Skip to story A woman checks her phone while police officers monitor the situation near a CVS pharmacy that was looted and burned by rioters, April 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Andrew Burton/Getty Images
While “24/7 news” television networks covered the White House Correspondents dinner this past Saturday, many turned to Twitter to find out what was happening in Baltimore. I spent the better part of the last several nights watching the unrest there unfold through photos, live streams, video clips and Facebook posts and tweets. The pool of media available from eyewitnesses seems to grow with every major event. Who needs cable news when 64 percent of American adults and 85 percent of young adults now own a reporting device, better known as a smartphone.
But how informed are we really by these glimpses? Is there enough context? Who do we trust when the information is potentially coming from those who have a vested interest in a cause? We have to wrestle with some of these questions when dealing with members of the mainstream media already, but their reputation often precedes them, putting the information shared in perspective. How do you apply that to a random internet handle that just popped into your feed? Most importantly, now that we are all able to engage in citizen journalism, what responsibility do we have to get it right?
As someone who spends a good deal of time trying to sort out the signal through the noise of social media, my main focus is on observing rather than sharing. It’s very alluring to want to take a piece of seemingly newsworthy information and instantly share it. If you’re not a journalist, you’ve got less at stake to toss it back out there without concern for your reputation to take a hit. But sending misinformation out into the world can be harmful no matter how many followers you have. The more people who retweet a false fact, the harder it is to debunk and get to the truth.
The suggestion to never tweet is too pat a solution, and one that eliminates the potential for you to be a productive part of a news event.
Some people suggest a very easy solution to this: never tweet. This is a refrain mostly offered up by journalists sick of seeing Twitter become an instant race to Snarktown the moment any news breaks. It’s not just misinformation that can be harmful, but also tweets and posts that jump straight to humor for want of being quick to the joke. But this is too pat a solution, and one that eliminates the potential for you to be a productive part of a news event. It’s also just unrealistic; it’s the equivalent of abstinence education. You are going to tweet. But you can take steps to do so responsibly.
Much of what journalists do to validate and find news on social media can be useful to even passive Twitter users, so I’m going share some best practices here. If you’re a news hound, these tips will help you maximize the potential of social media to get you the raw facts. But even if you’re a more casual observer you can be a better, more reliable part of a breaking news conversation by keeping in mind three things: time, curiosity and context.
In breaking news situations, the thirst to be first is too strong a temptation for many to resist. Resist that urge! When a story is breaking, you don’t need to tweet about it right away. You don’t need to jump in. You can almost guarantee that a good deal of what you hear and see initially will turn out to be misrepresented or flat out wrong. If you’re willing to wait, you’re far more likely to get to the truth.
If you’re on Twitter to find out what is going on, you’ll need time to gather up enough evidence understand a story clearly. The quickest way to gather is by building, or simply following Twitter Lists. Often in a breaking news situation, there’s someone who has already build a fantastic list for you to follow. If you’re lucky, the list will be sanitized for your protection, with official sources and reliable reporters providing updates. You’ll want that list but you probably also want to go raw too. Grab TweetDeck and set up a breaking news filter column. Filter the search by applying geotags (near:Baltimore) and then turn on the option to only show tweets with photos or video. You’ll now have a raw feed of citizen sourced media. I go into further detail on setting up TweetDeck for gathering breaking news information in the Verification Handbook.
Now that we are all able to engage in citizen journalism we have a responsibility to get it right.
While Twitter tends to be my main window into what’s going on, you can sometimes find useful information elsewhere. Lesser known platforms like YikYak can sometimes surface conversations taking place in a specific locations. Networks like YikYak tend to give more of a temperature, or a sense of how people in the area are reacting to a situation. The anonymous nature can be a both a blessing and a curse. People may be more open about their feelings but the claims can also be totally erroneous. The same goes for Secret and Whisper, which some news organizations have mined for information with varying levels of success.
There’s a popular notion, shared by journalists like Mathew Ingram and Christopher Mims, that Twitter is a ‘self cleaning oven’ where ultimately the truth comes out, despite the potential for misinformation to form and spread. Mims believes that since there are so many witnesses all sharing and responding to what’s being said, the process of having a conversation about it online will ultimately lead to the real story.
One thing that has happened in past crises covered on social media is the rapid spread of misinformation and rumor. But now, owing to the sheer density of people who were actually there, distributing images, video and firsthand accounts through Twitter, Facebook, Vine and Instagram, I saw rumors pop up and just as quickly get smacked down in the comments.
Ingram shares a similar feeling, citing Hurricane Sandy as his example:
Can you believe everything you read during such an event? Clearly not, since there were innumerable false reports and fake photos circulating on Monday night. But what’s interesting isn’t that there was fake news — it’s how quickly those fakes were exposed and debunked, not just by Twitter users themselves but by an emerging ecosystem of blogs and social networks working together.
However a new study from the American Press Institute claims that false information on Twitter beats out the attempts to correct it by a factor of 3 to 1. And important caveat to this report, however, is that social media may have a hand in propagating false information but the supposed trustworthy traditional media is often the source for the wrong information in the first place. Such was the case when many outlets falsely reported that the brother of the killer behind the Newtown massacre was the shooter, or the the false report that an AR-15 was used in the Navy Yard shooting, and when John King falsely reporting that the Boston Marathon bomber had been arrested.
Obviously you have enough curiosity to be looking at the news in the first place. But you’ll need a well of it to stay on the right track. You’ll need to be willing to gather up what you’re seeing, and then keep going to run it through the paces. Photos, in particular, are problematic.
The first thing you’ll want to do with images you’ve gathered is run them through a reverse image search. Tin Eye is a popular method, I also use Veracity when I’m on my phone and can’t easily run images through a web page. The most common thing people tend to do is share old images and try to pass them off as occurring during a breaking news event. It happens almost every time something major occurs. Doing a reverse image search will show you the source of the image and if it’s been posted in the past. If you’re not getting any results for that image, that’s a positive sign that the image is likely new.
When it comes to video, Storyful’s Open Newsroom is where you’ll want to commiserate with other folks who spend a great deal of time looking for clues to detect a fake. Often they’ll be able to quickly spot inconsistencies with the landscape portrayed in the video, such as a building that shouldn’t be there.
If you’re trying to verify content that took place in a conflict area, like Ukraine or the Middle East, Eliot Higgins has you covered with Bellingcat. Drop in and share what you’re seeing, though it’s likely they’re already on the case and have applied some of their CSI-like forensic media investigation skills to sort out fact from fiction.
Be upfront about what you do and do not know and that you’re not a first-hand witness.
Channel your curiosity into wanting to discover as much as you can without feeling the need to toss it back out to the world. Ask questions of the people who are posting it. Try and see if you can elicit how legitimate they are. Be respectful and appreciative of the time they’re willing to give. Try and find out more about what they’re seeing and hearing. There can be a lot of satisfaction derived from the interactions you have with those on the ground. The satisfaction you get from that interaction can help you overcome the temptation to instantly toss that information back out to the world immediately. Keep gathering and gathering until you’ve got enough evidence and corroboration that you feel comfortable enough to show your work.
When you are ready to share, caveats are advisable. Be upfront about what you do and do not know and that you’re not a first-hand witness. Be generous with your links and be prepared to back up what you say with multiple sources of evidence. I prefer to use something like Storify to share what I’ve found. While some folks choose to post their findings directly to Twitter, in the form of retweets, that can sometimes lead to confusion without additional context. Context is essential for understanding the meaning behind these social media updates.
Context is the toughest of the three keys to sorting out what you’re seeing. Context isn’t going to be easy to obtain. Journalists will question eyewitnesses directly, but as a consumer of news you may not want to contribute to the overflow of confusion by trying to tweet directly to people at the scene of an event. Instead, you can search for what they are already saying. Looking for reports to come around that add more information, both from official sources and citizens. The official sources aren’t always telling the whole truth, so their word will need to be tested with evidence.
It can be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you have a strong grasp on what’s happening.
One of the benefits of social media is having a bit more situational awareness than being on the ground. Through social media, you’re given multiple inputs from various witness at the same scene. When you’re on the ground, your point-of-view is limited to what’s right in front of your face.
Andy Carvin, who does a great deal of newsgathering with social media talks about this phenomenon:
I discovered very quickly that when I would be in a place like Tahrir Square in Egypt, I found it really hard to get a big picture of what was going on, simply because when you’re surrounded by tear gas and people throwing rocks, you have a fairly limited field of view. Once I could get away from that scene and get back online, over my phone, I’d immediately have contact with dozens of sources across the field of battle who could help paint this picture for me and give me the type of situational awareness that I actually didn’t have when I was there in person.
It can be easy to trick yourself into thinking that you have a strong grasp on what’s happening. This is not always the case.
A perfect example of lack of context leading to misunderstanding is this particular tweet that showed black effigies of bodies hung from trees. Absent context it can be viewed in an entirely different way than how it was intended, as an art installation.
But even though having various moments through media to determine what occurred can be helpful, the same way a juror has to piece together what happened through testimony, there’s still the potential to be misled by various flaws. The message can be distorted. You could be seeing only part of what occurred, and not what led up to it or what happened afterwards. Or the reverse could happen, like in the case of Mike Brown, where most of the footage was after the shooting, or from a vantage point so far away, it was hard to tell what actually occurred. People tend to want to try and make assumptions based on limited evidence, which turns out to be problematic.
For most folks, the advice I’m giving may seem like more work than it’s worth, and that’s fine. My hope is that platforms like Twitter and the like will move toward providing a more structured editorial layer on top of the the nervous system containing the raw material. In the meantime, it’s up to you and me to make sense of it all. It’s messy and chaotic, and we’ll get things wrong sometimes. More importantly, the hope is that observing these events doesn’t serve as just a cheap thrill, but that some will actually be motivated enough to perform meaningful, positive action in the wake of what they’ve learned.