If it looks too good to be true, it probably is!

This is the mantra I drum into my journalism students when I’m teaching them about how to use the information that emerges on social media. All too often our reaction to some incredible picture or video that crosses our timeline is to hit that share/retweet button. It can take a little longer to stop and think if it’s actually true – and by then, the damage is done. We’ve given that piece of information another injection of legitimate life.

In more innocent days, we used to think that the truth would rise to the surface on social media and the bad stuff would sink into oblivion. Way back in 2012, Sasha Frere-Jones, writing in The New Yorker, referred to Twitter as a self-cleaning oven in which:

A reliable version of events generally emerges because vanity (in the form of a visible number of retweets for the user who posts the canonical version) fuels the process, much as a writer’s byline can press ego into the service of good writing.

Indeed, Andy Carvin at National Public Radio (NPR) in the States made a name for himself using Twitter to help him crowdsource the “truth” during the so-called Arab Spring. It was a messy process and mistakes were made – and admitted to – on his Twitter feed. It became a valuable resource for many journalists covering the story.

But for many of us, this faith in the ability of the truth to emerge from social media is being eroded. Either Twitter’s self-cleaning mechanism is less efficient, or maybe our oven got a whole lot dirtier.

The problem is that misinformation seems to travel faster than the truth. Craig Silverman has carried out extensive research on this – and the role played by news organisations – in a report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. If you’re interested in the psychology and sociology of why people share bad information, it’s well worth a read.

Verification Skills for Journalists

So given the amount of misinformation that people seem to enjoy sharing, verification is becoming an increasingly important skill for journalists to acquire and a number of organisations have grown up specialising in this forensic analysis of those too-good-to-be-true images and videos (Storyful, now acquired by News Corp, was one of the first). A basic tool, for example, is simple reverse image searches – Google Images and TinEye enable you to check any image against a huge database which can be filtered by date etc. Fake crowd pictures seem to be particularly popular at the moment (the Corbyn rally in Liverpool this August gathered a large crowd but not quite as large as some of the images shared online would have you believe). But they’re generally quite easy to debunk – if you can be bothered.

In fact, there is a wealth of resources online to help journalists develop these verification techniques – and it’s actually quite fun to do. I recommend the following resources if you’d like to try your hand at it and read about some case studies.

  • First Draft News– produces an invaluable library of case studies, features and training resources for journalists.
  • Verification Junkie– Josh Stearns’  directory of tools for verifying, fact checking and assessing the validity of eyewitness reports
  • The Verification Handbook – a guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage. Available in many languages!
  • The Debunking Handbook– a guide to effective ways for dealing with misinformation

 

First Draft should be worth a follow on election day in the States on Tuesday 8th November because they’ll be part of ProPublica’s Electionland project. This will be monitoring the vote in real time using social media and crowdsourcing to gather (and verify) stories about voting problems across the country.

Should News Organisations be doing more?

Undoubtedly. Craig Silverman’s research found that some news organisations were actively disseminating misinformation in the guise of legitimate news in a bid to increase clicks and advertising revenue. They might hyperlink to their “source” to give it the illusion of having been fact-checked, but layers of hyperlinking might just disguise the fact that the original “source” is a dodgy post on Reddit.

But even traditional news organisations that are aloof from this sort of activity can be part of the problem, Silverman argues, because ignoring the misinformation proliferating online is no longer a defensible position. They need to actively debunk and provide the alternative narrative in an attractive way. Citing Anthony Pratkanis, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Silverman advises news organisations to use compelling, vivid storytelling techniques to steal the thunder of the original rumour.

Claire Wardle who trained many BBC staff in verification techniques and is now Research Director at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism and co-founder of First Draft, has argued that journalists need to get involved in doing real time verification and debunking online to prevent misinformation and hoaxes from gaining any kind of life during times of crisis. It’s not enough, she argues, to do a holier-than-thou round-up of fake images after the fact. The damage has been done, the myths are stuck in people’s heads and will always get more shares than any news organisations’ later rebuttals. She points to the work of French journalist, Adrien Sénécat, and the account Vérifié, linked to the French BuzzFeed account which was putting big red FAUX lettering on fake images shared on social media during the Paris attacks as a good example of how things should be.

So there is a whole new skill set and mentality required of today’s generation of digital journalists if they are to justify their traditional “gatekeeping” role. The first step is for students to adopt that mantra – if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

 

Liz Hannaford. Liz is a lecturer in journalism at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Views expressed in blog posts are those of the author not The Democratic Society or Open Data Manchester.