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    (англ.) Opinion No. 43 on feature article from Zaborona media on StopFake fact-checking project

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    Документи справи

    The Independent Media Council has analyzed the feature article “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turns out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them.” from Zaborona online media. Basing on the content the Independent Media Council believes that:

    1. In its article “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turns out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them”, the online media Zaborona violated Principles 8, 9, 10 of the Code of Journalistic Ethics.

    2. The article “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turned out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them” groundlessly and biasedly discredits the StopFake project as a fact-checker, misleading the readers about the mechanism of interaction between the fact-checkers and Facebook.

    Висновок

    І. Circumstances of the case


    А. Procedure

    1. On July 16, 2020, the Independent Media Council received a request from NGO Media Reforms Center (StopFake project) to review a complaint regarding an article by Zaborona headlined “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turned out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them”. In their request, StopFake asked for an opinion regarding a possible violation of journalistic standards by the media Zaborona, namely disseminating false information and manipulations.

    2. The  Independent Media Council, in accordance with Paragraph 12 of the Charter of the Independent Media Council, declared this request admissible, considering an international resonance of the situation. The disseminated article poses serious reputational threats to StopFake as a Facebook partner in combating misinformation within this social network.

    3. In the context of the overall publicity around this case, Zaborona expressed doubts about the impartiality of Detector Media and the Institute of Mass Information that are among the founding and current members of the Independent Media Council. Detector Media and the Institute of Mass Information responded to the doubts and on their own initiative suggested that the members of the Independent Media Council affiliated with these organizations, should not take part in reviewing this case. The Independent Media Council agreed that its members directly employed by Detector Media or the Institute of Mass Information could be considered affiliated persons and should withdraw from the review or voting for this Opinion, as potentially influenced by their organizations. Therefore, only 8 out of the Independent Media Council’s 15 potential or 13 full members could participate in this case. According to the recommendations by the members of the Independent Media Council, the founders of the Independent Media Council voted for an ad hoc procedure for reviewing and approving the Opinion in this case, specifically: it was agreed that a decision in this case would be made based not on the majority of the Council’s votes but of the members eligible to vote, that is, those not potentially directly influenced by their employers – Detector Media and the Institute of Mass Information. The decision on an ad hoc procedure for approving the Opinion in this case was also made to prevent the Independent Media Council’s work from being blocked in the future, should one of the parties in the case express distrust of or doubts about the impartiality of certain members of the Independent Media Council. The Council considers any doubts about its impartiality to be very serious and is always ready to properly consider the issue of a possible conflict of interest. At the same time, the Independent Media Council would consider it unacceptable to use issues of trust or distrust exclusively for the purpose of blocking the Council’s work and preventing the Opinion on truly disputable issues in the media space from being approved, as it negates the very purpose and mission of the Independent Media Council as a public initiative in the media sector.

    B. Facebook and the fact-checking program in Ukraine

    4. In 2018, Facebook published its strategy for stopping misinformation from spreading in the network. The strategy has three parts: remove accounts and content that violate the Community standards and ad policies; reduce the distribution of false news and inauthentic content like clickbait; inform people by giving them more context on the posts they see (ad, political, etc. posts). Much attention is given to preventing misinformation from spreading. The company started penalizing those spreading spam and clickbait, limiting profit possibilities for news pages publishing false information, and developing a fact-checking network. According to Facebook, the fact-checking network is partnering with fact-checkers from different countries, certified through the International Fact-Checking Network. They have to review and rate the articles posted on the platform as true or false.

    How can fact-checkers influence the reduction of false content in the network? Both the certified fact-checkers and other users rate some news as false and notify the network accordingly. The fact-checkers review dubious content, verifying the published facts and assessing the accuracy of articles. There are nine rating options that a fact-checker can apply: false, partly false, true, false headline, not eligible, satire, opinion, prank generator, not rated. The rating is supplemented with a refutation, where a fact-checker explains why the information under review is false.

    If a fact-checker rates some content as false, it will go down in the news feed and disappear from the recommendations on Instagram’s Explore page.  Pages and websites publishing false news for a second time will not be able to monetize content or run it as an ad, nor will they be able to get registered as news pages. As a rule, posts and ads of politicians are not subject to fact-checking.

    The network comprises 76 media such USA Today and Reuters, while Washington Post is being checked to renew the status. As of now, Ukraine has two certified fact-checking organizations: VoxUkraine and StopFake.

    5. NGO Media Reforms Center (StopFake project) got assessed in February 2020 according to the following criteria: non-partisanship, fairness, transparency of sources, transparency of funding, transparency of methodology, and open corrections policy. StopFake has been active since the spring of 2014. It was started by lecturers, graduates and students of Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism  along with the Digital Future of Journalism project. The purpose of StopFake is to verify and refute distorted  information and propaganda about the events in Ukraine, circulated in the media.

    C. Zaborona: how this media works and the article about StopFake

    6. The online media Zaborona has been part of NGO Zaborona Media since 2017. The web platform was launched thanks to a grant in 2018. The media covers such topics as violations of human rights, culture, migration, security, organized crime etc. Zaborona positions itself as a media covering social trends and culture in the post-Socialist states of Eastern Europe.

    7. On June 2, 2020,  Zaborona published an article headlined “Fight for the white race. How Russian neo-Nazi Denis Nikitin promotes his ideas in Ukraine and what it has to do with Azov Battalion”. The article is about Denis Nikitin, a representative of a right-wing extremist subculture. The story is sidelined to narrate about the formation of the ultra-right movements in Ukraine, with pictures containing Nazi symbols and symbols of other right-wing radical groups. After being published on Facebook, it was blocked by the platform. Facebook’s Community Standards do not allow for hate propaganda. Facebook’s algorithms can automatically block posts containing Nazi symbols, which is also prohibited by law in Ukraine. For example, this happened during the Ukrainian users’ protests against Adidas that began selling red USSR-themed T-shirts. The collages created to protest against such ads and using the symbols of the Third Reich on T-shirts were instantly blocked by the platform. The blocking of such posts is sometimes erroneous, because the platform cannot always take into account the whole context, and the posts are returned to the news feed. Specifically, such errors as “false positive” or “false negative” are possible in the system. The same happened to Zaborona’s feature article. Facebook got the article about Denis Nikitin back online the following day.

    8. On July 3, 2020, Zaborona published another feature article headlined “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turned out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them”. In the story, the authors write about the blocking of their post about Denis Nikitin and “criticism of Nazis”. They continue by describing the activities of StopFake – Facebook’s certified Ukrainian fact-checker – and the organization’s association with ultra-right movements. The authors criticize StopFake using the tweets by American journalist Christopher Miller writing about Ukraine for BuzzFeed News, and, previously, for Radio Liberty, Politico Europe, The Guardian, Vice News. In his Twitter thread, he questions the work of StopFake as a fact-checker, accusing it of being politicized. Further on, the article’s authors refer to Yevhen Fedchenko, StopFake’s editor-in-chief, as “publicly supporting some ultra-right”. As proof, the authors cite Yevhen Fedchenko’s tweet of May 5, 2018: “for Hromadske C14 (he retweeted the tweet by Hromadske referring to C14 as “neo-Nazi” – auth.) is ‘neo-nazi’, in reality one of them – Oleksandr Voitko – is a war veteran and before going to the war – alum and faculty at @MohylaJSchool, journalist at Foreign news desk at Channel 5. Now also active participant of war veterans grass-root organization.” The authors cite criticism of this tweet by a French journalist also tweeting on May 5, 2018: “Since when having a @mohylaJSchool diploma prevents you from being a neo-nazi or just being a member of an extremist group.” These tweets appeared after the article by Hromadske News about the “neo-Nazi” C14 group seizing former militant of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Brazilian citizen Rafael Lusvarghi, planning to hand him over to the SBU. One of the group’s members also wrote about it on Facebook. Later, NGO Sich-C14 challenged in court the use of the term “neo-Nazi” by the media as based on their own evaluation of the organization’s ideology. The court satisfied C14’s claim at first instance, upholding the same decision on appeal.  The court noted that NGO Hromadske TV used the phrase “neo-Nazi group” as a statement. In its turn, Hromadske noted that it felt it necessary to express its beliefs, reflecting its attitude and own critical views on C14’s activities. The authors then refer to the situation back in May 2016, when personal data of several thousand journalists of Ukrainian and international media, accredited in the “LNR” and “DNR”, were published on the Myrotvorets website. The article mentions Christopher Miller’s article for Radio Liberty about data leaks and Fedchenko’s commentary on this scandal as being “overblown”, with Myrotvorets being unknown to most people before the journalists wrote about it.  The feature article mentions StopFake’s reduced funding from the UK government. As proof, Zaborona again cites Christopher Miller’s tweet. The authors also cite a comment by the press service of the British Embassy in Ukraine that they were proud of StopFake’s work in 2015-2018. They pointed out that the project achieved the planned level and there was no need to support it, however, the Embassy continues to work with the organization in other projects.

    9. The authors move on to Marko Suprun, StopFake’s English-language host on YouTube. As stated by StopFake, Marko Suprun is not part of the joint fact-checking project with Facebook. The authors of the feature article write about Marko Suprun’s connections with Andriy Sereda and Arseniy Bilodub. Andriy Sereda is the frontman of the rock-band “Komu Vnyz”, Arseniy Bilodub is the leader of the hatecore band “Sokyra Peruna”. Zaborona tries to prove Marko Suprun’s connections with C14 and the Right Sector. Expert opinion is also provided. The authors cite several opinions: by political expert Anton Shekhovtsev, journalist Christopher Miller, leader of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group Vyacheslav Likhachov, human rights activist and “Bez Kordoniv” project leader Maksym Butkevych. Zaborona requested comment from StopFake and the regional public policy manager for Central and Eastern Europe, but received no answer. In their inquiry, Zaborona asked StopFake the following questions:

    1. Is Marko Suprun part of Facebook’s fact-checking program?

    2. Do StopFake host Marko Suprun’s contacts influence the project’s work?

    3. What is StopFake’s attitude toward such contacts of their employees?

    D. Public reaction to the case: StopFake and Kateryna Serhatskova

    10. The feature article “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turns out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them” received public attention. A number of international media wrote about the Facebook partner’s possible connections with the far-right: New York Times, DW.com, Independent. Polish, Norwegian and German translations also appeared. Media founder Kateryna Serhatskova’s leaving Ukraine with her family likely contributed to the greater notoriety. It is also possible that the mention of “Nazis in Ukraine” has been drawing the attention of Western audiences since the days of widespread manipulation of this topic during the Euromaidan. Mrs.Serhatskova left Ukraine due to the threats and harassment on the social network for the aforementioned article. Specifically, according to Detector Media, TV presenter and blogger Roman Skrypin posted a photo of Kateryna Serhatskova with her five-year-old son on Facebook accusing the journalist of being a Kremlin agent. The journalist’s address was published in the comments to the post. After numerous complaints, Facebook deleted the post, but Roman Skrypin continued publishing other offensive posts about Kateryna Serhatskova.

    11. On July 11, StopFake issued a statement about increased information attacks on the project. StopFake’s position was that it did not block Zaborona’s article about Denis Nikitin, since the project does not have the authority to block or delete any posts on Facebook. The organization denied the possibility of the project’s politicization, specifically arguing that they are not funded by the government or political forces of Ukraine. StopFake also stated the following: “Unfortunately, the article by Zaborona is not an isolated case. It is a continuation of the long-running pro-Russian harassment of the StopFake team, imposed on the audience to discredit the project. Articles with identical content have been repeatedly published in Russian and pro-Russian propaganda media RT, Strana.ua disseminating false information about the project participants, sources of funding, etc.” Finally, StopFake denied connections with neo-Nazism.

    12. On July 9, 2020, Zaborona responded to StopFake’s statement by adding several explanations to its initial article. On July 10, 2020, the media published an ironic explainer on “how the Kremlin’s hand justifies all problems in Ukraine.” In the lede, the author added the sentence that “fact-checkers from StopFake are friends with Ukrainian far-right and even neo-Nazis.”

    13. On July 15, an open statement was issued by seven NGOs calling for the protection of Zaborona journalist and co-founder Kateryna Serhatskova from pressures. StopFake was among the organizations that signed on to the statement.

    II. Regulation

    1. Constitution of Ukraine

    Article 34. Everyone is guaranteed the right to freedom of thought and speech, and to the free expression of his or her views and beliefs.

    Everyone has the right to freely collect, store, use and disseminate information by oral, written or other means of his or her choice.

    The exercise of these rights may be restricted by law in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public order, with the purpose of preventing disturbances or crimes, protecting the health of the population, the reputation or rights of other persons, preventing the dissemination of information received confidentially, or supporting the authority and impartiality of justice.

    2.  Convention for the Protection of Human Rights (hereinafter referred to as European Convention on Human Rights)

    Article 10. Freedom of expression

    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States  from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

    2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

    3. Law of Ukraine On Information

    Article 2. Basic principles of information relations:

    1. The basic principles  of information relations are:

    guaranteed right to information;

    openness, accessibility of information, free exchange of information;

    authentic and full information;

    free expression of views and beliefs;

    legitimacy of receipt, use, dissemination, storage and protection of information;

    immunity of the person from interfering with their personal and family life.

    4. Ethics Code of Ukrainian Journalists

    6. Respecting public’s right to complete and objective information about facts and events is a journalist’s first duty. Journalists and editors must take steps to check the reliability of all reports, video and audio materials coming from public, freelancers, press services and other sources.

    9. Facts, judgments and assumptions have to be clearly separated from each other. Spreading information containing biased, unfounded accusations is unacceptable.

    5.  PACE Resolution 1003 (1993) On Ethics of Journalism

    4. News broadcasting should be based on truthfulness, ensured by the appropriate means of verification and proof, and impartiality in presentation, description and narration. Rumour must not be confused with news. News headlines and summaries must reflect as closely as possible the substance of the facts and data presented.

    21. Therefore journalism should not alter truthful, impartial information or honest opinions, or exploit them for media purposes, in an attempt to create or shape public opinion, since its legitimacy rests on effective respect for the citizen’s fundamental right to information as part of respect for democratic values. To that end, legitimate investigative journalism is limited by the veracity and honesty of information and opinions and is incompatible with journalistic campaigns conducted on the basis of previously adopted positions and special interests.

    ІІІ. Assessment of compliance with journalistic and legal standards in the field of freedom of expression


    А. How a fact checker works: is politicizing and influencing content possible?

    1. The article under consideration raises a number of questions, with the first of them regarding the headline. The authors offer the reader two topics at once: that of blocking a post on Facebook containing criticism of neo-Nazism and that of the Ukrainian fact-checkers’ links to the far-right, as if connected by a causal link. The only thing formally uniting these two topics is the Facebook platform. Zaborona explains that the blocking of the post prompted them to research the fact-checker topic, whilst this media does not explain to the reader how fact-checking works on Facebook, immediately focusing on StopFake, although it notes at the beginning of the article, that there are two fact-checking organizations in Ukraine. Paragraph 4 of PACE Resolution 1003 On Ethics of Journalism reads that “news headlines and summaries must reflect as closely as possible the substance of the facts and data presented.” The headline used does not reflect the content of the text, as the two main sentences give the reader an impression of sensation that the two events described (blocking the post about neo-Nazism and linking the fact-checkers to the far right) are interrelated. At the same time, according to Zaborona, the blocking of their post on Facebook triggered its investigation into the connections of one of the fact checkers with the far-right groups. This indicates a possible violation of Principle 8 of the Code of Journalistic Ethics: editorial processing of texts and headlines should not falsify the content.

    2. In the feature article “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turned out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them”, the narrative begins with the erroneous blocking of the Facebook post about Russian neo-Nazi Denis Nikitin. As you know, the platform works in accordance with Community Standards, prohibiting the promotion of hatred. For example, Facebook removed Donald Trump’s ad because it used Nazi symbols. Yet, the platform acknowledges (paragraph 6, Section I of the Opinion) that it might delete articles by mistake, as it is unable to take into account all local aspects and the context of each situation. Such erroneous removal occurred for Zaborona’s article about Denis Nikitin, as mentioned in the first paragraph of the article about StopFake. The mechanism of fact-checkers’ collaboration with Facebook and the procedure for moderating posts by Facebook itself should be explained to the readers. Notwithstanding, the main topic mentioned in the lede is “representatives of StopFake, [fact-checkers of Ukrainian Facebook], are friends with well-known far-right figures, among them there are those convicted of a hate murder.”

    3. At the beginning of the feature article, the authors point out that Facebook’s decision to add StopFake to their fact-checking network “seems ambiguous”. The reader thus does not understand whether this is the author’s assumption, a common position, or the point of view of the expert community. Then they add, as if the reporter is supposed to explain, why such StopFake’s assignment “can hypothetically be a problem.” Describing StopFake’s and its editor-in-chief’s activities, the author refers to the criticism by a journalist on Twitter using the articles by the same journalist on Radio Liberty and a separate, expert comment. The author cites a tweet from another French-speaking journalist criticizing Mr. Fedchenko’s 2018 tweet. Other points of view, the project’s history of development and activities, the publicly available fact-checking mechanisms are not provided by the author. This is in violation of Principle 10 of the Code of Journalistic Ethics, according to which the opponents’ viewpoints, including those who have become the objects of criticism, should be presented in a balanced way. It should be noted that Zaborona requested a comment from StopFake (see paragraph 9 of Section 1 of this Opinion) but did not receive a response with regard to the article. Zaborona asked StopFake, Marko Suprun, his wife and Facebook’s policy manager in Ukraine for a comment. It is important that the article under review in this Opinion does not clarify how fact-checkers work (e.g. as stated in paragraphs 3-4 of Section I of the Opinion). Specifically, describing the work of the fact checkers, the author does not mention that respective ratings are accompanied by detailed articles on why the information in question is false, and that the assessments by the fact-checkers do not determine the network’s final decision in favor of removing or keeping the disputed content. Fact-checkers do not act as moderators and can in no way directly affect the platform’s content. The decision is made by the platform itself. Furthermore, StopFake publishes its arguments in its website’s FBCHECK section. We thus see manipulation, when removing posts from Facebook is artificially associated with the activities and alleged partiality of the fact-checking organization, contrary to the available, reliable information about any such connection between a fact-checker and the posts removed being impossible.

    4. Regarding the politicization of the fact-checker. Referring to expert Anton Shekhovtsov, the article’s author suggests that StopFake has become “too politicized.” As proof, Zaborona cites examples of refutations of fake news during the presidential campaign. However, the author does not take into account the general context of the election campaign, when the information environment is focused on politics and political processes. Accordingly, StopFake’s refutations address political issues generally dominating the information sphere during the election period. Similarly, the trend can be traced during quarantine, when most of the rebuttals have to do with news reports on COVID-19. The author also does not touch on the aspect of fact-checker status. It is only possible to carry out a fact-check for the platform after obtaining certification from the International Fact-Checking Network. All organizations wishing to join it are assessed, where non-partisanship is one of the eligibility criteria. StopFake was not associated with any of the parties, which clearly shows this organization’s political neutrality. The allegation of politicization is again manipulative and contradicted by the available facts that are easy to investigate.

    B. How legal or legitimate it is to call someone a neo-Nazi

    5. The article repeatedly mentions the activities of far-right groups and individuals associated with those activities. Specifically, a large part of the text is devoted to some far-right figures,  members of the bands Komu Vnyz, Sokyra Peruna, members of C14 and the spokesman for the Right Sector. The authors associate most of these people only with Marko Suprun, the English-language host on StopFake’s YouTube channel. They also provide the position of expert Maksym Butkevych that if M.Suprun shares the project’s values, is able to do the job and is not part of the Facebook fact-checking program, it is enough to be sure of StopFake’s impartiality. However, the article about the organization’s alleged connection with far-right groups creates significant reputational risks jeopardizing StopFake’s future work, both as a fact checker and as a Facebook partner (one of only two Facebook partner organizations in Ukraine). Reputational risks arise, in particular, from the fact that Zaborona’s article associates an individual project employee with all the activities of the project, which, at the very least, is an exaggeration, given that in the case of StopFake, we obviously do not deal with a totalitarian organization led by an authoritarian leader single-handedly determining all project activities. The article gained international attention, which may discredit Facebook’s fact-checking program not only in Ukraine but also abroad, negating any efforts to combat disinformation online. Articles about StopFake also appeared in pro-Russian propaganda media: “Facebook blocks Russian news at the behest of Ukrainian extremists” from June 30, 2020 on Tsargrad, “Facebook, Nazis, Soros and StopFake – Everything did not fit into one flask” from July 21, 2020 on Ukraina.ru, and “Facebook, Suprun and Sokyra Peruna. What unites the largest social network’s Ukrainian partners with the far-right”  from March 30, 2020 on Strana.ua.

    6. Besides researching the connections of one of the team members, Marko Suprun, the authors also pay attention to the founder and editor-in-chief of StopFake, Yevhen Fedchenko. Specifically, it relates to a discussion about the possibility to apply the term “neo-Nazis” to C14. The authors note that Yevhen Fedchenko “publicly supported some far-right individuals”, quoting Mr. Fedchenko’s criticism toward Hromadske for the term “neo-Nazis” in relation to C14. Zaborona also published a second article entitled “Everyone is discussing Zaborona’s article about StopFake and the far-right. We answer the main questions.” This article had the question-and-answer format. In it, when asked “But the court ruled that C14 are not neo-Nazis?”, Zaborona replied: “Unfortunately, the court ruled for the far-right.” The article’s authors add that in this situation, Zaborona cannot trust the corrupt court, but it thinks it can trust the articles by Washington Post, Reuters, Radio Liberty. It is necessary to make a digression here to note that the organization’s political orientation, including parties and media, is determined on the basis of a comprehensive scientific analysis using the developed methodology, third-party assessment, as well as an independent review of the conclusion. The assessment is made by way of providing an expert position on an organization’s ideological orientations. For example, the political orientations (in the sense of ideology, not specific sympathies toward a particular party) of well-known English-language media are assessed by the American organization AllSides by using its own methodology. In some cases, when an ideology is prohibited by law – in some countries, there is criminal liability for Nazi or fascist activities – an organization’s political orientations are determined by the court or other government agencies. In such situations, attention is paid to how an organization’s values violate human rights (xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, etc.). Regarding the articles in the international media mentioned by Zaborona, we should note that in the Washington Post the statement regarding far-right groups does not belong to the journalist, but to a conflict participant. The Reuters article contains no affirmative statements about C14’s neo-Nazi affiliation. This is confirmed by the Resolution of November 7, 2019 in case No. 910/10429/18 of the Northern Commercial Court of Appeal, pointing to the inadmissibility of unjustified use of the term “neo-Nazi” in relation to the organization C14. In Wabl v. Austria, the European Court of Human Rights reminds about “the special stigma which attaches to activities inspired by National Socialist ideas” (par. 41). In Pihl v Sweden (par. 25), the European Court of Human Rights also notes that unjustified use of the phrase “neo-Nazi” constitutes defamation and violates the honor and dignity of the individual. In its decision on admissibility in Krutil v. Germany, the Court found the journalist’s comparison to Goebbels, the head of the propaganda apparatus in Nazi Germany, as undermining the journalist’s honor and dignity, even if the latter criticized the former leader of The Republicans (par. 2). In its decision on admissibility in Metzger v. Germany (2005), the politician was fined for calling a group of people Nazis who opposed an old people’s home’s being turned into a shelter for people with mental disabilities. In this case, the Court noted that the punishment for defamation was proportionate and necessary in a democratic society, since, given the seriousness of the word used, the applicant exceeded the limits of reasonable criticism. Based on this, we can conclude that the use of the term “Nazi” or any similar term should be appropriate and justified, given the stigma in society of the ideas of Nazism. This directly embraces the activities of the press and journalistic judgments, as the press plays an essential role in a democratic society. Although it must not overstep certain bounds, in particular in respect of the reputation and rights of others, its duty is nevertheless to impart information and ideas on all matters of public interest (par. 30, Scharsach and News Verlagsgesellschaft v. Austria).

    Defining an organization’s ideological affiliation as neo-Nazi, it is not enough to refer only to articles in the media, that, moreover, do not even mention the organization’s affiliation to this ideology. Therefore, in the response article, the Zaborona author does not take into account the fact that each country has its own local context and that using certain terminology with regard to the same phenomenon may differ significantly. For example, this can be evidenced by the appearance of the Ukrainian Trident in the British police’s visual guide. The same applies to right-wing groups, which, depending on a country’s social, economic, political and security context, may differ in their values and goals.

    7. One of the characteristic features of the post-truth age of today is the tendency toward blurring the line between good and evil, truth and untruth, virtue and dishonesty: everything is relative, therefore, there is no truth, no good, no evil. The erosion of concepts and terms that were given a certain clear meaning in historical and political retrospect, significantly contributes to strengthening this tendency. For example, both the concepts of Nazism and Fascism have a solid historical load, being associated with the difficult and tragic legacy of collective historical memory. In recent years, we have seen the indiscriminate, if not universal, use of the terms “Nazism” and “Fascism” in various countries and parts of the world, specifically because using these terms in the media is guaranteed to draw public attention to respective articles and materials generating clickbaits. However, such (mis)use is dangerous since it results in blurring the boundaries and the very meaning of these concepts, as well as losing our common ability to recognize and expose the true evil, until it is too late. Of course, we should be vigilant so that our societies never fall back into the trap of ideologies promoting Nazi or fascist values, but misusing the terms can lead to a situation where, in order to point out the real serious dangers of fascism or Nazism to society, we will no longer have enough weighty words that our audiences will listen to and have the confidence to counteract, being spoiled by the regular sensational headlines.

    8. It follows that using the term “neo-Nazi” in affirmative sentences has to be backed up by appropriate justifications and competent expert opinion. Indeed, Zaborona did not use the aforementioned phrase in all of its articles about StopFake, but it quite manipulatively equated the editor-in-chief’s tweet criticizing the use of the term “neo-Nazi” of May 5, 2018 in one particular case to overall politicization of StopFake as a project. The article’s headline, probably for the sake of drawing attention and sensationalism, reads: “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turns out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them. ” At the same time, the terms “far-right”, “right-wing radical”, “extremist” having a slightly different political and legal load are used in the article’s text. The article’s headline actually brings an accusation which is not properly substantiated in the article’s text, but which a large number of readers would not even get to read, making instead negative conclusions about the project solely on the basis of the headline.

    9. Besides discrediting the work of a separate fact-checker, the article questions the relevance and effectiveness of the fact-checking program as such. Specifically, the text cites an expert suggesting that the fact-checker’s motive was to rate the post as fake for the sake of friendly relations, pushing it down in the news feed. The quote expresses sheer judgments, but the article’s author not only does not describe a clear mechanism of the fact-checkers’ work for Facebook to correctly depict the algorithm of cooperation between the fact-checkers and the platform, but also does not mention that the fact-checkers cannot directly moderate content. At the beginning, the author shows what a rated post looks like and the consequences of rating a post as false, but leaves out the nine types of evaluation of information, appropriate justifications provided by the fact-checker and the possibility for the post’s author to prove that the information imparted was true. The authors do not disclose Facebook’s mechanism for verifying information, focusing instead only on one Ukrainian fact-checking organization, or, more specifically, on personal acquaintances of two members of the StopFake project. These project members’ connections (of unknown nature) with certain individuals are presented as linking the fact-checking project to far-right movements and as allegedly having a negative impact on Facebook as a well-known social platform. The article manipulates the aforementioned facts, creating a synthetic, alleged causal link, with no sufficient substance or evidence.

    IV. Conclusions


    The Independent Media Council believes that: 

    1. In its article “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turns out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them”, the online media Zaborona violated Principles 8, 9, 10 of the Code of Journalistic Ethics.

    2. The article “Facebook blocked Zaborona for criticizing neo-Nazis. As it turned out, the social network’s Ukrainian fact-checkers are close friends with them” groundlessly and biasedly discredits the StopFake project as a fact-checker, misleading the readers about the mechanism of interaction between the fact-checkers and Facebook.

    Votes:                               “In favor” — 6

                                              “Against” — 1

                                              “Abstained” — 1

    Supplement:

    1. Separate opinion by member of the Independent Media Council Nataliia Humeniuk

    Head of the Independent Media Council                  A. Cherevko

    Secretary of the Independent Media Council           P. Moiseyev

    Image credit: StopFake.org Youtube channel

    A separate opinion by member of the Independent Media Council Natalia Humeniuk

    Kateryna Serhatskova, Zaborona’s editor, was forced to leave Ukraine due to the threats against her family, which is unacceptable in a democracy. In these circumstances, the main task of media organizations is to categorically condemn the threats, and also to protect the right of journalists to raise taboo and inconvenient topics. Following the threats against the journalist, the StopFake project supported the statement condemning the threats. At the same time, the project representatives did not respond or explain their attitude toward the neo-Nazi band Sokyra Peruna, with whose leader the project’s host is friends, and whose texts deny the Holocaust, which is a violation of Ukrainian law. I would like to remind that Zaborona’s text referred to the friendly relations between the StopFake’s host and the musicians. The friendly relations were confirmed by a video provided in the article. It is the host’s friendship, not the disclosure of information about them that is the main cause of reputational losses for StopFake. At the stage of preparing the article, Zaborona asked StopFake for explanations. The copies of the requests were provided to the Independent Media Council. In such a situation, the proper reaction on the part of the fact-checker is to clearly separate the host from the neo-Nazis condemning their views, but not explaining that the host has a photo with representatives of minorities, etc. Since the fact-checkers could reduce reputational losses as the scandal unfolded, shifting responsibility to journalists is inappropriate and unfair. Since 2014, StopFake has played a critical role in countering disinformation and debunking fake news against Ukraine, gaining a worldwide reputation. A lot of StopFake materials dealt with fictional and propaganda materials about rampant neo-Nazism in Ukraine. That is why it is extremely important for such a project to have a crystal clean reputation, being especially cautious about any contacts casting doubt on the impartiality of the fact-checker. Unfortunately, StopFake’s public responses still do not make it possible to completely deny the allegations contained in the article by Zaborona. Consequently, there can be no question of a violation of professional ethics.

    I would like to draw attention to the fact that, the public statements by StopFake representatives may unreasonably and unfoundedly give the impression that the article of the independent media may be part of a Kremlin-coordinated campaign against fact-checkers. While, in the context of the threats against the editor, when the police does not open a criminal case to protect both the journalist and the right of Ukrainian journalists to cover problematic topics, which, even though they could be used by propagandists for their own purposes, do not cease to be problems and should not be ignored, it is especially important to refrain from calling an ordinary journalistic article of an independent media a coordinated campaign, creating even more risks for journalists and for freedom of speech in general, as well as an atmosphere of critical thinking in the country.

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