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Tamar Kintsurashivili has long been involved with media development projects in Georgia. She discusses disinformation issues and explains how fact-checking and Media and Information Literacy work together.
Tamar Kintsurashvili (@tamarMDF) is the executive director of Georgia's Media Development Foundation and editor-in-chief of the online portal Myth Detector (@MythDetector). Here, she explains how fact-checkers have confronted changing mis- and disinformation challenges in Georgia as well as how they work to educate their audiences in verification techniques.
DW Akademie: How did you get involved with fact-checking? Why do you consider it to be important?
Initially we started fact-checking because of Russian disinformation campaigns and security threats to Georgia. Later we expanded our focus to go beyond just the political agenda and to track "clickbait" sites, which use some of the same methods to mislead. We also focus on domestic propaganda issues because Georgian government-affiliated fake accounts are misusing media for their domestic political agenda. We feel it’s important to inform the public and preserve trust in credible media outlets. In a democratic society, we need quality information in order to make informed choices.
How does Myth Detector do fact checks?
We do factual debunking based on open sources. Part of our fact-checking approach involves finding out information about the media outlets in question or the primary sources they use so that we can give audiences a broader understanding of their intentions. Sites like Sputnik Georgia or Russia Today have become less popular among Georgian consumers, who are now more critical of openly Kremlin-backed media outlets. Disinformation sites now use a deflective source model to hide the real owners of the media outlet and to legitimize their false messages. So they create fake, clone websites like "FoxNews.ge", "CNN.ru", or clones of "BBC News", which appear to be more credible. Western brands are used to mislead society and demonize the West.
Georgian fringe media outlets also sometimes pick up these Russian sources. It's very easy to create online content nowadays, so it's important to understand what is going on behind the scenes. For example, we found out that the IP addresses of cloned CNN and BBC sites were located in St. Petersburg.
We try to provide our audience with information enabling them to consume media content critically. Misleading information is of course not always intentional, but when fake information is disseminated intentionally, as in the case of Russia or other political actors, it's better to explain why.
Who is your target audience and how do you work to reach them?
We work mainly with young people. We also produce content for media, especially those that lack fact-checking skills or the resources to do it on their own. We have 60,000 followers on Facebook. And when we report on critical topics, other media report on our fact-checking. We try to influence policy as well—and to keep an eye on policymakers.
What are some of the key challenges that fact-checkers like Myth Detector face in relation to coronavirus specifically?
We've identified at least three main types of disinformation that are currently circulating in relation to coronavirus. The first relates to Russia, which has cultivated a longstanding conspiracy theory about Georgia's Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, which was originally built with the support of the US government. This is a modern lab, unique in our region, and it's crucial nowadays for diagnosing coronavirus. For a long time, Putin personally and other Russian politicians made claims about the Lugar Lab being the source of different viruses—African swine fever, Zika, and now, the new coronavirus.
The second narrative is about sowing distrust in the EU, particularly in relation to Italy. The argument is that the EU has failed to support Italy, while authoritarian countries like Russia and China present themselves as helping EU members.
The third narrative is part of an anti-liberal agenda which celebrates the closure of borders, implies false connections between coronavirus and migration, or argues that Western people are supposedly being punished for "perverted" lifestyles, etc.
There is also the problem of "clickbait" sites that offer different false cures and incorrect stories about coronavirus. This is a general trend and we’re trying to inform the public especially about false cure stories. In some cases, people are buying medicine that is not prescribed by doctors just because it is advised by false "clickbait" stories.
How does fact-checking interact with Myth Detector's other activities in the domain of media and information literacy, like MIL Lab and Myth Detector Lab?
Media and information literacy is a broad field, but an important part of it is verification. Fact-checking is very useful for developing media literacy training resources. MIL Lab is a website that includes a database of resources we’ve developed, with online games and exercises. Much of our work involves preparing media consumers, and we’re targeting mainly non-journalists. Myth Detector Lab has launched an open call for students and young people—it's not only students who are involved—and we have already trained 110 students (as well as almost 200 teachers) in the past three years. Our motto is "discover truth yourself"—because nobody likes to be told simply what is true or what is false. Participants do fact-checking themselves with the help of our researchers. Our student fact-checkers have also actively been involved in debunking coronavirus-related disinformation.
We take a comprehensive approach: we teach people how to recognize quality media, how the media operates in democratic societies, and how to track sources of information. Transparency of ownership—who is behind the media?—is also an essential part of understanding.
What can fact-checkers do to be most effective?
Our job is to make the invention of fake stories difficult for those media outlets that mislead and misinform the public. We sometimes use a satirical or humorous approach, developing cartoons where it is appropriate to the topic. We also map sources, narratives, and trends for policymakers. In 2015, we began producing annual reports about how narratives are framed and how they change, which gives readers an understanding of the context. Context, narrative framing, fact-checking—all these resources are valuable for the public and for policymakers as well.