“We want to deter politicians from spreading false information”

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Disinfo Talks is an interview series with experts that tackle the challenge of disinformation through different prisms. Our talks showcase different perspectives on the various aspects of disinformation and the approaches to counter it. In this installment we talk with Noa Barak, co-founder and former Head of Development of Israel’s first fact-checking organization, The Whistle.

Noa, let’s start with a personal question – what got you interested in disinformation? Why specifically go into the direction of fact-checking?

Fact-checking actually came to me, and I jumped on it very happily. I have always been very politically active and was trying, in different ways, to bring about changes in Israeli society and in the political culture. I was part of an independent media organization that was trying to produce alternative news coverage, and there I met Boaz Rakocz, who founded the Whistle a couple of years later. He wrote me then: “I’m going to offer you your dream job that you never thought existed” – which was true, it was a dream job! And this was the end of 2016, when the US elections were just underway, so fact-checking really felt like the most important thing that one could do.

In your view, how much of a societal challenge is online dis- and misinformation? How worried should we be?

I think that mis- and disinformation, online but also in traditional media, is one of the greatest, if not the greatest challenge facing society these days. Specifically, because it affects our lives on all levels. It affects how we deal with other big challenges – how we understand climate change, or the pandemic, or democracy. It affects not just people’s views, but also the actions of governments and other big organizations like the tech giants and industry in general. It affects local political systems, but also ethnic and cultural relations within societies, and can spark tensions between communities and countries. Even on the most personal level, it affects our decision making: how we manage our personal health or finance, or what we buy, where we buy it and why.

Let’s talk specifically about Israel. What would you say is the greatest challenge when it comes to countering mis- and disinformation?

Online mis- and disinformation works mechanically the same way everywhere, but it affects each society in different ways because of its specific political or social situation. In Israel, disinformation is utilized by strong political powers, and it often goes unchecked. Much of the disinformation found online may seem like unrelated incidents, which are in fact often part of organized campaigns that are orchestrated for political purposes. Fighting this is incredibly challenging, especially when the public and mainstream media still generally tend to disregard the problem of disinformation and hence don’t address it in a systemic way.

How so?

In my opinion, mainstream media is not taking enough responsibility to fact-check the information they are reporting and to debunk falsehoods. Instead, often they report on it with no scrutiny. At times, a false rumor can be a headline, or even if it’s branded as ‘fake news,’ outlets report on how the rumor was spread but offer no context or explanation why it’s false. For example, interviews with politicians are a major source of dis- and misinformation, and there’s little effort to ensure that what they say is true, or to correct them.

Furthermore, the government, or any public institution for that matter, show no real effort to deal with dis- and misinformation, unless it’s during big events like local or national elections – a common occurrence in Israel in recent years – or the pandemic. This can be attributed to the political paralysis we had in the country in 2019 and 2020, but perhaps also to the fact that disinformation serves the interests of some politicians and they have little incentive to truly fight it.

What is the source of disinformation you encounter most often?

I would say that most of the ‘effective’ disinformation comes from inside Israel. There are some foreign campaigns that are trying to affect public debate, allegedly from Russia and Iran, which seems to be gaining more influence lately. But the more ‘effective’ disinformation campaigns we have encountered, especially during the election campaigns, were produced within Israel and usually concern party-political issues, rivalries, and the electoral process. During the pandemic, we also saw the rise of classic conspiracy theories, particularly anti-vaccination related campaigns, which did not play a significant role in Israel prior to the pandemic.

The more ‘effective’ disinformation campaigns we have encountered are produced within Israel and usually concern party-political issues, rivalries, and elections. Even classic conspiracy theories such as anti-vaccination related campaigns did not play a significant role prior to the pandemic. What we did often see is online campaigns that distorted political statements to make them sound more extreme and used them to manipulate audiences on social media. We also saw how falsehoods that originated online were further disseminated with the help of politicians echoing them and lending them a broad reach.

Do you distinguish between intentional disinformation and unintentional misinformation?

We do not distinguish between disinformation and misinformation – it’s a decision. Sometimes we can’t, because it’s not clear if something is just wrong, or if it’s intentional. But mostly it’s because we want to deal with the claim and not with the speaker. For instance, our ratings are never ‘lie’ or ‘true,’ but rather ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – because we don’t want to imply intention. Sometimes politicians and other people make mistakes, or are simply misinformed and then they repeat something they heard; but sometimes it’s intentional. We prefer to just point out the facts. On rare occasions, we do show how the rumor was intentionally pushed by certain people, who called upon their followers to disseminate the information on their social media channel, which is obviously an orchestrated campaign.

Can you tell us a bit more about the process you go through when fact-checking a claim?

Monitoring, i.e. finding claims to fact-check, is our first mission, and it is highly time consuming. To find the claim as soon as possible is one of the biggest challenges for fact-checkers, because it’s already out there affecting people – and we are not even aware of it yet.

For us, the first step is listening to interviews on television and the radio. We go through posts by politicians and look through social media groups, searching for factual claims. Then, as a team, we choose the claims we want to check. We believe it’s very important that this is decided by the entire team, in order to make sure that we all understand the claim the same way. Someone might think that a particular claim is not important enough or that it doesn’t have a lot of impact in real life and fact-checking it will just amplify it. We discuss these questions; it’s part of the checks and balances to which we subject ourselves.

Then, we do our research, which can be easy in the case of, say, a fake quote, or can be more complex when it involves historical issues or data. We may also reach out to the speaker to make sure that we understood the meaning of the claim, to ask about their sources. We don’t know what the end result will be when we begin this process.

Another important thing we do as a team is setting the rating. Our scale is common among other fact-checkers: ‘correct,’ ‘mostly correct,’ ‘half correct’ – which is then half incorrect, of course – and then ‘mostly false’ and ‘false.’ And like many other organizations, we also added ‘misleading,’ which doesn’t fit onto the scale, because the facts could be completely correct but the way they’re presented is misleading. There’s also ‘missing context,’ which was added during the pandemic, when deeming something true or false was quite difficult. We determine these ratings together to eliminate bias, and we try to make this as fast as possible but we never rush, since making a mistake would be detrimental to our work. Our main asset is reliability.

Can you give us an example of a persistent piece of false information that is indicative of the disinformation challenges in Israel?

One of the most persistent online disinformation items is a rumor about the wife of Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, who was then its military chief. She was rumored to be a member of Machsom Watch, whose activists observe and document the activity at military checkpoints in the West Bank. This organization is depicted in the mainstream discourse as a radical left-wing group. This rumor has been around since 2014 and was debunked several times, but it keeps resurfacing, both in various online contexts and by rival politicians, and many people still believe it to be true.

And this does tell you something about Israeli society. First, attacking politicians through their wives, depicting them as a bad influence, is quite common, unfortunately. And second, it also shows how rumors that evoke the military, which is very important in Israel, can be easily exploited to brand someone unpatriotic and unreliable for political purposes.

How do you perceive the role of your organization in the ecosystem of organizations and approaches to fighting disinformation?

One of our main roles is to deter politicians from spreading false information in the media or through their social media accounts. Some do not care how we rate them, but many others are very concerned about having their claim be debunked – it’s like bad publicity.

We also want to set an example. When we started, the issue of dis- and misinformation began to gain recognition on a global scale, and in Israel it was completely new territory. We still see our role as showing the public that disinformation and misinformation exist and that the problem is everywhere. People need to pay attention and know the difference between fact, fiction, and opinion.

We are also setting an example for other media outlets, which in Israel do not tend to engage in fact-checking. Now, seeing our work and also influenced by the disinformation surrounding the pandemic, other media outlets are following our steps.

And how do you measure the impact of your work? Do you think fact-checking can change online discourse?

Fact-checking is one small piece of a much larger puzzle. I think that disinformation is an overarching phenomenon that employs so many different technologies, modes of expression, organizations and agendas, that no one method or single activity can counter it effectively. The solution should be collaboration between different actors: government, civil society, industry; everyone must take part in this effort.

Fact-checking has its place, but correcting facts is not going to stop orchestrated campaigns from operating. Facts are not the issue there, but rather the digital system that allows information to spread so rapidly. We need to work both on the level of content, correcting falsehoods and trying to make mainstream media more responsible, but also to create a broader framework and apply restrictions on platforms that allow disinformation to spread. And of course, this must include educating the public and involving it in this endeavor. What we need is a shared understanding of the gravity of the problem and a sense of responsibility and commitment to tackle this threat.

Noa Barak is co-founder of The Whistle and its former Head of Development. She recently left her position to pursue an academic path, researching the History of the Israeli State Archive and the development of information access policies in Israel. This interview represents her own opinions and her past experience at The Whistle and doesn’t necessarily reflect the organization’s current agendas.

The Whistle was founded in 2016 as an NGO, and was Israel’s first fact-checking organization. Since 2019 it is integrated into the Israeli business daily Globes as an independent fact-checking unit.

This Interview is published as part of the Media and Democracy in the Digital Age platform, a collaboration between the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and/or interviewee/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and/or of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI).

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