Social media verification: fundamental

In the age of social media, everyone is a journalist. The telex and the wires were once the exclusive domain of reporters, which put them in a traditional role as gatekeepers, as ‘guardian’ of information. Today, anyone using mobile phone can immediately share info, facts and rumors with almost anyone else in the world.

So who now is the guardian of the facts that determine how we see the world we live in?

“Journalists should all be upskilled but you need a crack team to do it well.”

Especially in the event of a natural or man-made disaster, verification is essential to establish what really happened. But also in non-emergency situations, verification remains crucial, not just for journalists. Anyone with a bit of a bit of common sense will want to be sure about information that he or she retweets, or comments on in social media. Did this really happen? Is this really a new photo? Does this person really exist?

The European Journalism Centre has recently published the ‘Verification Handbook’. It can be downloaded for free from the web. The book is full of practical, useful tips that journalists can use to verify what is being said on social media.

“It’s a step by step guido making sure that what you use is authentic,” says Rina Tsubaki, who manages the verification project at the EJC, at a verification seminar here at International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

Journalism fundamentals

Craig Silverman, editor of the handbook, says the book is written not just by and for journalists, but also for humanitarian organizations, some of whom have contributed best practices.

“Verification has always been at the fundamentals of what journalists do,” says Craig Silverman, editor of the handbook. On social media “there always is a danger of amplyfing rumors. In crisis situations, we are dealing the inate human tendency for incorrect information. Today rumors can spread very fast. It’s important to have the tools and techniques to go after that.”

Steve Buttry, editor at Digital First Media, points out that the five W’s and the H are no longer the most important question in journalism.

“The most important question now is ‘How do you know that?’,” he says. And when using social media “you also have to ask this in the third person: How do they know that? Is it really true?”

Is that breaking news video on YouTube really original? There are several ways to verify this, for example using a reverse image search on the thumbnail.

In the event of breaking news, many people on YouTube ‘scrape’ videos, download them and re-upload them on their own account. Quite often, the piece of content with the most views is not the original piece of content. The first thing you need to do is to find the original source, says Claire Wardle of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who also contributed to the handbook.

Checking for the time of the upload sounds like a natural thing to do, but it’s not that easy. As Claire points out, the time stamps used by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are different. YouTube always uses California time; Twitter uses the the time that the poster has set; and at Facebook the timestamp is different for newsfeed and profiles.

In addition, geolocation data, if available, can be used. Did the sender of the info have his GPS turned on? On Twitter this is accurate, but on Facebook users can set their own location.

“It’s important to understand this technical check,” says Wardle. ” Incredible tools are available, but it’s always about combining them with traditional tools like talking to those that have posted it.”

Direct contact with witnesses remains key

Indeed, for journalists, having direct contact with people who witness news events remains crucial, even in this age of social media.

“The key factor that journalists bring to a news event is to ask: Is this true? Is this not true?” says Matthew Ingram, a writer at Gigaom. “Journalists nowadays can not do this by themselves. You can’t realistically verify events on the other side of the world without talking to people. But if you are careful enough, you can effectively employ a process that gets people to help you to verify.”

Crowdsourcing information can be a very powerful tool. But to do effectively, journalists need to assume that everything they read or hear is false.

“You have to start with assuming that everything you see if false,” says Ingram. “Otherwise you fall victim to confirmation bias. You have to try to confirm that it is not false.”

“This part of verification is almost like hacking your brain. If you take this pose and follow the process, then you can figure out what is happening,” he says.

“We need to train the gut instinct,” says Buttry. “If it looks too good to be true it probably is. The gut instinct needs to be: we have to check this out. We gotta nail this down. How do we know that? How do they know that?”

Anyone who retweets incorrect information or photos is “part of the problem,” says Ingram. “The most dangerous person is the one who does have time to check.”

When it comes to planning for disaster coverage, newsrooms can prepare themselves. It makes sense for a news organization to create checklists of what to do when something happens, says Wardle. of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

“Journalists should all be upskilled but you need a crack team to do it well,” she says.

To download your own copy of the Verification Handbook, go to

Anyone who wants to be credible on social media should at least be aware of these verification techniques.
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