Chatbots and charlatans: how the BBC is cracking down on fake news

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The BBC is “really worried” by a new tactic by fake news propagandists and fraudsters who are exploiting the rise of chat apps to spread false content carrying the broadcaster’s trusted branding.

The organisation has found itself repeatedly targeted by what appears to be a mixture of state-backed political activists, opportunistic fraudsters and malicious pranksters, who are grafting the BBC’s famous logo onto false reports that are shared on the largely unregulated chat platforms.

The trend represents a new dimension in the fake news threat and a major challenge to democratic processes and to news organisations in protecting their brand reputations.

The BBC last week felt obliged to issue a formal warning after a clip purporting to show the BBC reporting on the outbreak of nuclear war between Russian and NATO forces in the Baltic went viral on WhatsApp and other chat platforms as a piece of breaking news.

In other instances, the BBC’s branding has been used to give a false sense of authentication to concocted election results, and in creating malicious news ‘reports’ designed to damage corporate targets.

Cracking down on mischief and malice

Jamie Angus, director of the BBC’s World Service Group, which serves a global audience of 346m on television, radio and online, says combating fake news has become “the absolute priority for me in 2018” and that he is “particularly concerned” by the growth of the problem on chat services.

“The thing I’m really worried about is fake videos that circulate on chat apps, including but not limited to WhatsApp,” he tells The Drum in an interview. “They are fake BBC News reports.”

Whereas concerns over fake news have mostly surrounded global social media sites, Angus says false reports are far more difficult to monitor on chat platforms, and are much harder to remove. “Things that circulate on chat are not searchable and not discoverable but they can reach millions of people before anyone has even noticed,” he says. “It’s really, really hard to track down this material.”

Angus says that chat apps are “advancing incredibly quickly” and that reacting to the emergence of fake BBC News reports on these platforms was “an increasingly large part of my world” as head of an operation that incorporates both the World Service and BBC World News, the BBC’s most watched television channel.

He says that, whereas the big Silicon Valley companies have now largely accepted a responsibility to do more to combat the spread of fake news, chat services operate to a different set of rules, even though WhatsApp is owned by Facebook.

“I think Google, YouTube and Facebook have quite robust reporting mechanisms for fake news because they have recognised the scale of the threat but I think chat apps are a bit different because they don’t in any sense see themselves as publishing publicly visible content, they see themselves as platforms for private messaging. It’s quite difficult to get stuff taken down off these platforms,” he says. “The regulation hasn’t caught up with this yet.”

After the nuclear clip went viral in Asia and Africa, the BBC issued a warning and wrote a blog titled: “No, the BBC is not reporting the end of the world.”

The BBC ‘newsreader’ in the clip is actually an actor, Mark Ryes, and the film was produced not by the newsroom at Broadcasting House but by an Irish company in 2016, as a psychometric test for its clients to see how they would react in a disaster scenario. The font, style and layout of the BBC News branding on the clip are different, although convincing to an untrained eye. When the film was posted onto YouTube it carried the warning that the report was fictional.

Angus says the placing of this film on chat apps was “mischievous and probably quite dangerous” because the warning was lost. “If you don’t view it on YouTube and it’s just cut and pasted onto a chat app you lose all of that context and attribution and people just see a video that purports to be BBC News.”

Identifying the hidden hands behind fake BBC news reports on chat apps is extremely difficult. Angus says the fakers appear to be diverse in their intentions. “I’m absolute certain there are a mixture of motives; some of it is just pranking and mischievousness; some of it is clickbait just trying to farm impressions for ad fraud. Then there is a category of fake news which is genuinely malicious and sometimes state-backed disinformation, and the roots of that are very hard to trace sometimes.”

Going public in denouncing these films is also potentially problematic. “Sometimes you just draw more attention to it by debunking it,” says Angus. The range of fake BBC News content is wide. One clip, circulated at the time of the recent Kenyan elections, carried a bogus set of results and was designed to look like a genuine report from the BBC’s Focus on Africa strand. Angus admits that the false content was “relatively professionally done”. Another piece, which he dealt with last week, was apparently designed to attack the Domino’s pizza brand in India.

“Quite often we find people just making fake news, particularly in video form, putting BBC branding on it and just setting it off out into the world. I think that’s a really big challenge for us,” he says. “In a way it speaks to our trustworthiness, it acknowledges that people believe what the BBC tells them - but I think it does pose a problem for us.”

These developments have helped convince him that fake news is no passing trend, characterised as a war of words between US President Donald Trump and his news media critics.

“I don’t think it’s a passing fad idea that is going to quickly disappear, I think it is a fundamental transformation in how people are consuming news,” says Angus. “I think there was a bit of a feeling, a year to 18 months ago, that fake news was a Trump-driven tag that was going to rise and fall as a voguish media talking point. I think the concept is going to remain relevant for many years to come, partly because of the invidious nature of some state-funded (news media) players but also because of problems with digital news distribution and people struggling to differentiate between what is real and fake online.”

In this climate, it’s the role of the World Service and BBC World News to lead the way in highlighting examples of disinformation, he says. BBC Brasil recently exposed the existence of a social media ‘cyborg’ factory which operated large numbers of fake accounts being used to generate propaganda for former President Dilma Rousseff.

The BBC also has the unique advantage of its BBC Monitoring division, which tracks, filters and translates news media coverage across 150 countries. The BBC Monitoring Twitter feed has become an important source in highlighting examples of fake news. “We have unparalleled ability to spot these kinds of stories and it’s important that we pick the most egregious ones and call them out,” says Angus.

BBC Monitoring will shortly be leaving its historic home at Caversham Park, with around 100 staff relocated at Broadcasting House and a further 120 at other BBC locations around the world. “I want BBC Monitoring to feel at the heart of our daily journalism operation and happily they are arriving here at a time when what they do has never been more important. Thinking about Russia alone, the ability to monitor what’s being broadcast on Russian TV and feed it back into the news ecosystem in English, is a really important role.”

Bringing truth to new territories

The BBC World Service is expanding its reach with last year’s launch of new language services in Africa, India and Korea, backed by a major funding boost from the UK Government.

Angus was recently in Nigeria, where the BBC has recruited 100 new journalists to work in Ibo, Yoruba and Pidgin, in addition to its existing services in English and Hausa. The expansion is helping the BBC to report widely on African news and culture and to counter historic criticisms that it is too focused on war and famine. “Because of Africa’s population growth it is going to rise to equal importance to Asia in economic growth over the next 25 years. Increasing the sophistication of (audience) understanding of African countries is a really important part of our mission.”

The BBC’s position is more difficult in Iran, where the families of 152 current and former journalists working for the BBC Persia service have been subject to harassment orchestrated by the Iranian government. In October the BBC raised the case with the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, which has urged Iran to stop.

Although progress is limited, Angus is “relatively optimistic” that Iran will change its stance. “[Iran’s] main priority must surely be its geopolitical situation, particularly with a White House with an aggressive Iran policy,” he says. “These peripheral activities are damaging Iran’s international standing and should not be welcome for the Iranian people nor for their government and it would be much better if they desisted.”

But it is the world of English-language television that has become the key market in global news and here the BBC World News channel faces a battle for resources. It is funded from around £60m in commercial revenue, made up increasingly low-margin deals on the BBC website outside the UK, rather than national TV campaigns. Here the BBC competes with CNN, which Angus claims has greater freedom to “strike commercial deals in some territories where the BBC could never strike for reasons of editorial propriety”.

Moreover there is increasing competition from “lavishly well-resourced state funded channels”, by which Angus means Russia’s RT, China’s CTTN and the Turkish channel TRT, which is planning a new English-language operation. “The reason that states are pumping money into international TV channels in English is because they are a good way of reaching audiences and, bluntly, they are effective if you are interested in ‘shaping a conversation’.”

He says that the World Service Group must “double down on what distinguishes us from those other entrants into the market”, by which he means “our verifiable editorial independence”.

The conundrum is how BBC World News might be given Government support to compete better in an important space for the ‘soft power’ of promoting British values, without compromising the audience’s trust in the channel’s independence, or spending public money on what is a commercial organisation.

Angus points out that BBC World News has 100m people watching it and is “the BBC’s single most watched channel, bar none.” He believes that there is a way to give it more backing. “I think it’s important over time that the way funding streams support different parts of the World Service can be made less complex so that a channel like BBC World News can get the appropriate editorial resources, given its strategic importance.”

All of these steps, just as with the countering of the misuse of the BBC’s name in fake news on chat apps, Angus must act with the broadcaster’s reputation as his key consideration. “The BBC’s trustworthy brand is our single most important attribute,” he says.

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