Stemming the Spread of Meme-Based Disinformation

Meedan develops the Claims and Memes Database to help facilitate online fact-checking
Tue, 2020-07-07 15:07

Social media has become a common source for news—often in compressed visual form. With more and more eyes on screens, widely circulated images now shape opinions and alter actions. So what happens when memes are used to intentionally transmit disinformation? How are people online supposed to know what’s true and what’s false? Finding an answer to this problem is more important now than ever as repressive regimes around the world continue to ramp up their efforts to weaponize visual misinformation as a tool for social network manipulation, voter suppression, and censorship. That’s why in 2019 Meedan, an open source technology non-profit, received funding from OTF’s Core Infrastructure Fund to help develop the Claims and Memes Database (CMDb)—a programmer-accessible repository of fact-checked claims and debunked visual misinformation intended to combat this new type of information control.

Meedan has long worked at the forefront of improving the quality and equity of online information. Check, the organization’s free flagship software, helps users verify digital photos and text, build datasets, and structure open-source investigations. An early iteration of the software’s open-source collaborative workflow played a key role for citizen journalists during the 2011 Arab Spring protests and has continued to have an impact in elections in the United States, Mexico, India and France. Today, over 250 workspaces created by more than 1,750 users across the globe rely on Check to fact-check and investigate online information. Yet due to the increasing spread of disinformation on the web, the platform needed an upgrade in order for journalists and citizen reporters to more efficiently verify or debunk memes.

Overseen by Meedan program manager Wafaa Heikal, the CMDb project streamlined Check’s verification process by developing better workflows for annotating claims and images. As part of this effort, upgraded features were built to better respond to memetic misinformation—like Check’s report designer (which helps journalists quickly develop compelling visual responses to counter circulating misinformation). New tools for processing content, like importing spreadsheets and ingesting content submitted from closed networks, were also created.

In addition to enhancing user ease, the CMDb project significantly improved Meedan’s image and claim similarity infrastructure. The newly developed claim/image matching technology enables similar images and claims to be clustered. By identifying secondary items that are related to a submitted claim, this matching technology allows for similar images and memes to automatically receive the same tagging, annotation, and verdict as the original image or meme. As a result, journalists are now able to respond to hundreds of similar images and claims in a collective manner. This saves considerable time and effort—meaning fact-checked information is able to get back into the hands of citizens in a far more expeditious manner.

Meedan quickly put the newly developed CMDb technology to use across the world. The streamlined content workflows and image matching technology helped to support dozens of newsrooms and fact-checking organizations during the 2019 elections in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Throughout the year, members of the Meedan team also contributed to research efforts and led various informational workshops showcasing the CMDb project and providing journalists with a better understanding of the power—for good, and for bad—of global memes and claims. The group additionally provided input to Facebook, Twitter, and Google regarding the best approaches to the use of misleading manipulated and synthetic imagery on social media platforms. This feedback was taken into consideration when Twitter drafted new guidelines on manipulated media.

Still, despite the significant progress achieved during the CMDb’s first year, the project was not without its difficulties. Obstacles arose pertaining to the data collected by partners using Check’s software. Ideally, the images and claims that comprise the CMDb would be able to be shared publicly. But doing so creates a host of ethical concerns and legal issues regarding terms of service, varying privacy policies, and the very real threat of revealing personal information. Meedan is working with Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic to help address this ongoing issue. Options such as data trusts, in which a legally separate trust would own the underlying data, are also being explored. The success of these efforts is critical, as finding a way to make the database accessible to other users—and one day even the general public—will help further curb the spread of misinformation online.

Going forward, Meedan is focusing its efforts on combating the spread of misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the virus itself, misinformation pertaining to “cures” or “treatments” is spreading around the world and causing real harm. Meedan is committed to making its full toolkit and code available to help improve trust, information quality, and research capabilities. The organization’s development of the CMDb, and its history of fighting to advance accurate information online, make it uniquely positioned to help during this complex time. As an important first step, Meedan introduced the Check Bot—a customizable COVID-19 WhatsApp bot for fact-checkers tackling the wave of misinformation surrounding the virus. The organization also recently rolled out the COVID-19 Expert Database, which contains expert-sourced information to help support pandemic-related verification processes around the world.

Read more in-depth about Meedan, Check, and the CMDb here.

Read more about OTF’s support for the CMDb here.

About the program: OTF’s Core Infrastructure Fund (CIF) works to strengthen Internet freedom, digital security, and the overall health of the Internet by supporting the “building block” technologies, infrastructures, and communities utilized by digital security and circumvention tools. The fund strives to uphold and increase capacity for individuals, organizations, and companies working to fortify the foundational components of demonstrably important technology relied upon by people in repressive countries.