BS detection for journalists: Rough Notes from an ONA 2011 Panel
Things to consider when verifying socially mediated information
The following information came from a couple of panels at the Online News Association during September 2011, particularly the panel titled “BS Detection for Digital Journalists.” Panelists included: Craig Silverman of RegretTheError and Mandy Jenkins of the Huffington Post. Some material was also used from remarks made by Andy Carvin at NPR during the conference. (And for a great recent example of all of this playing out, check out the Reuters photo of a rebel firing an RPG, which has been accused of being fake! Good discussion under the photo about why the photo may be real or may have been Photoshopped!)
This is the second in a series of three “rough notes” from the conference.
General Thoughts on Detecting B.S. online
— You may not know every single detail through your social media networks, but you can know a lot. Alas, you have to sort it out. That’s your job.
— Do not blindly retweet without verification or some kind of indication that it is not confirmed.
— Often it’s just as great a story if you can debunk something everyone else is saying is true.
— Be transparent with what you do not know!
— Use social media as another source of verification for your observations. Tweets and status reports can help contextualize what may otherwise be a myopic view of the world when you are in the thick of some event.
–Corroborate the story in as many ways as you can. Check the scanner or police reports for news of the incident. Search twitter.com to see if others are saying the same thing. Crowd source it, making sure to indicate the lack of verification of the story.
— If you make a mistake: fix it and retweet the correction several times. Direct message all of the people who retweeted the original tweet. Fix it everywhere you posted it, and make the correction go as viral as the original tweet. Embarrassing but necessary.
— If you see 20-30 original tweets saying the same thing, it’s probably true. (Thus, one could say that volume adds to the sense of authenticity. And yet still, one must check it out. Just make sure you are not verifying via the original tweets)
— Andy Carvin says he sees his Twitter feed as part of his fact-gathering process. “A lot is not verified and when that happens, I put, ‘source?’ And then we try to hash it out.”
— Observe who your followers are retweeting. Follow those people, too.
— Be wary of people who use journalistic terms by people who are not journalists. I.e. “confirmed.” These terms are often not accurate in the journalistic sense and used to gain attention.
— Before you retweet, check the original poster. Who is it? Check their profile. Check how long they have been around. Newer pages, profiles, sites should be approached with suspicion. Look out for parody accounts with telltale misspellings in the handle.
— To check the longevity of a tweeter: http://howlonghaveyoubeentweeting.com/
— Check on their profile for how frequently they update. You want to determine whether they are organically a part of ecosystem.
— Is there a photo on the profile of a real person?
— How many friends and followers do they have? Who are they following?
— Who else is this account interacting with? If they are replying to people and having a good bit of back and forth with other people, that adds to their credibility.
— Check the Klout score. The higher their score, the more active they are.
— Google their name with keywords like “spam,” “lies,” “bots.”
— What other accounts are associated with them? Are they on Facebook or LinkedIn? Do they have a blog?
–Use sIte identifiers like “hoverme,” an add-on that works with Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer.
— Direct message the tweeter and ask for a phone number, and then call them. Ask them what they heard firsthand. Walk them through what they saw from the beginning. Find out who else might have witnessed it. Was there a crowd? Was there someone else with them to whom you could talk? Did they mention why they were there? Consider what they tell you in relation to your gut; does the timeline of events work out? Does the information check with other information you gather about the day/place/site?
— Check out what they said later, after the original tweet.
— Before you retweet or publish the information, evaluate the options: Is this the entire story? Is it really worth the risk of what I am running with if it is not verified? Do not just check one thing: triangulate! Most of time it is not worth rushing it out there. You get a better story by being the person to go through all these steps and a have more solid account.
— Go back to the original source of the twitter chatter. (You do this by searching for the keywords in most of the tweets, such as “fire” or “police” and follow the list chronologically until you see one that has not been retweeted.)
On Verifying YouTube Videos:
— Note the scene and all the details in the photo and then corroborate, corroborate, corroborate: Are people wearing coats and it is summer? Is there a fountain pictured that should not be there? Examine weather reports, language at people speaking. License plates on automobiles, vehicles themselves, do these belong in this place?
— Ask the poster if they have more photos. They generally do not just take one photo of it,
— Check the Exif data, which is information that is embedded on all images.
— Also Error Level Analysis will let you see if it has been edited in Photoshop.
— Check out tineye.com, a reverse image search site that can help determine if photos have been used before elsewhere.
— Call everyone in the relevant neighborhood and send them the picture. Don’t be afraid to ask the resident to go down the street and take a look at wherever the supposed incident had taken place. You can use neighborhood directories to find phone numbers (most newsrooms have a bunch on hand).
Verifying Content on a Website
— Do you remember the story, “Are Internet Explorer users dumb?” This story went viral, though it was erroneous, because it reinforced an already existing attitude. Good hoaxes try to get into the sweet spot of what people already believe. However, one key giveaway that the story was wrong was how striking the findings were; the statistical difference between the IQs of IE users and Firefox was just too large and should have raised a red flag.
— When was the domain registered?
— Is it difficult to find out who owns the site or who is running it?
— Go to the Internet Archive: how long has the site been there? Has this site changed radically recently?
— Check out the page rank by Google: if the page rank is good, the score means the site is linked to by a lot of people and is a high influencer and could be an indication of the site’s authority and authenticity.
— What is the level of interaction? Are there comments? Are people bookmarking it on delicious or diigo? These are all good indications that the site is credible.
I am reading some material from the late 1990s about the early days of online journalism research. Specifically, a piece by Pablo J. Boczkowski (who was at MIT and then went to Northwestern, where he is now becoming Director of Northwestern’s Program in Media, Technology & Society). In the Online Journalism Review, back in 2005, a portion of Boczkowski’s final chapter of his then-new book, Digitizing the News, was reprinted. In it he talked about how digital technologies would eventually transform the way that news was produced. He used terms like “co-production.” His ethnography — one of the first for online newsrooms — revealed that:
In the online environment, a greater variety of groups of actors appear to be involved in, and have a more direct impact on, the production process than what is typically accounted for in studies of print and broadcast newsrooms.
Taking a constructivist approach, Boczkowski argued that an increasing number of agents — from computer programmers to advertisers to readers — would require new ways of thinking about journalistic authority, that civic journalism might be rejuvenated, and that citizens’ conversations would be vibrant and active in online public spaces. The public had its chance to redefine news, he suggested.
Since then, so much has happened.
The jury is still out on whether public journalism will be reborn, citizens will be empowered or democracy has been saved. Indeed several scholars have documented the “myth” of interactivity — that is, the reality that though connected people have the opportunity to engage online, very few actually do. As Boczkowski himself writes in this early work, any transformation arises from already entrenched institutions, which shape and modify any potential a new technology might hold.
Yet, who could have foreseen the impact of Twitter and Facebook on news? Social media are just a few avenues for those journalistic transformations to occur. The tools largely dismissed by many as a silly phase have transformed the way some people interact with the news. It boasts 100 million active users and 1 billion tweets every seven days, according to a recent talk by Twitter’s CEO. I know Twitter is my primary (or I should say, my first) source of news these days. And, in my interviews with journalists this past month, reporters talk about Twitter as essential not only to the marketing of their finished stories but also as a key ingredient in their news-gathering process.
But as most technology analysts have mentioned, often the new medium doesn’t transform things in the way it is predicted to, in part because its track must be laid within existing infrastructure. I should note that one reporter I talked to used to frequent Facebook and Twitter for his job and has since backed off, saying his job got too hectic to “play around” in those spaces. I noted the separation of the new technology from the job — a gimmick rather than a utensil in this particular interview.
I think as we move on, reporters like this one will be the anomaly and not the norm. Otherwise the transformations will go forward without the journalists — as settled as they may be in their infrastructure.
I can’t believe I am still trying to convince people that social-media tools can be a healthy, empowering, useful part of one’s information network. In the last week I’ve had the same conversation three times about why Twitter is not a phase and that it is a growing important part of gaining knowledge. I’m tired of having this conversation. Mostly it is with people who have never looked at a Twitter feed. I feel the same frustration for those people that I do when my 9-year-old says she dislikes a food though she has never tasted it. Ironically one of these people was my mother, who always got mad at me when I refused a food without trying it.
Of course I follow a lot of smart people on Twitter. The beauty of technology is that by giving us access to smart people who say smart things, technology can make us think we ourselves are smart too. It’s sort of like the narcoticizing of news: the postulation that people who consume news often feel as if they have participated in democracy simply by the act of reading. I’m all for it. In some ways, sharing online IS a new way to participate, as much as going to a meeting and making a statement. Both acts involve a motivation to contribute in some way.