MANILA, Philippines – When newsroom fact checkers and wary netizens check for the authenticity of a claim online, they look for primary sources to verify facts. There have been cases when claims are attributed to “experts” to lend these posts credibility and legitimacy.
But are these claims always true?
To look into how disinformation can spread through the misuse, and abuse, of the label “expert,” Rappler took a look at the 2018 headlines of The Daily Sentry, a website known for publishing false or misleading claims. We identified 66 mentions of 13 so-called experts.
Below is a table that shows these mentions, along with the headline of the articles published, the bylines attached to them, the dates they were published, and what they were about.
Out of the 66 mentions, the name Adam Garrie was repeated the most at 27 times, with different titles to his name: geopolitical expert, Eurasia expert, UK geopolitical expert, international political expert, foreign political expert, foreign expert, UK political expert, foreign expert and writer, Asian geopolitical expert, trade expert, political analyst expert, political analyst, UK political commentator, and just plain "expert."
Rounding out the top 5 “experts” cited by The Daily Sentry were Jun Avelino (11 times) who was labeled an “international relations” or “foreign relations expert;” Sass Sasot (8 times) who was tagged an “international relations expert;” MJ Quiambao Reyes (7 times) who was labeled an “international trade” or “trade expert;” and Paula Defensor-Knack (5 times) who was called an “international criminal law expert.”
A Google search of Garrie showed that he is the director a website called Eurasia Future and that he has been a guest on many TV and internet shows. A closer look showed that most of his published work are opinion pieces, while others were written for websites that post misleading articles like The Duran.
Eurasia Future is a website "offering the latest policy and analysis on the most important events shaping our world today," according to its Facebook page. The website itself does not have an "About" page nor a list of editorial board members.
Garrie has also been a guest on "CrossTalk,” a segment on RT (formerly Russia Today) and on "The Debate,” a segment on Press TV.
Despite his many contributions to publications and shows, Garrie’s academic background is not available on the biographies that are written about him in these publications.
In the academe, Garrie does not have published research, too. Teresa Encarnacion Tadem, who is executive director of the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies and a professor in the UP Diliman Department of Political Science, said she has not heard of him.
RT, according to its website, is an international news network that "covers stories overlooked by the mainstream media, provides alternative perspectives on current affairs, and acquaints international audiences with a Russian viewpoint on major global events." RT is financed by the Russian government.
The controversial Russian network was identified by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January 2017 as the primary source of propaganda that the Russians used to further their interests in the 2016 US elections. (READ: PCOO warned vs getting info dissemination training from China, Russia)
Early in December, the United Kingdom's communications regulator Office of Communications (Ofcom) ruled that RT had broken TV impartiality rules in 7 of their programs. Out of the 7, three of the segments that broke impartiality rules were from the CrossTalk program.
Press TV and IRIB
Press TV is an Iranian international news channel affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). IRIB is independent of the Iranian government but its head is appointed directly by the supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
IRIB also has a history of spreading disinformation. The US Department of the Treasury in 2013 identified IRIB as a network that broadcast false reports and forced confessions of political detainees.
In August, Google deleted 58 accounts on YouTube, Google+, and Blogger that were involved in “politically motivated phishing." The accounts had ties to IRIB.
Why mislabel experts?
As with the example of Garrie, the concepts of “expert” and “expertise” are a lot more nuanced than many would think.
The label of "expert" has long been debated by neuroscientists, philosophers, and sociologists, since it's been so contested, being wrongly labeled as one could be accidental.
However, those who deliberately misuse the label could also have dark motives.
Finnish researcher Tuukka Ylä-Anttila published a study in January that said that right-wing populists use “counter-knowledge” as a tool to further their agenda.
De La Salle University (DLSU) communication associate professor Cheryll Soriano said that citing so-called experts could also be used to strengthen people’s biases – the result is an echo chamber: “It’s very hard to convince people when they are already hardcore and all they want is to look for people to validate their own biases already. And so these [claims] exist, I feel, to feed those biases.”
Their purpose, she explained further, is not to convince a new audience of the veracity of their claim, but to maintain the support of those who already believe them.
Can 'experts' be trusted?
When it comes to Garrie and the other "experts" mentioned in other news reports and blog posts, it's up to individuals to decide for themselves if they are to believe them.
What's important, said Soriano, is to be wary of, and to question what, you’re reading on the internet.
“[To avoid being deceived by false labels of expertise, one important thing is] strengthening people’s capacity to question. When something or an article is labeled as written by an expert, we have to contest how that label of expertise came about and whether that labeling of someone being an expert or an authority on something is perhaps politically motivated,” Soriano said.
Soriano also noted that according to University of Liverpool Cognitive Psychology professor Fernand Gobet’s definition of expertise, there are a lot of definitions of the term “expert” that had been proposed before – like experience, diplomas, measures of expertise (like wealth, number of citations, or number of books published), rank (as in sports), and presence of talent – that do not necessarily fit the dictionary definition.
These measures might be used when citing experts in blog posts or news reports, but are not always reliable.
As a member of the academe, Soriano finds it helpful to look at where "experts" are published and what other people in their field of study think of them.
“The vetting process [before being published] is, I guess, trusted as a standard in academia, and we trust that…your ideas and your thinking improve [with] the process of peer review,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.
The number of times a person was cited as a source and to know who trusts them enough to cite them is also something to look into.
Soriano added: “Whether they are experts in the field who sow their trust [in you], or even if they do not completely agree with your knowledge claims, they may add to your claim, but they will recognize your expertise.” – with reports from Michael Bueza/Rappler.com
Rappler sustains its fact-check efforts with support from Facebook's Third Party Fact Checker Program, our crowdfunding donors, Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).