When Russian missiles struck a mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk last month, the deadly attack sent ripples of disinformation across Europe.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the mall was “permanently closed” at the time of the strike and that its forces were targeting ammunition stores. Russia’s ambassador to Ireland responded to international criticism over Moscow’s targeting of a civilian area, describing claims about the attack as “yet another disinformation stunt.”
In the Hungarian capital, Budapest, Blanka Zoldi, editor-in-chief of the fact-checking site Lakmusz, watched as those and other false claims crossed her country’s borders.
“In Hungary, pro-government social media influencers and prominent journalists started to publish screenshots of the opening hours of the shopping mall, claiming that Google Maps actually showed that the shopping mall was not even open and that it has been permanently closed for a long time,” Zoldi told VOA.
“This was the story that was emerging in Hungary, but we saw the exact screenshots of Google Maps appearing in many other countries,” she said.
The quick spread of such disinformation related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to fact-checkers combining forces globally.
“When the war began, fact-checkers immediately started seeing misinformation about the Russia-Ukraine conflict spreading to other countries,” said Enock Nyariki, the community and impact manager at the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).
Founded in 2015, the IFCN is an initiative of the Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies that connects fact-checkers and journalists around the world.
“We saw that misinformation [about the Ukraine conflict] was now going viral in local languages,” Nyariki said. “Ukrainian fact-checkers could not cope with the new situation. It was difficult even for them to spot every piece.”
Maldita, a fact-checking organization based in Spain, was one of the first to alert the IFCN about the fast-spreading disinformation in Europe about the war, Nyariki said.
That led IFCN members to form a collaborative database named #UkraineFacts, where fact-checkers share information, flag mis- and disinformation, and produce content debunking false claims related to the conflict in Ukraine.
The website publishes content in English and other languages from IFCN’s 100-plus members. It has already produced more than 2,000 fact-checks about the war in Ukraine.
Maldita, which sparked the idea, last month accepted the Anne Jacobsen's Memorial Award in Norway on behalf of the network for its work.
In honoring the initiative, the awards committee said in a statement that #UkraineFacts “has shown how we can cooperate instead of working on solving the same problem in different places or media organizations.”
US election, pandemic prompt fact-checking need
The emergence of fact-checking as a popular tool in investigative journalism largely came during the 2016 presidential election in the United States and later the coronavirus pandemic, both of which resulted in an increase in misinformation, said Nyariki.
But the spread of false information related to the Ukraine conflict has accelerated collaboration efforts.
Zoldi of Lakmusz said that in many cases, false narratives are similar in different countries.
Citing the disinformation around the mall attack, Zoldi said Lakmusz journalists relied on other fact-checking organizations to debunk the claims, including the BBC.
“The BBC is a trustworthy organization that has war reporters who spoke to eyewitnesses who confirmed that there were people and civilians in the shopping mall,” Zoldi said.
Lakmusz is a relatively new website. Co-funded by the European Union and Agence France-Presse (AFP), the site was founded in January as part of a collaboration between AFP, the Hungarian news site 444.hu, and the Media Universalis Foundation, which is linked to Lorand Eotvos University in Budapest.
Its goal: to fight misinformation in Hungary.
A shrinking space for independent journalism and lack of media pluralism in the EU member state has been flagged by the United Nations, the Council of Europe and media advocates.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his government have denied taking action to dismantle the independent press, Reuters reports.
Lakmusz relies on a team of journalists and researchers including Ferenc Hammer, head of the Lorand Eotvos University’s department of media and communication.
While the journalists work on the content, researchers like Hammer help to ensure accuracy.
“Our job is basically desktop research, comparing cases and following up with fact-checks that the website publishes,” Hammer told VOA.
The initiative not only checks for potential disinformation, but it also investigates how people in Hungary respond to false narratives.
“We follow the patterns of every piece of fact-checking and see how readers interact with them on social media. It can be very instructive for the fact-checkers to see how their work reaches the audience,” Hammer said.
They may be one of the newer fact-check initiatives, but Lakmusz’s team already plans to expand its work through collaborating with others and applying for membership in the IFCN.
“It’s very important because it would give us access to look at how other fact-checking organizations are working in different countries,” Zoldi said. “So, being a member of that network would give us a good overview of other fact-checkers that work according to IFCN’s standards.”
Those standards include being at least six months old as a fact-checking organization of issues of public interest, showing transparency about funding and being politically nonpartisan, Nyariki said.
“Fact-checkers don't compete,” he said. “They cooperate and collaborate. We see each other as partners who are trying to fight one global enemy: misinformation.”