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Fake news: a Bulgarian approach

Open any newspaper today, and it will mention fake news. Many media and journalists are struggling with the question of how to report on fake news. Should they ignore it or counter it instead? Several experts shared their vision on the fake news phenomenon and related matters, such as the filter bubble and internet trolls, during the 2017 Worldcom Youth Meeting in Sofia. Bulgarian news website Mediapool provided interesting insights in how fake news is handled in that country and how an unconventional approach can be effective.

First some background information about the Bulgarian media landscape, which is quite different from that in the Netherlands. The country's large newspapers, for instance, are owned by a handful of people, who mostly use these newspapers to exert political influence. An integral part of the strategy is vilifying and questioning the competing newspapers’ reporting, making Bulgaria a textbook example of a polarized media landscape.

Yellow Flag

News website Mediapool.bg, which is not owned by one of the country’s mighty media tycoons, decided to initiate a campaign about fake news, to raise awareness of this phenomenon among Bulgarians, especially young people. Together with advertising agency Saatchi, the newspaper Yellow Flag was established. It humorously shames famous Bulgarian historical figures to illustrate how fake news works.

Imagine writing an article which claims that Johan Cruijff was not such a good football player at all and no one in Barcelona has any idea of who he is. Or that JFK was utterly insignificant for the development of the NASA space programme. In taking things to absurd lengths, Mediapool showed the constructions by which fake news operates.

Linked to this campaign, readers were also given the opportunity to create their own fake news and share it with their friends via Facebook. Within days, over 21,500 Bulgarians had participated in this campaign. Mediapool saw the number of visitors to their site skyrocket. For the larger part, they were new, young visitors.

Fact checking

The second part of the campaign took a more serious approach to fake news, which will sound very familiar to Western Europeans: a fact-check forum was created for reviewing statements in and by the media. This made Mediapool the first medium in Bulgaria to investigate reporting in this manner and provide its readers clarification and context regarding news items.

The success of both campaigns reinforces the editors of Mediapool in their opinion that fake news will be a blessing for investigative journalism in the long term. The public will, after all, start looking for reliable news, making reliability the foremost distinctive factor for news media. Media can work on their reliability by investing in in-depth investigative journalism that explores statements and refutes them where necessary.

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