“Everyone should care!”

We are introducing to you yet another speaker from Nordic IT Security conference 2017 – Margo Gontar, founder and editor of the fact-checking and propaganda debunking website StopFake, and her view on why everyone should care about disinformation and how to fight it.


Q: So Margo, let’s start with discussing how stop fake actually started and what contributed to its on growing success from your point of view?

A: Well, we started out in March 2014 and it was just a weeks after Maydan won, as in when Yanokovich, the previous president, fled the country. Afterwards, the annexation of Crimea started so Russia invaded Crimea and that was the point when we launched Stop Fake, because we saw there was so much disinformation happening and that we could actually contribute, being journalists ourselves. And this was my personal reasoning as well, because I wanted to do something that I’m good at, not just standing in the streets, and that’s why we decided to help people understand what is true and what is not. This is also precisely why we gained so much credibility and popularity, because people were just fed up with the fact that they are being lied to, and then we appeared and said: “Okay we will try to deal with it and show you the true thing”. I think the first reaction was actually gratitude that there is actually someone who cares about people, and them being lied to, and tries to deal with this rubbish happening in the information space.

Q: You have really long experience with this, it’s been 3 years, right?

A: Yes, more than that actually.

Q: From this experience can you identify some specific patterns and techniques used to create and increase disinformation in the society? Something that you witnessed yourself?

A: When we started there were a lot of services that were actually fake and we tried to find the truth and just undermine the fake story. Now, a lot of fake stories might use some true elements to it, like something really happened, or people did say something, but what important is the context that actually changes everything. Still, people might not have the time to look for that context. Also, usage of social media is so much harmful in this way because people might believe what some users are saying, even if they don’t know them, because it looks so much more credible than what media is saying. It is especially true for the post-Soviet countries where rumours in kitchen and people talking to people was more credible than the media. The other thing, is that the Internet itself is giving everyone an opportunity to make it a war against and for every single person, not just the war against government as it could have been done back in the day.

And if to say about Western countries, because it’s kind of different from what we see here in Ukraine. For Western countries, what does information does, is giving the right to hate. Giving opportunity to xenophobia and hate, and creating laziness in thoughts at the same time making it fake news and making it seem as though it’s not possible to know what true story is. Which basically creates apathy and laziness, and not wanting to participate, because it seems actually useless to actually try and change anything or look for the true story behind the stories someone’s telling.

Q: Could you share some specific cases where does information affected, for example private sector in both – Ukraine and Europe?

This is actually the most difficult part, to find concrete examples of the fake news. I mean, like saying this true story led to this events. But if we are talking about apathy, I would say it is actually and an idea working in someone’s mind right now. For example, I was in the Netherlands and a lot of people are saying that they are sceptical about fake news, or are sceptical about the truth. And there is this media narrative that Russia tried to apply with MH17, that we would not be able to find who’s to blame for this is – actually working on some people. This (strategy – NITS) works with all the elements one by one, eventually leading to people have this cosy feeling that ‘we should not even try to find the truth because it’s so complicated to find it’. But the real difference here is for post-Soviet countries this kind of apathy was the results of Soviet ruling. But with with civil sector not be active after the Maiden – we are trying to change, so this is interesting in a way that fake news are not exactly working like this in Ukraine, whilest it’s a big thing in West right now. So I’d say precisely this sickness might start and make people focus more on themselves, in such questions as immigration for example, because it’s so complicated and someone there is doing something they do not understand.

Q: What strategies can both organisations and audiences adopt in fighting this disinformation from both views, because we very much often hear about how you should always understand where the information is coming from, so there is always this view from audience’s perspective, but then there is also view from the organization’s perspective so how about can both fight disinformation?

A: I think first and most important point here, and this is something that all of us should do, both organisations and just people who are not doing it professionally maybe, is to understand that problem with disinformation should be brought on the level of climate change, because this is something that is happening now and anyone can actually take it and make it a disinformation war against everyone, if they decide it would be to their benefit. This is one point, because if we start from there, it would be clear that this is a problem for everyone, so everyone needs to take part in this. As for what organisations, and especially tech organisations, can do as well – we have many talks here on forming some algorithm that can help or at least try to monitor, mark some news that are suspicious and I think this is precisely what organisation can do. Find words and algorithms that could be found in fake news, essentially – work out how to make artificial intelligence work for us. Because now – it’s technology used against us and we need to find a way for it to work visa versa. In a way, there is no way to refuse the fact that we still have to check facts, and set the record straight, because it’s important for the regular audience – for them to understand there is a fake story, they need to see what the real story is. Also, on the other side it’s important to share more of the real story, so the real story happens before the fake one does. The other thing, both for government organisations and tech – mostly, those who share stories, and share fake stories do it on a very traditional level, so we need to understand that we need to make our truth narratives appealing. We’re dealing with the enemy who is doing it on a very good production level, all this disinformation channels are doing it in a great envelope. It’s engaging emotionally. And it’s giving a lot of answer, even though these answers are twisted, it’s still southing for their audience – that’s why it’s appealing. We need to find a way to convey true stories in the same way, as truth might be not as appealing. We need to find ways to reinvent what journalism has been doing for years, defending democratic values and themselves by doing it for years. We don’t have the tools to defend democratic values in the information space and all the freedom of speech is.

Q: You touched upon IT companies that have influence on disinformation in society, and that’s an important threat, obviously, but how is it relevant for IT security? We understand what they can do for disinformation but then why should they care when there is so many cyberattack happening with WannaCry and NotPetya? And how is this relevant to the Nordic countries?

A: Well I think everyone should care! The thing is, and I like this expression more than disinformation or fake news, is that what we’re actually dealing with now is information influence. And this concerns not only the media or information as such, it can touch the electronics and how some important processes are working. Can you really say, for example, that elections are free, if information that voters had before the election was actually manipulated or twisted or just false? So they are basing their votes on false information, even though they’re willingly doing so. Or if electon are hacked – in the very end it’s still information influence, which is not fake news. Or take for example recent hacks – even though they it was not fake news, it influenced a lot of processes. And it still influenced not only the IT part of the society – it actually influenced the whole vibe, because people now may think that government is not capable to deal with this. So as you can see – nothing is separable in this meaning and that’s why I T sector should work with the others because it’s a general problem for everyone.
As for Nordic countries – I think no country is safe right now.

That’s why I think it’s more of a question of which country is willing to jump in before they have part of their country being annexed or threatened or before they have any kind of conflicts created by some parties being supporter from elsewhere. Because what we’ve seen to this moment is that it is good that we have this kid f conversations happening on one hand, because we have a chance to share experience, but the thing is that we’ve been talking about this for 3 years now, and a lot of countries are getting interested just now. A lot of them after they’re being targeted personally or they had some of their processes being braked, when they see for themselves that this is a threat for their people and their own country. So I think the earliest countries will jump in to join the process of finding the solution and better it happened before any real losses occur.

Q: How can these fighting be done in more sophisticated, strategic way? Maybe you know of the countries that already have sufficient strategies in place?

A: There is this talk that we need to find the strategy and it’s been happening in every conference I’ve been to. And it very much looks like it’s still on this level of what we should do, more or less with practical ideas, but not with the overall strategy. I don’t have this overall strategy straight away, but I do have those small practical ideas how to do this. From the last time I heard, Sweden is working on strategies for dealing with this. Obviously for the States it’s a concern. What I feel needs to be done is now to maybe have something like Climate Change Pact. I feel like we need this kind of thing, but so much disinformation, but something where all the participants of the information space actually agree on terms of how we do communicate and how do we use the information. Because there are rules how we behave in wartime, but there are no rules on how we behave in the normal information space time. Because of the freedom of speech things, which is great but the time is a bit different now and we might need to set up a set of rules. Like this 8-9 rules that the International Federation of Journalists have, like not to share false information and repute it once you know it. So I think there is still a place for finding a shared platform for this, which I think once we have it – we can actually send people to it, because now it’s all great and fruitful, but still talks on how we actually to deal with this.

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