November 3, 2020

Hundreds of millions accessing conspiracies during the US election, says fake news app

Misinformation online looks very different today to how it did in 2016, says fake news detection app, ahead of the US election

Tim Smith

4 min read

Misinformation has been “rife” in the US election, according to the world's biggest team of artificial intelligence-powered fact-checkers, who say hundreds of millions of people around the world have been accessing fake news online every month.

Based in the small town of Brighouse in West Yorkshire, northern England, Logically is a tech platform that allows users to determine whether the information they’re seeing online is accurate, based on analysis by a combination of AI and human experts. 

The startup raised €2.7m in July to beef up its operations ahead of the US presidential election, in response to what it sees as a growing and changing threat to reliable information online.


The mutation of misinformation

“Fake news” is one of Donald Trump’s favourite insults to sling at his opponents, but the term means something very different to what it did when he entered the White House, according to Al Baker, head of editorial operations at Logically.

“The term back in 2015, when it started being a thing, was used to refer to a very specific type of misinformation,” he explains. “They had all the rhetorical trappings of news venues, so they'd call themselves the "Something Chronicle", or the "Whatever Gazette" and making stuff up. Platforms are kind of wise to that now, so fake news, as we knew it, is less prevalent than it was.”

Misinformation has changed according to Baker, as social media platforms have tried to clamp down on obvious sources of fake news: “The varieties of misinformation at play are very different, the misinformation tactics we see are a lot more varied and a lot more distributed.”

One example is the QAnon conspiracy, which Donald Trump refuses to denounce, a nebulous range of theories gravitating around the claim that the Democratic Party in the US is controlled by a Satanic paedophile cult.

“We've done a lot of work monitoring QAnon,” he says. “The number of people engaging with that is in the high tens of millions a month globally.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Baker, who says that closed networks like Whatsapp carry a huge share of the global transmission of misinformation.

“In terms of the number of people who engage in obvious disinformation online, my best estimate would be hundreds of millions a month,” he says.

fake news
A screenshot from the Logically app

Blame it on the Russians?

Donald Trump’s opponents were keen to emphasize the impact of Russian interference in the last US presidential election in 2016, but Baker believes that their role is now less active than it was.

“If it ever was fair to lay the blame at the feet of Russia and the Internet Research Agency, it's certainly not that way any more,” he says. “Previously it looked like Russian assets were doing a lot more of the heavy lifting, in terms of forming the narrative than they are now.”

These days, destabilising conspiracies such as QAnon are so well established, that Russian actors merely have to amplify what already exists, according to Baker: “There's good evidence that Russian-backed sources are pushing that narrative even though they didn't have to form it, so they're letting the internet do the work for them.”


Trump and trust

The Logically app made headlines in April, after working in conjunction with The Guardian newspaper to reveal a former Vodafone executive as the source of a conspiracy connecting 5G networks to Covid-19.

The current climate of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with Donald Trump’s fast and loose approach to facts, has contributed to a growing distrust in institutions, says Baker.

“Beyond spreading misinformation himself, which he has, I think the more effective thing he's done is to politicise the media in general,” he argues. “The way that Trump has contributed to the misinformation crisis that we have is that he's eroded trust in mainstream institutions.”

“Whether you believe a news source or not has become an important part of someone's partisan identity, and that's what an echo chamber is: not believing a source because that stance is part of your epistemic world,” he adds.

Logically is one of a number of tools developed in Europe to fight against fake news and misinformation online, including Swedish platform Newsvoice, which rewrites news stories in a non-partisan style, and Disinfocloud, an open-source tool used by the US government to tackle misleading propaganda.

Logically provided a live fact-checking service during the US presidential debates, and has had more than 100,000 app downloads, mostly in the states.

Baker hopes that eventually, Logically will be adopted by newsrooms as a way to reliably outsource fact-checking of reporting, as the mainstream media tries to get ahead of misinformation. The question for traditional newspapers and journalists, will be whether they can ever win back the trust of the public which has been so brutally eroded.

Tim Smith

Tim Smith is a senior reporter at Sifted. He covers deeptech and all things taboo, and produces Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast . Follow him on X and LinkedIn