We held a discussion with Viktoras Daukšas, Director of the initiative Debunk.eu which is based in Lithuania, regarding the practice of emotional targeting and the different ways in which the battle against the spreading of fake news is being fought. Mr. Daukšas recently took part in the public debate “the negative effect of disinformation“, organized by the Citizens Association of MOST in Skopje.
Skopje, April 3rd 2020 (Macedonian Information Agency – MIA) – „Patient zero“ is a medical term which has sprung out from a misunderstanding. One of the first documented victims of AIDS in North America was named “Patient O” in the name of anonymity. That particular patient, Gaëtan Dugas, who was a Canadian flight attendant, was then considered the source of the AIDS epidemic in North America. The letter “O” (indication for “Out-of-California”) was completely unintentionally misconstrued to be the numeral “0” (zero). In fact, Dugas was not the ‘ground zero’ of the epidemic. However, the term kept its usage and kept spreading. It even spread out beyond its usage as a medical term and the term itself got infected by another disease – disinformation.
The situation in the world today resembles the attempts to locate “patient zero”, both symbolically and literally, with today’s attempts to locate the “ground zero” from which an ‘information virus’ has started spreading. The world is faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, but at the same time it is faced with a fake news and coronavirus disinformation pandemic, which actually creates even more panic and keeps ‘adding fire’ to the already volatile public sentiment. North Macedonia is not immune to the coronavirus, nor is it immune to the spreading of fake news associated with the coronavirus, and MIA will keep on publishing interviews, analyses and articles in the following period dedicated to fighting fake news and disinformation.
„Demaskuok“, which debunks in Lithuanian, is a software which looks for the patient zero of fake news. It has been developed by Delfi, a news media group based in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, together with the big American IT-company Google. It functions in such a way that it searches for and analyzes a huge number of idioms on the Internet entered in Lithuanian, Russian and English in order to detect those who are very likely to be disinformation. Then it searches through the online history of news articles that are considered suspicious in order to find the source―patient zero―of the disinformation campaign.
In 2017, 28 countries had been attacked with disinformation, and in 2019 the number rises to 70 states. The trend keeps on growing, and Mr. Daukšas in his interview with MIA says that in the past 2 years Debunk has published well over 200 news articles, which had been read well over 30 million times.
Today, 188 organizations spread out in more than 60 countries are working on debunking disinformation and fact checking. In Lithuania alone, in more than 1,500 different domains, different organizations are analyzing over 30,000 news article written in 8 different languages every day, and Mr. Daukšas in his interview with MIA talked about the state of the news media in his country, about the beginnings of Debunk and the way it functions, but also about the need for appropriate education for every citizen so that he or she is able to evaluate the information presented to him.
MIA: „You have been at the helm of Debunk for three years, could you explain to us how this initiative functions, how many news media it connects, are there any other entities apart from the news media industry and what is its main goal?“
Mr. Daukšas: „Debunk’s main goal is to educate citizens and to reveal the true state of affairs, so that people are informed and are able to make their own decisions. We started our operations 3 years ago, founded by Google and Delfi. Delfi is a news media company operating in the Baltic region, we collaborate with 8 news media companies in total, which support us, publish contents for us, and conduct interviews. The biggest part of the debunking process is conducted by professional journalists, which are well equipped with experience and knowledge in the fields of defense and international relations. The type of journalists we are talking about here are truly a rarity, there are not many journalists that can operate at this level and work on this kind of matters. The rest of them mostly act as support. As an initiative, we analyze open source information, which are available online, and we look for harmful narratives. We have collected a lot of data and assembled a large database throughout the years and now we can easily detect if the same narratives are used again online, if they resurface. That means that if they do resurface, we can easily spot them. We are very efficient. We can also inform our journalists and our partners saying: „look, this is something new and powerful and it was considered harmful in the past.“ This is the way things function.“
MIA: „How much information have you debunked in the past 3 years, in the amount of time that Debunk exists?“
Mr. Daukšas: „In the past 2 years we published more than 200 news articles and those news articles have been read more than 30 million times, and for a country of that size (Lithuania) that is a really good consumption. Some have commented that when there is debunking or fact checking, there are not many readers. If you do it correctly, in the right way and with interesting news articles which are really harmful, people will want to learn and people will read. That is interesting.“
MIA: „I read on your website that you offer fake news detection in two minutes of time, how do you achieve that?“
Mr. Daukšas: „We have developed this tool, this platform, with the help of Google, and in that way we can detect the particular information very fast.“ We can analyze it, we can detect it in a few minutes and we can map it for its harmful narratives, which we already possess, and in that way we inform the impacted ones with which we collaborate.“
MIA: „You are a physicist by training, you are an advocate of IT-development, do you think that it is possible that a platform, or an application can be created which will automatically search for fake news without the presence of the human factor, is that realistic?“
Mr. Daukšas: „That will not be realistic for a very long time. Yes, I possess a physics degree, we were very practical from the outset, we tried to automatize everything that is of value in a certain phase. If you do the automation too early, either you break down because of costs, or it will be too costly, or you will have a bad accuracy rate. That is why we decided to include several ‘human layers’, which will assess the results of the machine learning process, and it that way you improve the process of machine learning. People get feedback and we can again and again train ourselves. That is why it is best to train and learn step by step, rather than try to construct something that will work perfectly from the very start.”
MIA: „It is much cheaper to create disinformation, than to debunk them. Could you tell me something about the profit that each year is being earned those platforms that in a way are ‘fake news factories’?“
Mr. Daukšas: „Yes, that is the main problem with disinformation, it is much cheaper to create them, than to debunk them, and that is a big question. All international factors and organizations must work on that and they also need to increase the efficiency in such a way so as to lower the costs of debunking vis-à-vis the cost of producing disinformation. If we look at the analyses that have been conducted, more than 20,000 websites associated with disinformation and different types of fake news have been analyzed. It has been calculated that these websites were able to earn $235 million in one year from advertising.”
MIA: „What is the current state of the news media industry in Lithuania?“
Mr. Daukšas: „In Lithuania and in the Baltic region the news media industry is well established.” There are some smaller websites that have a tendency to cause damage and certainly there are effects on social media as well, and that is one huge question. There is a huge number of Lithuanian ‘elves’, there are now more than 4,000 people that are active on the social media, that are trying to catch the ‘trolls’ on Facebook. That is the activity they carry out and that is a really important thing. But there is also a strong effect on foreign countries from websites which are not based in Lithuania, but which are trying to spread information in or around Lithuania. We still have a huge percentage of the population that understands the Russian language well.“
Mr. Daukšas: „The main job of citizens should be that: if they notice they are becoming emotional, then they should not forward the content further, because it is very likely that it has been developed to attack your emotions, so someone invested a large effort for you to forward that content. That is usually the story. It is important which news medium you are using, and how do you know if it is credible or not. I think the same logic follows food and food labels, you have to read the food label to know more about the food you are ingesting. The same applies to news media, we need to understand who is behind that medium, who is the owner, are they credible and do they work for your own good.“