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By now, anyone who spends much time on social media has gotten pretty used to the deluge of information that occurs whenever there is a breaking-news event like the destruction of Malaysian flight MH17. Photos, videos and news reports about the details all go flying past in our streams, many of them from reliable sources — and yet a staggering proportion of them are wrong, either accidentally or in some cases deliberately. Photos are doctored, quotes manufactured and numbers invented.
One of the most crucial journalistic skills is sorting out what’s true and what’s not in such situations, and while many professional journalists may not like it, thanks to the internet anyone can do this job if they have the inclination, the tools and the time. No one illustrates that better than British blogger Brown Moses, also known as Eliot Higgins, who has gone from being an unemployed office worker to a crucial source of real-time, fact-checked information about the war in Syria.
Higgins didn’t get to where he is now because he is some kind of superhuman genius, he just applied himself to learning as much as possible about the conflict he was trying to understand, and then used a variety of tools and skills to relentlessly check and re-check the information that was coming in via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blogs. So what if you want to join in this process and help verify some of the information that is flying by — what can you do? Here are some tools, services and news communities that can help:
Storyful’s Open Newsroom: Storyful, now owned by News Corp., was one of the first companies to take a rigorous approach to verifying social media in real time. Editors and journalists who work for the company provide their services to mainstream media entities, using a variety of forensic practices, but the company also launched what it calls its Open Newsroom, a Google+ page where participants can help verify information on breaking news events. While membership is not open to anyone (Storyful approves contributors based on their skills and journalistic track record), it is a very useful resource.
Grasswire: A startup founded by Austen Allred, Grasswire is like an open-source version of Storyful’s newsroom, in that anyone can participate by verifying news reports about a variety of breaking-news events. Each item that appears on the wire (mostly from Twitter, with other sources to be added in the future) can be upvoted, but also has buttons that say “confirm” and “refute.” If a photo is a hoax, for example, users can post a URL and/or a description of why they think it’s a hoax, all of which gets added to the item. Allred told me he wants Grasswire to be a real-time newsroom that anyone can contribute to.
Reddit news forums: Reddit is a somewhat controversial suggestion, since the site (or rather, a small group of users on one subreddit) became notorious for identifying the wrong man as one of the culprits in the Boston bombings last year. But that aside, Reddit is one of the sites that does a fairly good job during breaking-news events, especially in subreddits like the Ukrainian conflict forum, which uses some of the new live reporting tools that Reddit recently rolled out, and which Allred said helped inspire Grasswire.
Twitter/Facebook: Twitter itself is obviously one community (if we can call it that) that has become the go-to source for news, both verified and unverified. The fact that the real-time stream is both a source of facts and a source of hoaxes, misinterpretations and viral BS strikes some people as a negative thing, but Twitter and Facebook are double-edged swords in the same way the internet itself is: they can simultaneously be used to debunk hoaxes and to spread them. What you can do is exercise good judgment and avoid tweeting that too-good-to-be true report until it has been verified somehow — or work at verifying it yourself.
Reverse image lookup: Using the reverse image lookup provided by Google or other services such as Tin Eye, it’s quite easy to see if a picture has been posted before and/or manipulated by Photoshop or some other tool. Much of what Twitter accounts like PicPedant do, or services like the Ukraine-based StopFake, involves plugging a picture into such a lookup and tracking down the original. Austen Allred said that this is a big part of the verification that happens on Grasswire as well, and Gawker’s Matt Novak has a column in which he regularly debunks news photos.
Google Earth/Streetview: As Eliot Higgins has pointed out during demonstrations of his techniques, checking photos or videos of weapon attacks or other events against existing imagery in Google Earth and other similar services is not difficult, just time-consuming. By looking at a particular location from multiple viewpoints, using measuring tools to confirm distances and verify structures, etc. a user can triangulate locations pretty effectively. Andy Carvin and the BBC’s UGC desk have compared shadows to the alleged time of day a photo was taken, and, in some cases, identified buildings or other key landmarks in satellite photos.
Checkdesk: A project partially funded by the Arab Partnerships Fund and Google.org, Checkdesk is an open-source content management system that allows media outlets of all kinds to do live-blogging of news events in a way that makes real-time verification (either by staff journalists or “citizen journalists” and other contributors). Like Grasswire, the verification status of items is shown and items can be embedded in stories and webpages. Checkdesk says it has outfitted “1,400 citizen journalists, six leading news publishers and grassroots media collectives in five countries.” It also plans to support tools like Tin Eye and Wolfram Alpha.
Video capture: One of the things that often happens after news-worthy videos are posted to YouTube is that they suddenly disappear. Sometimes the terrorist group that posted them changes its mind, and sometimes they are hoaxes that have been discovered. In either case, it’s handy to have a copy of the original. Services like KeepVid and this Chrome extension allow you to capture videos and save them to your hard drive. For tips on checking the veracity of videos, it’s worth taking a look at the Citizen Evidence Lab, part of Amnesty International, which is designed to help human-rights workers and aid agencies verify videos.
Capturing webpages: As Higgins and others have pointed out, Facebook in particular has a history of removing pages set up by militant groups in countries like Syria and Iraq that contain what the social network feels is violent imagery, etc. But in some cases this removes crucial information about the location and timing of military attacks and other events. By using a site called Alghayma, you can save a copy of a Facebook page and even in some cases go back in time to see one that has been deleted. There is also Google’s cache of pages, and the Internet Archive, which maintained a copy of the Vkontakte page that an alleged Ukrainian separatist deleted after taking credit for the Malaysian airline attack.
These aren’t all of the services, tools or communities that are involved in fact-checking or verification, of course. Josh Stearns, formerly of the advocacy group Free Press, maintains an ongoing list of tools at his Verification Junkie blog, and there are a host of different approaches and tips in the free Verification Handbook — which was funded by the European Journalism Centre, with contributions from a number of journalists (Full disclosure: I contributed to a chapter on Andy Carvin’s methods for using Twitter as a real-time verification tool). And whenever fact-checking is involved, it’s worth paying attention to Craig Silverman of Regret The Error, who was also involved in organizing the Verification Handbook. The BBC also has a good collection of resources. So get out and do some journalism!