Cutting edge digital tools separate facts from fake news

By Silence Mugadzaweta

Digital tools have come handy in unearthing toxic and fake news that circulated during the Covid19 pandemic crisis when numerous theories were put forward by various governments in an effort to mislead, particularly on the origins of the virus.

Discussing on ‘The Cutting Edge in digital forensics’, media forensic experts, shared insights and case studies on how digital tools provide possibilities and opportunities for investigative work.

In a research conducted in four major countries that were peddling the Covid-19 bioweapon gospel, the discovery was that since 2019 certain narratives were common among the United States, Russia, China and Iran.

However, with the help of digital forensics, 311 narrative milestones representing 26 countries and nine languages were discovered following an in depth analysis of millions of posts from social media and traditional media using social media monitoring tools.

The initial narrative was that “China created a virus for use as a bioweapon and then leaked it from the lab. The U.S created the virus in Fort Dettrick and brought it to Wuhan during the 2019 Military World Games,” said Andy Carvin, Managing Editor, Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Added Carvin, “None of this was easy. It took an enormous amount of manual labour. And there are also limitations of analysis caused by depending solely on social media.”
Across the globe, misinformation about Covid19 virus has been responsible for vaccine hesitancy and in most countries it has perpetuated false narratives that Africans do not die from the virus.

To date, many African governments are struggling to reach the desired herd immunity due to the spread of disinformation and this calls for investigative journalists to utilise digital tools to debunk, expose and fight what has been termed ‘Fake news’.

In Uganda, the disinformation campaign by Tessa Knight, Research Assistant at Digital Forensic Research Lab, resulted in the flagging of more than 450 social media accounts.

Knight’s investigation exposed coordinated efforts by the Ugandan governments to push an agenda towards and during an election.
In another investigation dubbed the Sudan-Russian disinformation, more than 160 accounts were identified and shut down for spreading misinformation.

The narrative peddled was that Russia is a friend to Sudan, and that Sudan was better under Omar al-Bashir.
She emphasised the need for collaborative work between local and international partners to try and help understand barriers like language which may be an impediment to a successful investigative project.

Digital tools are also key in fact-checking where data has to pass through various stages of fact-checking to authenticate investigative projects.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism latest Digital News Report reveals that there has been an increase in the trust in the news across the globe and this has been attributed to publishing fact-based news.

This points to the demand for digital tools for verification, and fact-checking in investigative reporting.

Adedeji Adekunle, Deputy Programme Director, Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, said digital tools are critical in fighting misinformation and doctored multimedia products.

He encouraged the use of a number of tools that are available for free on the internet.
Tools like Forensically, which come with a user manual can be useful to investigative journalists as they try authenticate videos, pictures as well audio.

In Africa, fake multimedia content has been created to push false narratives and this has caused conflict in instances such as the xenophobic attacks in South Africa and Nigeria’s herder crisis.

In 2019 at the height of the xenophobic-fuelled attacks on foreign nationals, WhatsApp messages announcing dates on which foreigners would be attacked and killed if they did not leave South Africa were distributed widely on the App, prompting violence to spread to different areas.

In Nigeria, fake old images claiming inter-communal violence were shared in 2018. However, an analysis of all the images proved that they were fake.

For image and video verification, Adekunle said journalists can use tools like Reverse image search (Tineye, Google, Yandex, Bing), inVID, YouTube Data Viewer and Forensically.

Tools that allow online social network mapping include Twitteraudit and Hoaxy. These digital tools allow journalists to check the authenticity of social media platforms.

Geolocation tools can also help verify locations that may be in pictures and multimedia content. There are tools like Google earth, Yandex Map as well Flight Radar24, all these tools are available for free and they are tried and tested, and journalists can use them to remove doubt.

Silence Mugadzaweta is the Digital & Online Editor for Alpha Media Holdings, The biggest independent media house in Zimbabwe.

Featured Cartoon: Media forensic experts share insights on digital tools that uncover fake news.