Verification is the most important function of journalists in the age of social media. But the spread of social media has made the tasks of journalists more complex and challenging than ever before.
The Boston Marathon bombing in April provides one illustration of both the power and the dangers of social media and the news.
Within a few hours of the event, both mainstream media and social media focused on the hunt for the bombers, as the police trawled through the hundreds and videos and photographs taken at the finish line by the public. Both made mistakes. Under pressure to beat the social media, CNN and AP both wrongly announced that a suspect was in custody live on air. Meanwhile social networks like Reddit announced a “findbostonbombers” page, which soon became a crowd-sourced witch-hunt in which a missing Indian student, Sunil Tripathi, was falsely identified as the bomber. Pictures of would-be bomber also appeared on front page of the NY Post newspaper. (see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/boston-marathon-bombings-how-twitter-and-reddit-got-it-wrong-8581167.html) The events in Boston have led to much soul-searching among media organisations and social media sites about the proper role of news on the web, and how it should be moderated and checked, as well as its relation to mainstream news organisations. (see Reddit apology at http://blog.reddit.com/2013/04/reflections-on-recent-boston-crisis.html)
One suggestion was that crowd-sourcing works better if it is objective and anonymous. (see http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2013/04/reddit-tsarnaev-marathon-bombers-wisdom-of-crowds.html)
Meanwhile, with some irony, it was the Boston police department that itself finally announced the capture of the bombing suspect on its own Twitter feed.
Rattling the markets: Fake News
As news organisations themselves they distribute their content on social media networks like Twitter, they also become more vulnerable. Just a few days after the Boston bombings, the AP Twitter feed was hacked and a false tweet was sent out saying that the White House was under attack – causing the US stock market to crash shortly after the news broke. This illustrates just how important social media have now become and how falsehoods can affect not just the lives of individuals but the whole economy. There have already been several other incidents when false company news was posted online, affecting share prices – most notably when rumours spread that Steve Jobs, the boss of Apple, had died. With companies increasingly planning to issue their results on Twitter, the role of social networks in economic news is bound to increase. One leading advocate of citizen journalism, Dan Gilmour, has even called for “slow news” which would give time for online reports to be verified first.
Fake pictures: Hurricane Sandy
When the massive Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast of the United States in October 2012 and devastated New York, thousands of pictures of the events were published on social media sites.
But some of the most widely distributed photos that were fakes, and others were real pictures from different places. Among the most widely distributed were photo-shopped pictures were those of sharks swimming in flooded suburban streets.
This picture was from the 2004 movie the Day After Tomorrow, but the prankster has added an authentic-looking logo and time stamp from NY1 News to make the picture more believable.
It took painstaking and time consuming work by journalists to identify the fakes (see http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/sorting-the-real-sandy-photos-from-the-fakes/264243/).
How Do Journalists Verify Social Content?
Major news organisations have procedures and systems to check the accuracy of social media content before they publish it. But these systems are labour-intensive and can be slow. The BBC, for example, employs 20 journalists on their online site just to check social media content. In a complicated story such as the Arab spring, BBC journalists looking at individual videos might examine all the following factors. (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/blogcollegeofjournalism/posts/bbcsms_bbc_procedures_for_veri)
- Referencing locations against maps and existing images from, in particular, geo-located ones
- Working with our colleagues in BBC Arabic and BBC Monitoring to ascertain that accents and language are correct for the location.
- Searching for the original source of the upload/sequences as an indicator of date.
- Examining weather reports and shadows to confirm that the conditions shown fit with the claimed date and time.
- Maintaining lists of previously verified material to act as reference for colleagues covering the stories.
- Checking weaponry, vehicles and licence plates against those known for the given country.
Although there is no simple answer, technology can aid journalists in this task.
The EU social sensor project, funded by the EU FP7 grant (http://www.socialsensor.eu) aims at developing new search tools for searching social media for news. As part of this project, it is looking at how to develop a comprehensive grid for identifying the reliability of social media news content, called an altheometer, or truth meter.
The system aims to flag content which might be unreliable around a number of metrics.
The most important single measure of the validity of any social media report is the reliability of the contributor, or witness. Sources which have been used before tend to more reliable, and there are a number of measures – such as trust scores, retweets, influence, and popularity, which can help confirm this. As more contributors appear in the system, measuring their reliability becomes easier. Where it is difficult to identify the source, there are also other metrics that can be used. One measure is to look at the content of the news item that is being presented, checking such things as language, history (has it been used before), and manipulation (especially in the case of multi-media sources). Another measure of verification is looking at the context of the news item, and trying to determine whether it is internally consistent, whether the “who, what, why and where” of the story adds up.
The idea is that journalists working together with developers can help create a user-centred approach which will improve the process and increase the speed and accuracy in the use of social media for the news.
As social media flourishes as a source of news as never before, it will become increasingly important that we all are sure that the news we are receiving is reliable – and verification techniques are bound to play an even more important role in the future.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement 287975