Universiteit Leiden

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‘Creating propaganda has been democratised’

University lecturer Peter Burger has been researching the reliability of stories for almost 30 years. Whether political news item or urban myth, he debunks falsehoods and half-truths on an almost daily basis. He recently received a prize for his complete oeuvre.

‘The middle child is usually the most intelligent one.’ Spend a few days browsing Facebook and you will most likely stumble across claims such as this. They make you smile, and you tag your brothers or sisters, thus spreading the news within your group of friends, despite knowing that the claim isn’t backed up by much in the way of in-depth research. Because the next day you tag your younger brother in another article that says he is the smartest of you all, which of course can’t be true.

Innocent pleasure? Not completely, says Peter Burger, lecturer in journalism and fake-news researcher. ‘More and more small businesses are starting to specialise in this type of junk news. Each time you read or share an item, this generates traffic to adverts on that page. That makes money. The danger is that the web will become saturated with this type of item, leaving little room for quality. That will be submerged by a flood of pulp.’

For almost 30 years, Burger has researched the reliability of urban myths and news items. Did Leiden students really throw red-hot coins to the ‘common people’? And did the Danish king voluntarily wear the Star of David during the second world war? This never-ending hunt for the truth behind the newspaper headlines recently earnt him the Piramidependelprijs from Stichting Skepsis, a ‘fun club of know-it-all’s’ (in Burger’s own words) that subjects unusual claims to critical research. Previous winners include Midas Dekkers and Arjen Lubach.

One thing you have gained a name for is fact-checking relatively innocent urban myths. But if I look at your recent tweets, I mainly see you fact-checking politicians. Has your work become more political in recent years?

‘Definitely. That is because propaganda has been democratised. Anyone can find sources that support their own opinions, and then spread them through social media. But the strongest examples that help prove your point don’t always prove to be true stories.’

You fact-check surprisingly many pronouncements by rightwing politicians from the Party for Freedom (PVV) and Forum for Democracy. Critics sometimes accuse you of bias. To what extent is that true?

‘Politicians from these parties have a different media diet. They regularly voice their distrust of the mainstream media. That’s why they look for their news in alternative sources, from Russia Today to famous right-wing individuals on Twitter. That results in news that has not been checked as thoroughly and thus contains more falsehoods. I have asked my critics time and time again to provide examples of photos and video with a false context that come from the left, but they hardly ever do.’

If politicians spread inaccuracies, is this by accident? Or do you think they deliberately spread fake news for political gain?

Burger thinks for a moment. ‘Both play a role. In some cases politicians rectify their tweets or delete a retweet of an incorrect item. But they often reply with, “so what?” We saw a similar thing happen after a tweet by PVV politician René Dercksen. He sent photos into the world of violence by anti-fascists. The Antifa logo was clearly Photoshopped onto one of these photos, and another image proved to be a photo of completely different riots. His underlying argument was: this specific tweet may be incorrect, but the issue I want to address does exist.’

And he has a point there: extreme-left violence does exist.

‘Yes, but why do you have to prove that with falsified photos? This detracts from the facts. You show that you do not attach any value to the truth. As if it doesn’t matter what really happened.’

What do you feel when you read such falsehoods?

‘From slight surprise to severe indignation and everything between. It is often not at all difficult to check fake news. Do a Google reverse search and you can already avoid the majority of blunders.’

Stichting Skepsis noted that it was also awarding the Piramidependelprijs to Burger as an encouragement to his students on the Journalism and New Media programme. Since 2009 Burger – and his colleague Alexander Pleijter – has led Nieuwscheckers, an educational project in which students check news reports. This is how whole generations of Leiden journalism students have learnt the finer points of the job.

How did they react when you received the prize?

‘I don’t know if this is exactly how I put it, but essentially I got the master’s students to give themselves a round of applause. This project has been running for almost 10 years, and it is mainly due to the students’ commitment.’

Why should journalism students learn to fact-check in particular? Isn’t that a core principle of journalism?

‘To a certain extent it is. But it’s a skill that sometimes differs fundamentally from the way that many journalists set to work. Journalists often set two viewpoints against each other. With fact-checking, however, you have to come as close as possible to the truth, so you have to provide one result. It is a more difficult form of journalism than the classic he said, she said. I notice that students find this challenging, particularly if they have to ask a person who has made a mistake to respond.’

The American president Donald Trump tells a lot of lies and is often fact-checked. But he doesn’t appear to learn from this. Does that make you pessimistic?

Burger thinks for a moment, and, avoiding a yes or no, says: ‘This is one of the trickiest problems in our field. What can we expect at all from fact-checking? And what is our diagnosis of the political climate if many politicians take liberties with the truth and are not penalised for this? I don’t have an answer to this.’

‘But I believe in the benefit of fact-checking. You could recently read in various media about a vegetarian restaurant in Thailand that was supposed to have served human flesh. Thanks to our fact-check, many of these news items were corrected, because they proved to be untrue. And by collaborating with Google, we ensure these fact-checks end up at the top of the search results, so above the incorrect reports. It’s not perfect, because the original fake news will undoubtedly have reached many more people than the rectification afterwards does. Fact-checking is a kind of arms race in which you are always one step behind.’

Nieuwscheckers seeks funding

Leiden University’s Nieuwscheckers are looking for funding for the next calendar year. They receive support from various different sponsors, but this is not enough to fund the full programme next year. ‘Potential sponsors can contact me,’ says Burger. ‘We journalists don’t need a particle accelerator, so we’re talking about relatively small amounts.’

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