Stephen Colegrave meets the BBC Disinformation Group, dedicated to monitoring fake news and disinformation around the world.
On the sixth floor of New Broadcasting House, the BBC has a dedicated team who know more about fake news and disinformation than anyone else I have met. But, until now, most people won’t even know they exist.
When BBC Monitoring was set up 80 years ago at the onset of the Second World War, propaganda and information was simpler and warfare much more conventional. In its early years, the organisation provided valuable information, especially in places where foreign correspondents were banned. Its value continued through the Cold War by providing insight from behind the iron curtain and as eastern Europe began to break free.
In recent years, the information it is monitoring has become more complex as media and social channels have blossomed and the information – or disinformation – has become more pernicious and weaponised by foreign states and extremist groups. Indeed, BBC Monitoring was picking up fake news and troll factories as early as 2014, several years before most of the rest of the world caught on that this was happening.
“Under the Soviet system, propaganda wanted to convince… now Russia just wants to confuse”Olga Robinson, BBC Disinformation Group
By 2018, fake news and disinformation had become so all-pervasive that the BBC decided to set up a dedicated Disinformation Group to plug into BBC Monitoring, which has more than 200 journalists in 13 offices around the world.
All the disinformation it monitors is open source. Whilst BBC Monitoring’s website is behind a paywall, the Disinformation team’s content is available for free on social media and through its fortnightly newsletter. Of course, BBC journalists are a major beneficiary as well as government. But anyone can sign up to its Disinformation Watch News Letter. The latest edition includes fake news in the recent re-election of Justin Trudeau in Canada and in the Bolivian election, that machine learning can’t flag fake news, and how Chile grapples with fake news amid unrest.
I was invited to interview a team of journalists covering disinformation across different countries.
We started off talking about Russia. Olga Robinson, who monitors this region, explained that they had picked up the first signs of fake news and disinformation in 2014. “Under the Soviet system, propaganda wanted to convince,” explained Olga. “Now, Russia just wants to confuse.”
In 2015, Olga wrote an article about the inside of a troll factory in St Petersburg, where Russia’s Internet Research Agency (or Agentstvo Internet Issledovaniya) employed 400 people to create trolls spreading fake news about Ukraine. This was all available open source, from an investigative report by the independent local newspaper Moy Rayon (My District).
Typical troll accounts, Moy Rayon noted, were operated by people posing as “housewives” and “disappointed US citizens”.
As Olga talked about the way Russia had been using disinformation since 2015, it became clear that, from the Disinformation team’s monitoring, it had become a sophisticated government programme involving all sections of the Russian state apparatus including officials, TV, social media and even Telegram users.
Whereas internal fake news in Russia is still aimed at convincing citizens of the virtues of the state, internationally, disinformation often feeds both sides of any issue or conflict, the more extreme the better. This really started to take off during Donald Trump’a election in 2016.
However, Olga was keen to point out that sometimes the least sophisticated techniques are still the most effective. A film of the then President of Ukraine making a speech was slowed down to make him appear drunk and this was one of the most shared pieces of fake video used against him.
Whilst Russia has built a sophisticated disinformation programme, the approach is more basic in Iran – but no less effective – according to Shayan, the reporter monitoring the Middle East.
Iran’s fake news is definitely in the ‘convince’ camp. Indeed, all fake news is unsophisticated across the Middle East except for in Israel. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia worked hard to counter the arrest and murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi with its own fake stories.
Interestingly, the team haven’t picked up any signs that Russia, Israel or China have been training any other states to develop their techniques so far – but perhaps this will change soon?
“Leaving the Middle East,” Alistair who monitored Asia, explained that “North Korea was easy to monitor because all state media was strictly controlled and there wasn’t any social media. All news simply trotted out the party line.”
In China, fake news concentrates on its key interests in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Internationally, it doesn’t appear to be as successful as Russia but perhaps that is because it is still trying to convince instead of confuse. This was borne out by Isabel Hilton in the recent BBC Radio 4 documentary China and the World, which described China’s clumsy attempts to buy space in the Washington Post and other prestigious newspapers to try to get its story across.
However, Hilton’s programme did point out that it was harder to make a film critical of China – talking, for example, about Hong Kong or Taiwan – in Hollywood, than in China itself. That’s because Hollywood is more vulnerable to withdrawal of funding.
Although China has a different agenda, Alistair and the rest of the team agreed that there were definite similarities between China and Russia’s fake news. They have spotted that even the same words and phrases are used by both countries. Also, it looks like there is collaboration between North Korea and Russia, with the team picking up information about a meeting between their two major press agencies, TASS and KCNA.
The more I listened to this group of diligent journalists, the more I realised the international scale of fake news and disinformation and why its weaponisation is turning it into a battle space all of its own.