site — which for him is easy to do, but not of much use — he decided to dig deeper into the question of funds behind Medmedia.am.
His efforts began by tracing the grant program through grants.gov (US government grants site) and culminated in failure. He also tries to find out the owners and non-governmental organizations that control Medmedia.am with help Whois.
Hovhannisyan finally found that the grantees must have DUNS number as a unique identity to complete the SAM (System for Award Management) registration process. Armed with this information, he searched the database site SAM.gov and found the name Armenian Association of Young Doctors — the organization the doctor had founded. Further investigation indicated that the grant program for the organization was active.
Eight days after Hovhannisyan published his report on openDemocrarcy, the American embassy in Armenia acknowledged that it had provided grants to the Armenian Association of Young Doctors and Medmedia.am. As a follow-up, American ambassador Lynne Tracy announced that the embassy would end its funding of the site and will tighten a number of grant application procedures. OpenDemocracy report these were later quoted by more than 70 other media in 8 languages.
“I asked myself: how can a US government agency fund an Armenian website that spreads misinformation about Covid-19 and campaigns against vaccines? Dangerous information has been rampant during the Covid-19 pandemic. (This story) shows a real and tremendous global impact, ”said Hovhannisyan.
“Medmedia seems to have changed its approach. The amount of information that has led to misunderstanding and misinformation about Covid-19 has decreased. This is the most important impact for me, "he added.
Syed Nazakat, president of the Society of Asian Journalists and member of the GIJN board from India have observed four waves of disinformation about the pandemic in Asia. First, about the origin; second, about reports from the past that are unrelated but presented as if they were related to the coronavirus; third, about healing; and fourth about kuncitara.
Nazakat warns of an organized wave of disinformation against vaccines imminent in the coming months.
“I see this coming. Kampannye (anti-vaccine) will be more coordinated and more intense than ever. It will destabilize or sabotage existing progress in vaccine development efforts or people will avoid vaccines because of these rumors. I'm talking about the thousands of vaccine rejection videos that appear every day. Journalists will definitely be busy, ”he explained.
Nazakat, who also founded DataLEADS, says conspiracy theories about vaccines exploded across Pakistan for a consequence major media coverage which reported that the CIA conducted vaccinations at the compound where Osama Bin Laden lived. The move by Uncle Sam's domestic intelligence agency was claimed to have occurred before the US military invasion to arrest the Al Qaeda leader in 2011.
"Even when the pandemic started, people still said there was no Covid. They believe that this is a secret CIA mission, "added Nazakat.
“We have seen many Hindi and Bangla videos about alternative medicine and healing. Onions or cow urine are claimed to heal. There are also many conspiracy theories written in Urdu and are daily chatter in Pakistan and India. Covid has also been used as a weapon against Muslims. We have also made hundreds of reports on healing claims that are not based on scientific evidence. When we investigated who did it, we found many interest groups related to alternative medicine, ”he explained.
In a program, Health Analytics Asia—A division at DataLEADS — partnered with doctors in 17 Asian countries to carry out the screening real-time against posts or articles regarding pandemic-related medical claims.
Craig Silverman has become an editor a number of books that help reporters deal with disinformation, including those that are free to download; "Verification Handbook: A definitive guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage."
In May, Silverman looked at disinformation about the anti-Covid-19 mask movement on Facebook and found a connection to efforts to increase the price of masks. This information is not only detrimental to consumers, it has fooled Facebook. The process by which Silverman covered the matter could be replicated by reporters to uncover the commercial disinformation network and the con artists behind it.
In a GIJN webinars on disinformation, Silverman explained that his research started with an advertisement for N95 masks on Facebook. The advertisement combines false data and a quote from a Surgeon General at the US Centers for Disease Monitoring and Prevention. This position turned out to be fictitious.
The online shop link in the advertisement for the N95 mask that Silverman examined did not provide much information. Not broken, he tried other ways by copying the address of the link, giving it without quotes on the front and back, then looking for it with the help of Google. The search results led him to various content in the PayPal community, complaints from deceived consumers, and a company called ZestAds that sold the masks.
Separate searches using the keywords 'masks' and 'ZestAds' resulted in links to hundreds of content complaining of false information, skyrocketing prices for masks, and orders that never arrived.
After visiting the “Related pages” section and browsing through all the panels on the Facebook Page — including 'Reviews' and 'About' - to see more comments, he clicked on the 'Page Transparency' section and found a US company other than ZestAds that is registered as a verified page owner .
For Silverman, this impropriety is only one of several odd signals. He also found that the Facebook page manager, which is supposed to be in America, is probably in Spain.
Silverman's 'snowball' technique investigated this network, including the number of Facebook Pages and online shops selling masks.
“We are seeing a rapid development in the number of companies selling products on Facebook using Shopify as a sales outlet. They can make it in minutes, create more outlets in minutes, and trick consumers into stealing their money, "he said.
Knowing that scammers didn't bother writing the company's vision and mission, Silverman extracted the sentence in the 'About Us' section of the online shops' web pages. He then quotes the sentence and looks it up with the help of Google. Nearly 300 shops were found by Silverman.
One by one he visited the site. Data from the sites were then entered in a spreadsheet to determine their relationship to the fraud network.
"At that time all the hard work of the investigation disappeared," he said. "However, this manual work is very important because I believe in the existence of these shops and see what they are doing with my own eyes."
Not desperate, Silverman conducted a search using the phrase “site: facebook.com” and entered the names of nearly 200 companies that were connected to each other to map their penetration on social media. The business led him to the Facebook page of an online shop called "qomingsoon.com". Transparency The account page provides clues to the location of the fraudster: a company in Malaysia.
“It turns out that ZestAds found a way to trick Facebook in the process of registering verified Page owners. They can freely mislead customers and exploit Facebook, ”he explained.
“At the same time Facebook has banned all mask ads. So not only are we exposing companies that have been misleading with deceptive information, we are also exposing that Facebook is failing to enforce their own policies, ”Silverman said.
This article is an edit of an article entitled 6 Tools and 6 Techniques Reporters Can Use to Unmask the Actors behind COVID-19 Disinformation which was first published by Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN). Distribution of this paper is under license Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International. Jaring collaborates with GIJN to translate and publish regularly GIJN articles for capacity building of journalism in Indonesia