Journalists investigating disinformation have been threatened, imprisoned and in extreme cases, such as that of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, killed. Forbidden Stories has brought together more than 100 journalists from 30 media outlets to uncover the inner workings of the global, secret world of mercenaries for disinformation.
In India, journalist Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, was arrested in the summer of 2022. His arrest on a 2018 Twitter complaint was widely seen as retaliation by authorities for his work debunking false claims and misinformation about religion and the caste system, among other topics.
Maria Resa is the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her Rappler post was the first to reveal President Rodrigo Duterte’s “armies of trolls” manipulating information surrounding his presidency in 2016. Since then, she has faced online attacks and prosecutions (in January 2023, Resa was acquitted of four counts of tax evasion, but three more criminal charges remain).
Finnish journalist Jessica Aro, one of the first reporters to investigate the Russian troll farm — or Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency — was the victim of a Russian-based disinformation campaign. The trolls attacked her on Twitter; They sent smear emails to her colleagues and politicians, as well as filed formal complaints against her and her media. Aro recounts the dark incident of how she received a text message from someone posing as her dead father, claiming to be alive and “watching” her.
Lie factories that kill
Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh reported misinformation on her eponymous blog Gauri Lankesh Patrike. In September 2017, she planned to publish an editorial titled “In the Age of Fake News” condemning India’s “lie factories.” The material revealed how a local news channel spread a sinister rumor that BJP and other right-wing personalities spread further. But it was killed before the story was published.
More than five years after the murder of Gauri Lankesh, Forbidden Stories, whose mission is to continue the work of threatened, imprisoned or murdered journalists, gathered more than 100 journalists from 30 media outlets to continue Lankesh’s work. This is the first time such a large journalistic consortium has investigated the global, secret world of mercenaries for disinformation.
For more than six months, the consortium, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, traced the misinformation stories to their original sources. From India to Saudi Arabia to Israel, Spain and the United States, the consortium is investigating both small-scale, craft-like efforts to promote foreign propaganda to surgical, professionalized black surgeries.
We’ve tracked down companies that sell services to influence opinions, manipulate elections, destroy reputations, and erase the truth. We have looked closely at the mechanics of the disinformation business. “The disinformation industry that threatens global democracy is often invisible but still thriving and profitable,” our investigation shows. According to a report by the Oxford Internet Institute, in 2020, at least 81 countries resorted to organized campaigns to manipulate social media.
As countries increasingly rely on rented disinformation services and mercenaries multiply, journalists face deadly consequences. One in four journalists killed in non-conflict zones between 2017 and 2022 was targeted by disinformation campaigns or received direct threats through social media networks that led to their deaths, Forbidden Stories found after analyzing data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Daphne Caruana Galizia, Jamal Khashoggi, Rafael Emiro Moreno and Gauri Lankesh, there are such journalists on almost all continents.
For Maria Ressa, countering online attacks and their intended chilling effect is to talk.
“They’re using free speech to shut you up. I refuse to remain silent,” she told a member of our consortium.
Media partners of Story Killers:
The Guardian and Observer, Le Monde, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, ZDF, Paper Trail Media, Die Zeit, Radio France, Proceso, OCCRP, Knack, Le Soir, Haaretz, The Marker, El País, SverigesTelevision, Radio Télévision Suisse, Folha, Confluence Media, IRPI, IStories, Armando Info, Code for Africa, Bird, Tempo Media Group, El Espectador, Der Standard, Tamedia, Krik.
The Story Killers project was published in collaboration with the International Center for Journalists’ (ICFJ) Online Violence Project, a partnership between ICFJ Research and computer scientists at the University of Sheffield computer scientists. The ICFJ team provided its expertise and computing power to the partners from Story Killers.
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