‘Fake news’ victims plead to fight disinformation

The Mercury News
Published: 5/11/2019 10:34:00 PM
Modified: 5/11/2019 10:33:58 PM

SAN JOSE, Calif. — People who have been harmed by “fake news” appealed to executives at Facebook and Twitter and urged them to do more to stop the spread of disinformation during what they said were emotional, face-to-face meetings last week.

Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro said she has been harassed and threatened ever since she visited St. Petersburg in 2015 to investigate the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm that has been charged with using social media to interfere with U.S. elections.

“My life has been destroyed after I started to investigate Russian information warfare,” Aro said during a news conference in San Francisco on Thursday. “I have been forced to move abroad.”

She said the harassment, which continues despite some of the perpetrators being sent to prison, also is on YouTube.

Aro and the rest of the group are also scheduled to meet with Google and YouTube.

“It’s madness,” she said, her voice cracking as she appeared to hold back tears.

One member of the group is a Rohingya human rights activist from Myanmar who briefs governments around the world on human rights violations committed against Rohingya Muslims.

Myanmar’s military, accused of ethnic cleansing, has driven nearly 1 million of the minority Rohingya people out of that country since 2017, according to Human Rights Watch.

“We would like to see urgency from social media companies,” said Tun Khin, who fled Myanmar but has met with people who have lost their families and homes there. “This is genocide we are talking about. We need action.” His voice got louder and he appeared to get agitated as he talked about Myanmar soldiers posting racist content on Facebook, and how it has taken the company years to pay attention.

Avaaz, an advocacy group that’s working to fight disinformation around the world, facilitated the meetings with the tech companies.

Fadi Quran, campaign director for Avaaz, said Thursday that the group agreed to honor the tech companies’ requests that any specific action being considered be kept confidential for now, but that “We’re going to give them a three-month deadline to implement steps promised at the meetings.”

One of the solutions Avaaz is pushing for — which it mentioned in an open letter asking to meet with the chief executives of Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube — is for the companies to implement a correction policy similar to what news organizations have.

“How much more pain, death and suffering will it take for you to clean up your social platforms and defend us all against disinformation?” asks the letter, which was signed by seven victims of disinformation.

Facebook has not responded to a request for comment. Twitter said Thursday that hearing the stories was valuable and would help inform its decisions, but would not disclose which executives were present at the meeting.

Underscoring the dangers of hatred enabled by online platforms, one of the members of the group who did not appear at the news conference spoke to reporters over the phone.

Lenny Pozner is the father of Noah, a 6-year-old killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

Pozner is one of the Sandy Hook parents suing Alex Jones, the Infowars media personality who fueled a conspiracy theory that the shooting that killed 26 children and educators was a hoax. (Facebook last week banned Jones along with other controversial figures; Twitter, Apple and YouTube banned him last year.)

“I’ve been put into the position where I can’t just do nothing about this denial of my son’s life and death, and the denial of my pain,” said Pozner, who said he has been forced to move eight times because he has become a target of conspiracy theorists. “I’ve worked hard to have an impact on online disinformation. ... I look forward to the day when I can quietly grieve the loss of my child. But for now we need to fight and bring more awareness to this very real problem.”

Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old high school student, traveled to the Bay Area from Ohio to meet with the tech giants. He and his siblings were not vaccinated by his parents, and he has testified to U.S. senators that his mother received most of her anti-vaccination disinformation on Facebook.

Lindenberger said the tech executives appeared to be moved by the stories the group shared.

“We only hope that they turn those emotions to action,” he said. “I hope they understand this is an issue that can’t be solved just with algorithms.”

Avaaz’s Quran said the companies have promised to investigate the specific cases they heard about this week. The advocacy group’s other work has included fighting disinformation around elections in Brazil and Spain. One of its most visible campaigns is the traveling cardboard cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, which have been seen at protests in Washington, D.C., as well as the European Union headquarters in Brussels.

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