When did fake news start?

Interview on fake newsTurn all that negative energy into something positive

We talk to Thomas Laschyk, managing editor and managing director of the People's Verpetzer.

Thomas Laschyk is a journalist, blogger and activist.

Anyone who wants to do something against the spread of misinformation and against more or less obvious lies is doing a Sisyphus job. Because checking facts and researching, writing down and passing on theses according to criteria of science or media competence always takes longer than spreading untruths. Nevertheless, some people make the effort: with wit, arguments and quick-wittedness - and with success.

Anyone who is currently reading the popular mislead will find many articles that try to counter the circulating half-truths or fictional lies with proven facts and the scientific consensus in the Covid-19 pandemic. But Corona is just one of many topics: You can read about right-wing extremist Youtubers, the AfD party or half-silly “Welt” authors whose works are discussed and dismantled in great detail, but also about refugee policy or the horseshoe model. And of course the “Bild” newspaper should not be missing when it comes to false news. As a reader, there is only one thing you shouldn't expect when trying to find the truth: that the authors will be brief when dealing with the fake news slingshot when they talk about the “Volksverpetzer”.

The need to do something about fake news and hate speech

How would you describe the “folkspicker” in one sentence?

Thomas Laschyk: We are an anti-fake news blog and we have made it our mission to refute and educate about fake news narratives, and also write about the people who spread them.

To clarify that right from the start: Why do you call yourself “Chefpetze” on Twitter?

Thomas Laschyk: It just turned out that way. My team started calling me that at some point, and that's how I called myself on Twitter. Because I like it. (laughs)

How did you come to start your own project against nonsense and fake news?

Thomas Laschyk: It started with the need to do something against this fake news, against this agitation. We all started doing it on a voluntary basis in our free time and just researched and wrote straight away, first in the comment columns and then later on our blog. And that has grown: We have learned a lot, the team has grown, and we've been doing it professionally for two years now.

Editing with many volunteers

What's up with the rather peculiar name of the people-betrayer?

Thomas Laschyk: We had thought about fighting against seducers and exposing them and exposing lies. Then we decided to tell them about, that is, to clarify and denounce their methods. Then, of course, the play on words that we are the people tattering with the double meaning that we are telling those who claim for themselves, for the people to speak.

Your website says, “We are financially completely independent.” Do you get paid by donations?

Thomas Laschyk: Correct. We are - and this is still the case today - supported by the fans.

How big is your editorial team now?

Thomas Laschyk: We are two permanent employees - I and one other employee - who can do this full-time thanks to donations from individuals. Our extended team consists of about twenty people who sacrifice their free time for everything: editing, research, feedback, etc.

Dozens of fake news every day

How do you choose which statements to address in the blog? And how do you manage to react as quickly as possible?

Thomas Laschyk: It always depends on how much capacity we have. We have dozens of fake news every day. We keep an eye on the Telegram channels, the right-wing hate groups on Facebook, etc. But there are so many things that we cannot do because we simply don't have the time. We just always look: where is the most burning place? At the moment this is of course the case with corona fake news.

And yes, we have to squat down and hurry. It works faster when we have more capacities among the volunteers who can, for example, transcribe a video for us or look for the most important statements or research the sources. Then it comes together for me or my employee, we can then implement, formulate, check, etc.

Depending on the text, depending on the effort involved, this can of course take hours. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to research for many days because some of the topics are then already out of date. Except for topics that have been topical for a long time: We currently have a few researches that have been going for a week or two, where we think it pays off. Of course, you sit longer on it. With our resources and our team, which is largely made up of volunteers, we often have to decide against discussing topics if we simply cannot do it with sufficient qualifications in a reasonable time.

How do you deal with the problem that stories of lies often spread much better than their correction?

Thomas Laschyk: Exactly, of course it is always much easier to bring lies into the world than to refute them in a qualified manner. That's why there will always be more of these fakes than we can deal with. We only have our resources, so we have to see where we are.

Checking facts takes a lot of time and sometimes even prior knowledge. You often find long texts that break down nonsense step by step and refute them in detail. Will this long article with numerous sources be read?

Thomas Laschyk: In our experience, when we have a headline that says: This and that is wrong, a large part of the work - unfortunately, of course - is actually already done. Many people who know how good research works and that you have to check sources now know that they can trust us for the most part. You are already using a good headline and are no longer reading all the details, but you are sending it on. That means: when we have done the fact check, it has a lot of effect.

We like to do it thoroughly and we like to do it in detail because we always ask ourselves: Where else could any doubters or the fake news spreaders have objections? Where could they say: “You haven't refuted that, you don't dare.” Sometimes we get feedback where people write: “Here is this and that fake news, reply to this email by tomorrow, otherwise it is clear that you cannot refute it. ”In their eyes, a thesis is not refuted if we do not address it.

It is of course a perversion of truth-finding to say that as long as something has not been contradicted, it is true. One example are these fictional children who allegedly died through masks, for which there was never any evidence. There is now evidence against it, but for a long time it was handled like this: It could have been so, and as long as nothing else is said, we will believe it.

That is why the contradiction is actually important first. Fake news works the other way around: You first make the claims, then the evidence is missing, then there are logical leaps in it, then all of this makes no sense, but people believe it because they want to believe it. And that is why it is very important to make a contradiction. But of course we don't want to argue just as weakly and thinly as the “other side”. That's why we take the time to do this in detail.

Where are the receipts?

What was it that made you neurotically document every single, sometimes even obvious, detail and often state a source behind every half-sentence?

Thomas Laschyk: I noticed it quickly: As soon as I had written something, there are dozens of people in the comments who write: “You said that, I don't believe you, where are the receipts?” And that's why we just got used to it to state that directly, then nobody complains. We don't care about those who complain anyway.

The Volksverpetzer also differs from other fact checkers in that you approach the matter with humor and polemics. Do you worry that this will reduce your reputation and reliability?

Thomas Laschyk: Before I started at the Volksverpetzer, I wrote for a while for Mimikama, the Austrian fact checker. They try to be more serious, more neutral, more objective. But we like to denounce things and also write our opinion in our articles.

I quickly noticed: No matter how factual, how serious you are, no matter how careful you express something, you are in the eyes of, for example, pandemic deniers or right-wing extremists always the “left-green-versed” communist or state-owned. They throw these fighting terms around, at everything that contradicts them. When I talk to people about corrective or mimikama, they talk about the same nonsense. As long as you work cleanly, orient yourself towards science, but then you don't get what the right-wing extremists want to hear, you are their enemy.

We adapt our language, for example if we write against any right-wing extremist Telegram groups, then we can be a little more relaxed. If we criticize the "world", for example, then we try harder and try to adapt the language. For example, last November we wrote an open letter to the fictional character Don Alphonso, i.e. Rainer Meyer. We approached him and tried to reach him with facts and his own attitudes. And if the editor-in-chief of “Welt” doesn't like that and he only reacts to our seventeen-page article with derisive comments, then we can't help it. Every outsider can see for himself who is more serious here.

Who hadn't read the letter: It wasn't exactly short ...

Thomas Laschyk: ... yes, seventeen pages, that was no exaggeration! (laughs)

You use many technical terms in some of the current articles on the pandemic and sometimes require some prior knowledge for the readers. How do you try to keep the balance between the risk of being no longer understood by the average reader on the one hand, and accuracy and scientific closeness on the other?

Thomas Laschyk: From our perspective, it is always the case that we are afraid that we are too stupid. (laughs) None of us on the team are virologists or epidemiologists. We have a veterinarian who specializes in epidemics and who advises us. We also have a doctor friend and a virologist who advise us from time to time. But we were actually rather afraid that we had formulated things too imprecisely. From time to time we also received feedback from experts who sent corrections for small technical details that were inaccurately formulated. We feel like a few laypeople who actually have no right to have a say.

But of course we always try to adapt linguistically, because the danger is that many people will not understand, as you correctly said. And that's why they're all prone to when some doctor or retired epidemiologist starts telling nonsense for his book sales and tossing around with technical terms. Then that may sound possible or serious at first glance to a layperson. So we have to adapt to it. If specific technical claims are made, we need to explain that too.

But we try to explain it a little easier with foresight, namely in the title. An example would be an article entitled: Yes, the PCR test is reliable! That is the basic message that most people should understand. And then we go into more detail and explain what the technical terms mean. Not everyone has to understand everything to understand the basic message.

Would you see other fact checkers as role models for your work?

Thomas Laschyk: I wouldn't say that we have a special great role model. But I found John Oliver from the USA, for example, very interesting. He does less fact checking, but he is a role model for how to present complicated backgrounds and contexts in an entertaining way.

Reach people with entertainment

Is it your humor and polemics that make you different from other fact checkers?

Thomas Laschyk: I don't like to be called a fact checker because that implies more objectivity for me. I also think it's very right and important that corrective or facial expressions do this factually calmly, that they also take the time to check things three times. When people tell me that we formulated something sensationally or a little more opinion, then I agree with them.

With years of experience and what I have seen, what works and what is well received, I am of the opinion that entertainment elements also have to be included: Because that also ensures more dissemination, because we also use the same algorithms and maybe also reach the same people who otherwise run the risk of being reached only by fake news.

In addition to the month-long letter against lies about the pandemic: What are your priorities in the fact checks and which are you aiming for in the future?

Thomas Laschyk: Before the pandemic, we had dealt a lot with right-wing extremist narratives and fake news. Even if it would be nice to assume that they will be gone after the start of the corona pandemic, I doubt it. That's why it will probably remain an issue.

Ideally, if we could set topics completely independently, we would actually write more about climate policy because, in our opinion, maybe it is the The most important topic is where science also needs more public support. If we get bigger and bigger now, we would like to hire more people because the tasks grow with them: First of all, more fact checks, but now we're also trying to make videos so that we can reach people differently. That of course depends on how worthy of support our fans think. We are really ninety percent dependent on crowdfunding and donations, only ten percent of our income consists of a little merchandise that we sell on the side. If people think we should be supported, there are more of them.

What were your articles with the greatest reach?

Thomas Laschyk: I think our most successful piece of content in the last two years was actually just a little video where a train driver, after a racist told him: "Foreigners out!", Simply got out of the locomotive and filmed it. That wasn't actually even a fact check. Otherwise: We made a very successful article about debunking AfD comments that went viral last October. In the third place there is already an opinion article from me that denounces the corona conspiracy narrators.

What actually drives you to repeatedly grapple with complete nonsense, with false reports and half-truths from conspiracy liars?

Thomas Laschyk: I look at it every day, get upset about it, and then the debunking and dealing with it is more cathartic. It's also the motivation that we originally had. We wanted to counter something, do something, have the feeling of fighting this flood of disinformation and write articles that are well researched, where the facts are in there, with which one can contradict. We wanted to say: "Hey, they're lying to you, they're kidding, don't fall for it!"

Especially when a lot of people read it, share it and also appreciate it, then that is good, then you have the feeling that you have contributed something positive that has done something useful against it.

How do you not get mad?

Thomas Laschyk: You already mentioned our humor. If we are being hit by a shit storm from Attila Hildmann, then we don't want to let it get us down, we look for the thirty stupidest comments and make fun of them. We are always trying to turn all of this negative energy into something positive.

Half the world has been talking about fake news for years now. From your point of view, has anything changed, and if so, what?

Thomas Laschyk: Yes, I see a change. More and more people are slowly becoming aware of how social media works: There will continue to be fake news because - viewed very cynically - it is a business model.Even if there are now a lot of measures on platforms to curb this a bit, that's basically a problem because social media works in such a way that these stories address the emotions and the confirmation bias of the people who want to believe it.

We have the problem that the platforms have an enormous influence on politics, that entire political movements have formed that cannibalize it for clicks, for advertising revenue, for book sales, for votes. I think the wake-up call came with the election of Donald Trump. But there is still a lack of widespread awareness that professional scammers cannot be treated the way that valid minority opinions in politics could be dealt with before. Because some of these are real fascists, professional liars who are not interested in an exchange.

Do you expect this development to get worse or to improve?

Thomas Laschyk: It got worse until about a year ago. Before the start of the corona pandemic, I noticed that things had gotten better again, that there was again a broader awareness of how to deal with fascists, which, unfortunately, are now being heard prominently in German politics and in other countries.

An improvement was also noticeable in the media handling of topics, for example with “Fridays For Future”: It went back to a factual level, we talked again about sensible politics. That was thrown up a bit with the exceptional situation around Corona. My fear is that in a second wave we will not have the same cohesion as we did in the spring.

What would you wish?

Thomas Laschyk: That people would just think a little more before they share anything just because they think it corresponds to their worldview. That would be enough. (laughs)

Thank you for the interview!

Transcription for netzpolitik.org: Leonard Kamps. Many Thanks!

Would you like more critical reporting?

Our work at netzpolitik.org is financed almost exclusively by voluntary donations from our readers. With an editorial staff of currently 15 people, this enables us to journalistically work on many important topics and debates in a digital society. With your support, we can clarify even more, conduct investigative research much more often, provide more background information - and defend even more fundamental digital rights!

You too can support our work now with yours Donation.

Clicking on the link loads our donation widget. In doing so, data is sent to our donation service provider twingle. You can find more information in our privacy policy.

About the author


Constanze Kurz has a doctorate in computer science, author and editor of several books, most recently on cyber war. Your column “From the engine room” appeared from 2010 to 2019 in the features section of the FAZ. She is an activist and volunteer spokesperson for the Chaos Computer Club. She conducted research at the Humboldt University in Berlin at the chair “Computer Science in Education and Society” and was an expert on the “Internet and Digital Society” commission of inquiry of the Bundestag. She received the Werner Holtfort Prize for civil and human rights engagement, the Tolerance Prize for civil courage and the Theodor Heuss Medal for exemplary democratic behavior.Contact: constanze (at) netzpolitik.org (PGP).
Published 10/31/2020 at 2:17 PM