Interview: Journalists take charge in battle against fake news

CrossCheck is a joint effort among media workers from various outlets to spot and debunk fake news from different political sides, put to work during the latest French presidential elections. ECPMF's Jane Whyatt spoke about the initiative with participant Aline Robert, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV France, as Robert engaged in a Future Media Lab debate about fake news as part of World Press Freedom Day commemorations in Brussels.

ECPMF: What tools did you use through CrossCheck to establish whether the news was fake or true?

We didn't have magic tools to understand, but we did have on the project some websites that are very useful, to check pictures, for example. It shows where the picture has been published first. There were some tricks, you know, that helped your work. But a lot of it was just like any other kind of journalism – you get back to the first source and understand where it comes from. And if there is no source, there is no news.

Aline Robert 900X600 EURACTIV France's Aline Robert, speaking about and actively fighting against fake news, took part in a debate organised by Future Media Lab in Brussels on 2 May. (Photo: EMMA)

Google and Facebook put some money into this project. What was their role in it?

Facebook's role was quite small; they just sponsored a bit of advertisement on it. Google put more money in it, but this was relatively nothing compared to the strength and time that journalists from the news outlets gave to this project. Of course it needs basic funding, but basically it's just an impulse and there's a platform to work together; it's not very complicated to put in place. You don't really need any financing.

What was the reaction of the French journalists to your fact-checking project?

Some of the young journalists were very enthusiastic, maybe because it involved quite a lot of [the] technical [side]. Some of the news outlets were very enthusiastic [as well] but some of the newspapers themselves on the right wing just refused to join, like Le Figaro.

Would you say that most of the fake news has come from the right wing so far?

From what we analysed, it seemed to be the case that most fake news came from the right wing. (...) But it might be just that we happened to see these. It's totally impossible to control and check all the news. There has been fake news in both camps. Also they were using what's coming from Russian propaganda. You know Russia is putting a lot of money on the table to feed news that are not totally right through Sputnik or Russia Today. Some of that was used by the extreme right. They have the same fight, to show that migrants are really dangerous and they are criminals in Europe. And they are trying to use what Russia produced to make some noise about immigration.

Fake news was used to smear France's new president Emmanuel Macron during the election campaign... how did that work?

He has worked in a bank, he was a high-level guy and he was shown washing his hands after shaking hands with (a group of) workers. It was a totally edited video. It came from a previous story where he had to take hold of some fish and then he had to wash his hands afterwards. It was totally out of context, totally disinformation.

Was that done with a political motive?

What we've seen is really a LOT of fake news and it was shared by the right wing and extreme right, all the same people on Facebook and Twitter. It was some people defending [François] Fillon and [Marine] Le Pen. From the beginning they attacked Emmanuel Macron.

They were making fun of [Macron] and attacking him all the time. There was a very strong right-wing social media organisation, and on the left wing, there were some very strongly defending Mélenchon [the far-left candidate] on YouTube."

But [the latter] are not fake news at all, just totally political.

What will become of the fake news project after the French election, and how could journalists in other countries benefit from it?

There will be a lot of analysis to understand what worked, [and] what did not work. First Draft was thinking of doing the same thing for the German election in September. I'm not sure if that's going to happen, but I'm sure we're going to have feedback from this initiative and some lessons in how to better fight fake news.