Impersonating a Fact Checker

Threat actors sometimes pretend to be fact checkers when producing inauthentic content. This tactic can be used to achieve a variety of objectives:

Making a target demographic think disinformation is circulating on a topic so that they distrust real information related to it

When people see a Fact Check, they become aware that there is false information surrounding the target of the Fact Check. When they later encounter other information on the same topic, they may remember that there has been unreliable information shared on it recently, and second guess its accuracy. This is beneficial for threat actors who want to decrease the probability that people believe true information about a topic (e.g. if a government didn’t want its citizens to believe bad things about it).

People already find it hard to accept information which they don’t want to hear (i.e. is opposite to the opinion they currently hold). With the impression that a topic is rife with falsehoods, one could quickly dismiss information as false which could otherwise have lead to a change in heart. The fake Fact Check doesn’t need to be believed to have this impact; targets just need to feel that they can’t reliably get accurate information about the topic.

The goal of the videos is to inject a sense of doubt among Russian-language audiences as they encounter real images of wrecked Russian military vehicles and the destruction caused by missile and artillery strikes in Ukraine

In the Ukraine Conflict, Fake Fact-Checks Are Being Used to Spread Disinformation by Craig Silverman and Jeff Kao on 08 Mar 2022

Borrowing peoples’ trust in Fact Checkers to make an inauthentic message appear legitimate
Contextual cues help guide us on how to perceive or respond to certain situations.

When eating at a restaurant you likely use the way people are dressed and the things they are doing to differentiate staff and patrons. This conceptual categorisation helps you decide how to respond to things they say; you’d likely respond differently if a patron told you where to sit than if an employee did. This short-hand makes human interaction quicker and easier, as we know how to behave around each other in different situations without having to verbally establish each others’ roles.

Threat actors can exploit contextual cues to get people to respond in desired ways

People who wear hi-vis jackets are usually going about their very important business of fixing whatever is broken. We should not get in their way or bother them because we don’t know much about fixing broken things. Someone in a hi-vis jacket walking with purpose is unlikely to be stopped by the average person, a phenomenon exploited by a pair of mischievous Australians to watch a movie, go to the zoo, and see Coldplay live, all without paying.

The zoo proved more of a challenge, albeit just a psychological one. It took a good 15 minutes of loitering around the front, chain-smoking poorly rolled cigarettes, to mask our apprehension. Neither of us believed we would get in […]

As it turned out, the danger was all in our heads. Ultimately, we just walked through—Sean even gave the ticket clerk a cheeky “g’day” on the way in. We couldn’t believe how easy it was […] Families were fooled too, because every now and then we’d get asked what time the zoo shut or directions to the monkeys.

Turns Out Wearing a Hi-Vis Vest Gets You into Everything for Free by David Allegretti on 21 Dec 2016
“Fact Checker” is a contextual cue which implies “effort and research has been put into establishing the unbiased truth of this statement”

If you want people to look at you and think “this person is on their way to fix something and I should let them go about their business”, you put on a hi-vis jacket. If you want someone to look at the content you post online and say “this person professionally investigates dubious claims with the intention of reporting the unbiased truth and I should trust what they tell me”, you make the content you publish or the account you publish it from look like a Fact Checker; this one of the reasons threat actors impersonate Fact Checkers.

[B]y saying ‘fact-check: claim X is false’ you communicate to the listener much more than just ‘claim X is false’. You communicate: that effort and research has been put into establishing that claim X is false; that there is a credible evidence base for claim X being false; and that a person is now reasonably able to assert ‘claim X is false’ and use that as a basis on which to form other beliefs, base actions, inform others and so on.

“The Facts, the Facty-Facts! How dull…” by Ellen Judson on 21 Nov 2019

Negatively impacting the effectiveness of real Fact Checkers

As we learn that people are pretending to be Fact Checkers the contextual cue we associated with them becomes weakened; Fact Checker can now mean both Fact Checker and person pretending to be a Fact Checker but spreading false content. This is a problem because it’s useful to have a short-hand way to tell “I can trust the information this person is posting”; the more time we have to spend double checking the information we’re told the less we are able to consume.

“Fake News” is a term which suffered a similar fate; originally used as a way to identify untrue information, it was appropriated in political discourse for use in criticising or deflecting against unwanted accusations (so much so that it’s recommended we don’t use the term “Fake News” at all anymore).

If every political party and every campaigner and every person with a political opinion uses ‘fact-check’ in this way, as a way to premise their disagreement with statements made by their political opponents, the presuppositions we once had about the use of the term start shifting.

“The Facts, the Facty-Facts! How dull…” by Ellen Judson on 21 Nov 2019

For transparency it’s worth noting that I haven’t seen reporting which claims the intention of a threat actor using this tactic is to weaken the ability for people to rely on real Fact Checkers, but it is regardless a real impact (so I’ve included this section just in case).

Real World Examples:

During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine Fact Checks are found online which claim to debunk Ukrainian fakes, however these “fakes” were not found online other than in the “fact check” (meaning they were fake fakes)
UK Conservative party impersonating Fact Checkers on Twitter during pre-election leaders’ debate

Relevant Content from the Article Archives

This is a Stage 2 profile. You can read more about Profile Stages here.