Theodoros Daniilidis is the founder, and Thanos Sitistas is the editor of “Ellinika Hoaxes”, the most famous website in Greece that debunks disinformation and fake news. It has been doing that in the past six years, since 2013. In the interview for “Meta.mk”, Daniilidis and Sitistas say that the Greeks are pretty prone to believe fake news, but also that the disinformation in Greece streams mainly from the far-right circles.
Accordingly, they say, North Macedonia is a frequent topic of the disinformation that is published in some minor media outlets and in the social media.
For several years now, you have been working on the Ellinika Hoaxes website, where you regularly debunk and fact-check disinformation and fake news articles in the Greek media. If you take a step back and see your work as a whole in the past years, what would you say, who or what is the main source of disinformation in Greece and what is the most frequent subject of disinformation?
Theodoros Daniilidis, founder: Ellinika Hoaxes was established in 2013 and since then we have debunked, roughly, 3.000 fake news. They range from articles in websites, TV, newspapers, to fake memes circulating via social media. Disinformation in Greece just like any other country is a huge problem and it can come even from big news outlets. However, we have ascertained that most fake news have to do with current events, such as immigration, disinformation about neighboring countries including North Macedonia, misinformation about political statements, claims by politicians, then various sensational claims in the media that range from gossip to medicine, even conspiracy theories (sometimes peddled even by Greek politicians), etc.
Thanos Sitistas, Editor: A 2017 study by EBU, based on the data published in the 86th Eurobarometer survey, gave an idea of European citizens’ perception of the trustworthiness of several types of media, and included EU Member States as well as acceding and candidate countries. It shows that Greeks ranked first among all Europeans in trusting information and messages from the social media and online platforms. A 2018 study of Eurobarometer, showed that only 4% of Greeks fully trust the news they read in news outlets (Online newspapers and news magazines) and only 3% fully trust news they read on the social networks and messaging apps. 55% of Greeks also stated that every day, or almost every day, they come across news or information that misrepresent reality or is even false. Only 12% of Greeks are absolutely confident that they are able to identify fake news. Plus, almost 90% of Greeks are confident, or somewhat confident, that fake news pose a direct threat to democracy. That means that Greece is in a tough spot. Although Greeks seem to be aware of possible manipulation of facts through online platforms (social media, news outlets etc), they still prefer to get their news from these sources.
In Alexa’s ranking of the 50 most popular websites in Greece, we have at least 3 frequent fake news peddling ones, with strong far right and pro Russian rhetoric. These websites and dozens more get hundreds of thousands of clicks every day, meaning that their impact on the Greek audience is enormous. Most of them, treated the Prespa Agreement with enormous criticism and published several fake news about it.
Your organization is part of the International Fact Checking Network and you are also one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners. Do you feel that your work has impact in lowering the number of people that are reached by disinformation?
Thanos: According to our preliminary data from Crowdtangle (a tool offered by Facebook that publishers use to track how content spreads around the web), our participation in the 3PFC program seems to have tangible results in negatively impacting users interaction with certain pages that frequently post fake news. We are still in the process of evaluating these data and we will have a more detailed picture in the following months. What we can say with certainty is that when we rate a fake claim that has gone viral on Facebook, we notice that its spread is reduced. That happens because users get a notification when they try to share this content stating that the claim has been evaluated by a 3rd Party Fact Checker. To clarify, although users get this notification, THEY ARE NOT forbidden from sharing it if, they want to.
Have you had any negative consequences because of your work? Have you been threatened or pressured in any other way because of the fact-checking work?
Thanos: We receive threats all the time, which range from threats for legal action against us, to threats about our personal safety and that of our families. We often receive slander and hate mail from various party followers, when we debunk a lie that may have originated from the party they support. Because we fact-check claims from all major political parties in Greece, we receive negative criticism from highly polarized supporters all the time, which is never based on facts, but rather on innuendos and conjecture.
The most recent and perhaps most striking example, was the publication of our home addresses, IDs and tax numbers from Documento newspaper, which gave us worries because we have many enemies (for instance Neo-Nazis, impostors we have exposed over the years, etc). The fact that we have debunked hundreds of fake far-right stories over the years (for instance, about immigration), has put us in the cross hairs of certain far-right circles in Greece. Obviously, the publication of personal information about someone has no journalistic value, and we think that its purpose was to inhibit us from doing our jobs.
Does the Greek government have a plan for fighting disinformation? If yes, is it a plan that is actually implemented?
Theodoros: No Greek government has ever attempted to implement any means of controlling fake news in Greece. Most of them would just ignore the problem or just pretend that it doesn’t exist. Last year, Greek Public Broadcaster (ΕΡΤ) announced that they would establish a mechanism in order to fact check its own content. As of today, there is no other information about this initiative.
Are you familiar with any indictments or court rulings in Greece for spreading hate speech or disinformation?
Theodoros: Cases of indictments or court rulings in Greece are extremely few and far between. The first ever court ruling about spreading fake news came in 2016, after we debunked a fake story about vaccines. Which had caused a sensation and was picked up by the Greek јustice. The individual that published this story was condemned to a 500 euro fine and six months jail (paroled).
Last March, the Greek Government decided to pass a more lenient law against the spread of fake news. The new law includes penalties only about fake news that may negatively affect the economy, tourism, defense and bilateral relation, and that have proven to have harmed citizens. Other than that, nothing can be persecuted (for instance, claims about fake cancer cures and disinformation against vaccination that are very popular in Greece, go unchecked).
Are journalistic associations in Greece active in the fight against disinformation?
Theodoros: Journalistic associations in Greece have not taken any active measures against disinformation. Other than a few public speeches about fake news, we haven’t noticed any other actions in combating this problem. As far as we know, not even one journalist has been punished by these associations in Greece for spreading fake news in the past 5 years. There have been some serious cases of fake news peddled by major media in Greece that have been exposed as such. However, correcting the claim or apologizing for misinforming people, is something extremely rare.
How often is North Macedonia mentioned in Greek media? How is it portrayed?
Thanos: North Macedonia is a popular topic in Greece for obvious reasons. Many (including popular websites), continue calling NM “FYROM” and “Skopia”. Although the name issue has been officially resolved, it still remains controversial among many Greeks. Obviously there is a small percentage of websites (one of them is extremely popular in Greece) that use extremely demeaning terms when they refer to North Macedonians. Practically however, such terminology enjoys acceptance only in some very small far right circles. Most mainstream media have adopted the name “North Macedonia”, right after the signing of the Prespa agreement, and we notice that this term is more and more acceptable by Greeks as time passes.
Is it common for the Greek media to publish disinformation about North Macedonia and what are the most common ones?
Theodoros: Disinformation about North Macedonia usually doesn’t come from mainstream media, but rather from far right outlets, unreliable – although sometimes very popular- websites and blogs. Shortly before, during and after the signing of the Prespa Agreement, we noticed a huge surge in fake news regarding the Agreement itself, and incidents that supposedly happened during the demonstrations against it.
Thanos: Most disinformation about North Macedonia nowadays has to do with issues like how and if NM is implementing the Prespa Agreement. For instance, stories that claim that NM is still using ancient Macedonian symbols in public buildings etc, are quite common in Greece. Many Greeks have also not quite understood what the Prespa Agreement really involves, so we often see fake claims about its content. For instance, several Greek media and an MP claimed that North Macedonia will gain access and partial control of Greek EEZ, or the port of Thessaloniki.
What are the consequences of this kind of disinformation?
Theodoros: It’s hard to estimate the overall consequences of disinformation, but we could say that fake news can go as far as putting people’s lives in danger. For instance, fake news about vaccines have caused a drop in vaccinations in Europe, so we are witnessing children dying from vaccine preventable diseases.
We’ve also seen people being wrongfully targeted and their lives placed in danger by what I would call an “internet mob” that will rush to get vengeance, without looking at the facts.
Thanos: Populism and fake news usually go hand in hand. Greece is vulnerable to both, so it came as no surprise when we elected a Neo-Nazi party in our Parliament, or a politician who bases his rhetoric on conspiracy theories and fake news. Fake news is a ‘bomb’ in the foundation of democracy, for the very simple reason that a misinformed citizen can’t make the right decisions for himself and his country.