The reputation of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre (ANTAC), a Ukrainian anticorruption NGO, was called into question in May 2017, when a video featuring a report from the American “News24” network appeared on YouTube; the video reported on investigations into the finances of Vitaliy Shabunin, the head of the ANTAC board. A few months later, in September 2017, Ukraine’s NewsOne featured a live broadcast of a sitting of the US Congressional Committee on Financial Issues in relation to alleged corruption in the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU). The hearing focused largely on the conduct of Valeriya Hontareva, who had championed reforms of the banking sector to prevent misuse of the system by business tycoons. The panelists suggested that Ms. Hontareva was herself corrupt and being investigated by the US Congress.
Reports that leading figures fighting for more integrity in Ukraine might themselves be corrupt are, of course, disturbing. What’s even more disturbing is the fact that both of these stories were completely fabricated. News24 does not exist. The news anchor who appeared in the purported News24 video was an American actor named Michael-John Wolfe, hired through the site Fiverr.com. As for the broadcast of the hearing before the “US Congressional Committee on Financial Issues”—there is no such committee. The so-called “hearing” was in fact a private event organized by lobbyists (including former congressman Connie Mack), held in a room in the basement of the US Capitol without the attendance of any current members of Congress. (Representative Ron Estes (R-KS) sponsored the room’s booking, apparently in violation House ethics guidelines.)
Although attempts to tarnish the reputations of activists and reformers are not new, the two incidents described above reveal that anti-anti-corruption forces are beginning to deploy the “fake news” tactics that garnered so much attention in recent elections, especially though not exclusively in the United States. And while in these incidents fake news was used as an offensive strategy, fake news has also been deployed defensively, for example by the wealthy and influential Gupta family in South Africa, to shake off allegations of corruption.
Although these efforts in Ukraine seem clumsy and easily exposed, it is likely that fake news will be an increasingly difficult challenge for anticorruption efforts in the years to come. The fake news phenomenon threatens to undermine anticorruption efforts in a variety of ways:
- First, by implicating anticorruption activists themselves in corruption scandals, fake news casts doubts on the veracity of the information being disseminated by such activists. The suggestion that “persons in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” is intuitive with the general public, and thus provides an effective first-level response to corrupt officials who want to undermine or distract from investigations into their own conduct. This strategy is all the more effective given that some that segments of society may be predisposed to believing in certain content, regardless of whether the source of such content is unverified. Consider the fact that the video implicating Vitaliy Shabunin in corruption was widely shared on Ukrainian social media and to date has more than 15,000 views on YouTube despite the fact that the video was created by news network that people had literally never heard of before.
- Second, fake news polarizes and divides society, and both exploits and intensifies distrust of civil society, particularly civil society groups that are supported by foreign organizations and governments. The creation of distrust gives governments a pretext to create a more hostile environment for activists, as with Ukraine’s recent amendment to a law that now requires anticorruption activists to make asset declarations, just like politicians and public officials.
- Third, the spread of fake news undermines overall confidence in information, including information pertaining to corruption. A study released earlier this year reveals that 82% of countries surveyed distrusted media, the sharpest one-year decline in the history of the study. Information is an extremely vital component of the anticorruption toolkit, and it will be much more difficult for transparency-based strategies to be effective if there is any doubt as to such information’s truthfulness.
The two incidents described at the beginning of this blog post are just the tip of the fake news iceberg. Along with the sophistication and creativity of the manner and method in which fake news is disseminated, new technology is emerging that will make it easier to create even more effective and deceptive fake news. It is imperative that anticorruption activists and others be ahead of the curve and imagine new strategies for responding to and countering fake news.
There are already several initiatives seeking to promote the dissemination of better information. For example, the Ukrainian NGO VoxUkraine has developed VoxCheck, a fact-checking service that seeks to provide an unbiased perspective, the first of its type in modern Ukraine. Tech giants Google and Facebook have also implemented policies to regulate the dissemination of fake news, and E-bay founder Pierre Omidyar has pledged $100 million to fight fake news. The Knight Foundation’s “Knight Prototype Fund” has funded projects to “improve the accurate flow of information,” including Chartcheck (“addressing the spread of misinformation through charts, graphs and data visualizations”), Facts Matter by Politifact (“helping to improve trust in fact-checking, particularly among people who identify as conservative, through experiments”), and Glorious ContextuBot (“helping people become better consumers of online audio and video content through a tool that provides the original source of individual clips”). Publiq (see here and here) is a new initiative that is creating an alternative “media ecosystem” based on blockchain technology that empowers authors and readers “to be part of a safe, impartial and fair ecosystem.” Even though these will be extremely useful tools to combat fake news, it is imperative that the mainstream media provides leadership to this effort, and rebuilds trust in traditional media institutions.
Finding more effective ways to combat the spread of fake news will be important not only for maintaining the health of democratic systems, but for ensuring that corrupt officials do not impede the momentum of anticorruption activists and reformers.