The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has quietly announced the rollout of an automated anti-disinformation tool, iVerify, this spring. The instrument, initially created to support election integrity, centres a multi-stakeholder approach spanning the public and private sectors to “provide national actors with a support package to enhance identification, monitoring and response capacity to threats to information integrity”.
The UNDP demonstrates how iVerify works in a short video, where anyone can send articles to iVerify’s team of local “highly-trained” fact-checkers to determine if “an article is true or not”. The tool also uses machine learning to prevent duplicate article checks, and monitors social media for “toxic” content which can then be sent to “verification” teams of fact-checkers to evaluate, making it a tool with both automated and human-facilitated elements.
On its website, the UNDP makes a blunt case for iVerify as an instrument against “information pollution”, which they describe as an “overabundance” of harmful, useless or otherwise misleading information that blunts “citizens’ capacity to make informed decisions”. Identifying information pollution as an issue of urgency, the UNDP claims that “misinformation, disinformation and hate speech threaten peace and security, disproportionately affecting those who are already vulnerable”.
But, behind this rhetoric of fact-checking expertise and protecting society’s most marginalised, iVerify, as a tool functionally claiming an ability to separate the true from the false, actually provides governments, adjacent institutions, and the global elite an opportunity for unprecedented dismissal, and perhaps thus subsequent censorship, of dissenting perspectives and inconvenient information and reporting, all behind the pedigree of a UN institution with international reach.
iVerify and the Advance of an International Anti-Disinformation Complex
In recent years, the fact-checking industry has exploded, manifesting in the forms of often partisan, or otherwise compromised, fact-checking and anti-disinformation institutions and organisations. Examples include the government and Gates Foundation-funded Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), the CIA-proxy National Endowment for Democracy (NED)-funded StopFake and internet trust rating-systems like NewsGuard, which partners with Microsoft and the U.S. Departments of Defence and State. By crystallising fact-checking and anti-disinformation operations’ place within the media sector and adjacent institutions and groups, such organisations’ work has ultimately paved the way for iVerify’s release.
In response to today’s fact-checking phenomenon, critiques and criticisms of the growing misinformation industries, which writer Michael Shellenberger describes as a “censorship industrial complex”, have grown in kind. Critics explain, for example, that no one person or organisation can claim unique ownership over or knowledge of the truth. And frequently, fact-checks boil down complex issues into matters of “true” and “false”, undermining the possibility for meaningful public debate about critical topics.
Perhaps anticipating these concerns, iVerify developers claim their instrument comes with a number of controls and safeguards to ensure its fact-checking processes are robust and do not inhibit civil liberties. In addition to guaranteeing “triple verification” of materials checked, and pairing fact-checking with the consultation of “all sides”, iVerify’s UNDP page clarifies that it will only debunk incorrect facts, not opinions.
The UNDP website also explains that “iVerify will only be deployed following an in-depth assessment to ensure the solution provided to a specific country will not be misused in ways that would undermine freedom of expression, freedom of the press or political and social rights”, though it provides little information as to how these pre-deployment assessments would be carried out.
While efforts to anticipate and combat possible problems with iVerify are laid out in advance, they fundamentally fail to address the power dynamics in play, where terms like disinformation and misinformation can be weaponised by the powerful to censor dissenting viewpoints and information conflicting with the narratives they disseminate. While iVerify’s decisions on articles and other information allegedly pass through a team of “highly-trained” fact-checkers and researchers, this is no guarantee that iVerify’s dictates will be consistent with the truth. After all, in the past fact-checkers have frequently spread incorrect information themselves, especially along partisan lines.
Unfortunately, as we shall see, iVerify’s funding and support sources, and myriad of ongoing projects in the Global South, all demonstrate that the tool has enormous potential to equip the powerful with an unprecedented ownership over the truth, with potentially severe ramifications for freedom of speech and critical journalism alike.
iVerify’s Fact-Checking Projects Proliferate in the Global South
For lay people trying to better understand current events, a UN-backed fact-checking tool may appear as a reputable resource. In reality, iVerify’s support sources and ongoing projects depict its work as part and parcel of elite goals for a restricted information environment, where anything labeled ‘disinformation’ could be quickly dismissed and disposed of.
First, iVerify’s partners listed on its website, including Meedan, Meta’s CrowdTangle, and the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, are groups whose funding and support sources suggest alignment with the U.S. and global elite. The Poynter Institute, for example, is funded by U.S. intelligence front the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). And Meedan, which apparently looks to tackle “crises of information trust” and create a “more equitable internet” through research, collaborations and partnerships with newsrooms, fact-checkers and civil society groups that help it “get out in front of new misinformation trends”, is supported by U.K. intelligence proxy Bellingcat, the Meta Journalism Project, and the Omidyar Group, which also has a history of funding CIA-cut outs and other regime change-driving organisations.
While iVerify cannot be judged on associations alone, such influences and supporters’ intertwinement with the political class cannot be overlooked. As iVerify’s promotional messaging centres the utilisation of multi-stakeholder approaches to advance its cause, after all, it’s plausible, if not likely, that the elite-backed groups supporting or otherwise associating with iVerify are or will be directly involved in various aspects of its rollout.
More troubling, iVerify has already taken on extensive fact-checking projects in Honduras as well as in the African countries of Zambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Kenya, apparently using the Global South as a testing ground for the technology while simultaneously normalising an ‘anti-disinformation’ discourse favourable to the political elite internationally.
Unsurprisingly, iVerify’s external fact-checking projects themselves are flush with Western cash, with Liberia’s Local Voices Liberia’s (LVL) Fact Checking Desk “co-financed by the European Union through the Liberia Media Initiative project led by Internews in Liberia”, where Internews is supported by groups like Google, the Omidyar Network, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. And Sierra Leone’s iVerify Sierra Leone is supported by BBC Media Action, also partnering with Canada, Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the EU. Zambia’s iVerify program, finally, includes backing from suspected CIA-front USAID, U.K. Aid Direct (UKAID) and a number of Western countries.
A visit to each of the iVerify project’s websites in the respective countries will find one with similar, simplistic articles, often rating certain claims, especially those propagating on social media, as “true”, “false”, or somewhere in-between, depending on the information available. In some cases, the sites themselves post misleading or oversimplified materials: one December 2022 article on Liberia’s iVerify website, for example, posits that COVID-19 shots stop transmission of COVID-19, even though research existing at time of publication had long before clarified their ability to stop Covid transmission in the months following injection was limited at best.
As iVerify’s monitoring and evaluation framework outlines, notably, iVerify has been piloted and used especially to monitor the sanctity of elections. iVerify claims its efforts can protect election integrity by debunking false claims about the electoral process, candidates and results, thereby keeping civilians properly informed about a key form of civil participation. But these apparent election information integrity efforts have an Achilles’ heel: it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where powerful, corrupt persons with access to or influence over the tool could manipulate iVerify’s election-related dictates and fact-checks to help them depict relevant voting processes and results in ways that help them maintain or obtain power.
While often covering more local topics and issues, iVerify’s projects in practice behave much like other Western-affilated and interconnected ‘anti-disinformation’ organisations and projects, like disinfowatch and EUvsDisinfo, which, as I note in previous reporting, all together “perhaps suggest… the development of a Western ‘anti-disinformation’ infrastructure or network that actually works to smear dissenting viewpoints and perspectives”. Further, as I’ve recently reported for Al Mayadeen, Western-backed media groups in other countries have a track record of influencing public opinion and policymaking processes and decisions, and even driving regime change.
Ultimately, the collective circumstances force speculation as to whether iVerify and its adjacent programs could be used to influence editorial lines and public opinions, especially in ways favourable to the world’s power elite, in the Global South.
Information Warfare and the Attack on National Sovereignty
iVerify projects claim to strengthen democracy by providing people with access to correct information, therefore allowing and encouraging them to participate in public affairs in an informed, empowered manner. But, critically, iVerify’s elite-backing and its ongoing projects, and the overall poor track records of modern fact-checking organisations, instead all suggest iVerify’s fact-checking practices could ultimately benefit the political class’s bottom line.
More worrying, iVerify initiatives’ messaging centres and upholds multi-stakeholder partnerships, which fuse the efforts of public, private and other adjacent international and non-governmental structures, as key to its execution and success. But instead of promoting democracy as it claims, iVerify thus appears as a fact-checking system that supersedes governmental structures ala the public-private partnership model that has crystallised as a common civil society instrument in recent years.
On an international scale, this same public-private partnership model, as elucidated by writer and journalist Iain Davis, threatens to erode the remnants of Westphalian national sovereignty by allotting roles and infrastructure once held by governments to corporations, NGOs and other adjacent organisations that are ultimately unaccountable to the public.
While a unique opportunity for the elite to package and push their own doctrines as true, it’s not hard to imagine that iVerify could threaten sovereign nations’ policy choices and perspectives by smearing them as ‘misinformed’, and therefore perhaps even depicting them as dangerous to their populations. And, as an initiative existing across a variety of stakeholders and international organisations, iVerify largely exists outside governments’ policymaking processes and structures, making it an entity difficult for governments to regulate, challenge or hold accountable.
Through its UN-backing and appearance of ownership over the truth, in other words, iVerify’s potential to undermine nation-states’ integrity and sovereignty is unprecedented.
Ultimately, today’s manifestation of fact-checking efforts, such as UNDP’s semi-automated iVerify, have largely been led, funded or otherwise co-opted by the power-elite. The resulting and toxic information environment, where mere accusations of mis- or disinformation can themselves bludgeon reputations and careers, undermines possibilities for meaningful debate on complex, critical topics such as the international Covid response and the current war in Ukraine.
iVerify’s power lies in its supranational infrastructure and ability to determine truth as an apparent authority source. Unfortunately, its manufactured ownership over the truth can easily be weaponised towards mass censorship of materials harmful to the elite’s bottom line. If it becomes a prominent aspect of the already treacherous information environment, UNDP’s iVerify only promises to worsen matters while further threatening the (remaining) sovereignty of nation states everywhere.
Stavroula Pabst is a writer, comedian, and media PhD student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Athens, Greece. Her writing has appeared in publications including Propaganda in Focus, Reductress, Unlimited Hangout and the Grayzone. This article first appeared in the Brownstone Institute.