Working journalists discuss experience of getting caught up in state-sponsored war to drive the news agenda across the digital divide.
Targeted randomly and deliberately by Fake News propaganda factories
Journalist Una Mullally had never heard of the website “The British Left” when she was told it had described her as the editor in chief. An Iran-led fake news operation wanted readers to believe that the prolific author had founded an independent media outlet standing up for progressive values from scratch.
The Irish journalist and columnist was incredulous when she received a message from a friend warning her that an investigation by security website FireEye had identified the website brandishing her name as part of an Iranian fake news operation.
“I had never heard of the website until then, and have never written for it,” the journalist wrote.
“Hailstones in August, not being able to get a table later than 6pm in a restaurant on a Thursday evening, finding myself attached to a suspected Iranian fake news operation – these are all things I did not expect to happen.”
What she experienced was “a random experience [that] points to the sinister future of false news operations,” she said.
The Dublin-based writer issued her disclaimer in response to the fake news site brazen claim she was its founder. “Una Mullally, our editor in chief, teamed up with a group of extraordinary people for form The British left in 2012,” the website said in its “About Us” section.
Journalists are increasingly caught up in the web of fake news, as bogus websites seek to harm or exploit their reputation according to their needs. A campaign targeting audiences in US, UK, Middle East and Latin to promote political narratives in line with Iranian interests had succeeded in exploiting her name to provide legitimacy to the website.
Although the fraud was detected weeks ago in research that exposed state-sponsored fake news campaigns, The British Left still functions without any accountability. “The website is still online, as it’s hard to scrub those kinds of things from the internet as opposed to social media accounts. There is no one technically “in charge” of pulling it down,” wrote Ms Mullally.
Researchers at FireEye concluded agents behind Iran’s fake news operation had conducted their own research to make their product more credible.
FireEye passed the information on to Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet (Google), who began removing hundreds of accounts tied to the alleged propaganda operation.
Jessikka Aro, a Finnish investigative journalist, also shared her experiences of being directly targeted by Russia’s vast apparatus of fake news.
Her news outlet, public broadcaster Yleisradio, embarked on a mission to explore Russian propaganda disseminated in Finland, particularly through social media.
“I thought that this is some very interesting and new phenomenon and this is a threat to Finnish people's freedom of speech," Ms Aro said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
After tweeting on the findings of her trip to St. Petersburg, where she interviewed workers at a “troll factory” that generated fake news, Ms Aro found she was being harassed incessantly on social media.
Her pictures were photoshopped in demeaning ways, she was called names and accused of being a "NATO spy". Her private medical records were made public and her moves tracked.
“I was hoping maybe this will end, but it just got worse and worse and worse,” Ms Aro said. “Even my own friends started liking and commenting these filth pieces about me, so I noticed that it really has influence.”
Undeterred by the death threats and the abuse, Ms Aro continued reporting. Her work was recognised with Finland's Grand Prize for Journalism.
Russian Trolls Johan Bäckman And Ilja Janitskin were subsequently put on trial in Finland. In a statement, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed its support for justice.
"We welcome this trial, which is all the more emblematic because many reporters continue to be the target of troll armies seeking to discourage or even silence the journalists who cover them," RSF said. "As the two suspects have been clearly identified, we count on the Finnish judicial system to ensure that this is an exemplary trial and that it sends a clear message to those who harass journalists online."
On Thursday, a court in Finland jailed the founder of the pro-Russian website MV-Lehti that had published offensive material about Ms Aro. Mr Janitskin was jailed for 22 months for his role in stoking the abuse.