Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels

Information spreads via Internet not only by means of big online media and social networks. There is a huge ramified ecosystem of “junk websites”. “News” shared by such “media” is often of very low quality or even complete fake. Still, it reaches millions of visitors per month.

Such websites also generate information flow that brings traffic. And it is a mix of faked news, real news slightly changed news and misinterpreted news as well as exotic recipes and celebrities’ tempting photos. There are the titles like “Streets are overloaded with dead bodies” used for the news item about poisoning of 6 dogs in Berdyansk, Ukrainian city on Azov sea.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian people read such “junk news” daily. Hearing some conspirology from a taxi driver or accidental travel companion you could hear that they have just “read it from the Internet”.

With the aim to detect the scale and spread of manipulations Data Journalism Agency TEXTY has examined more than a million of texts published on “junk websites” within a year. Objects of our investigation were Internet media that serve as news sources for the readers who do not care much about the quality of information and facts.

During 2017 we’ve compiled a list of relatively little-known websites where we noticed anti-Ukrainian or pro-Russian propaganda. We have collected about 150 such websites – and it is not their full number, of course. These sites have become the subject of our thorough study. Some of them got closed during this year, some have changed their addresses. There are websites that duplicate each other.

Then, during 2018 we have trained the algorithm to detect two types of manipulations: wrong arguments and emotional bias. Other types of manipulative content, such as conspiracy theories or bold fakes were not common in our sample. The accuracy of deep learning model was sufficient to assess the share of manipulative content on the website. We have excluded 36 websites from the original list because the algorithm defined less than 25% of the news in their feed as manipulative.

As a result, we’ve got 80 websites which spread the manipulations online. These sites attract around 50 million visits from Ukraine per month (source: SimilarWeb, October 17, 2018). This is a huge coverage for Ukrainian media sphere. For comparison, one Ukrainian well-known online media gets about 5-15 million visits from Ukraine monthly.

Here’s what we have found out. There were 22 sites of Russian propaganda in the final ranking. Other 58 news outlets disseminated distrust in public institutions, disorientation, and fear.

We tried to discover the working routines of such websites. They publish either clickbait content without regard to journalistic standards, or paid advertising articles pretending to be regular content. Usually, manipulative outlets pervert news from credible sources to attract clicks or to manipulate public opinion. But we found some cases when information from “junk news” made its way to mainstream media (one example is shown in the project).

There is a number of ways to “legitimize” fakes and sometimes unproven information from the very bottom of Ukrainian Internet manages to make its way into the news feeds of mainstream media.

All this together with political dependence of a large part of Ukrainian media and wide presence of Russian and pro-Russian Internet media make the informational space of Ukrainian Internet very susceptible to manipulations of public opinion.

Working in extremely polluted informational space exposes even the most fastidious media to the risk of sharing false or manipulative news. And sometimes it happens. Nor should we exclude a deliberate work of Russian special services and propagandists when they plant messages into an informational space – both into the Internet in general and into leading media websites.

In a situation like this, the mainstream media should lift up the “admission line” for the news to be published. The level to what it should be lifted taking into account the costs and estimated profits is the subject of another discussion. What we can state right now is that the refusal to publish the quotes and comments of “political experts” or “opinion leaders” known for promoting prepaid theses will significantly refresh the whole informational atmosphere. “Ban” should also be imposed on making news out of Facebook posts with exceptions for verified accounts only.

And of course, it’s a huge role for Government and security services – to focus on disinformation and propaganda that threats national security, as well for NGOs and civil society – to promote media literacy and keep conducting independent media monitoring.

Author: Data Journalism Agency TEXTY (Kyiv, Ukraine)

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