It is easy to falsify an identity online. You can lie about your name, where you are and the groups and organisations to which you belong. And disinformation is common, especially in connection with major news events or controversial developments. For example, a mixture of correct information, rumours and deliberate dissemination of false information has been a hallmark of information flows on social media about acts of terrorism worldwide in recent years. Journalists need to keep a cool head and assess and check information from the internet before they use or publish it. Where possible, try to contact sources by phone. It is easier to lie in an email or chat message and it is relatively easy to forge an email address.
On the phone, you can also ask a source follow-up questions more easily than in a written exchange. However, making phone calls can also take up a lot of time. Consequently, it is a good idea to screen your sources first.
A FEW EXAMPLES OF SIMPLE CHECKS:
Does your source’s social media account have a link to an official page? Large news organisations often have links to their sites on Facebook and Twitter, for example. Go to the official site and see whether it also links back to the account in question.
Read back through the person's entire feed. Was the information correct previously? Make an overall assessment. Don’t just look at individual posts. You can also search for the person on other platforms. Is their presence roughly the same everywhere?
How many followers does the account have, and how many people follow the account? Who are they friends with? There is good reason to question an account with extremely few followers or one that is obviously new but has a lot of followers already, as they may be purchased fake followers. Check them at random.
How many posts have been made by the account previously? When the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death was spread in August 2012, for example, it was from an account that had only published nine posts, but still had 30,000 followers, presumably fake followers.
Does the person respond when addressed? If not, it is a warning sign, but may also mean that they have not had time to respond or are doing something else.
A telling example: In 2013, the regional paper Norrländska Socialdemokraten (NSD) wrote an article saying that the actor Bill Murray had praised the tree hotel in Harads on Twitter (the article is still available as originally published, ending with “NSD has tried in vain to reach Bill Murray for a comment”).
But in the paper’s own comments field, the users Outsider and Ko Ol point out that the news was a bit too good to be true.
And they were quite right. @BillMurray’s profile information on Twitter states explicitly that “this is a parody account”.
CHECKLIST FOR VERIFICATION
Source criticism is essential to all journalism. For social media, this is often about quickly being able to verify the veracity of photos, videos, text and ‘evidence’. An essential question to ask in all verification is: “How do you know?”
Almost everything online can be manipulated, but, if you check the information in several different ways in parallel, it is easier to identify fakes. Journalist and author Jack Werner, formerly on Metro’s ‘Viralgranskare’ editorial staff, has suggested two verification questions to start with when assessing the content of social media:
Does the story contain actual facts?
Does it seem too good to be true?
If you have enough to want to continue, and you are verifying photos or videos, you can verify the following aspects:
Time and place
Independent sources that confirm the above
Does the story contain actual facts?
A characteristic of second-hand information is that it concerns ‘a small town’, ‘a girl’ or ‘something that happened to a friend (or a friend of a friend) recently’. If there is no exact information at all, you need to be very much on the alert. Does it seem too good to be true? The logic of propagation – which says that people tend to spread information that they have a gut feeling is correct or confirms their own views or own world view – is widespread online and in social media.
Is the photo or video you see on your screen the original, or has someone manipulated or copied it, or found it in a Facebook group, for example? Take screen shots and save what you find in case they are subsequently deleted. Some things worth considering:
If you google images, do older versions of the same image/video turn up in the results? If you google the start image in a YouTube clip, do older copies of the same clip turn up in the results? Try to find the original or at least the oldest version.
Is the material unedited or are there clips from different sequences? Are the details blurred? Can you find similar images by googling? A good way of morphing a manipulated image back to its original condition is to run it on a site such as tineye.com.
For example, if it looks like a retweet, it may not be genuine. Tweets, SMS conversations and entire websites can be faked and manipulated using web tools and specially built sites.
Find out who is the original source of the photo/video/text/information. Preferably make direct contact with the source by phone. There are several easy ways of checking a source’s credibility:
Ask the source questions: Where did you take the photo? Where were you standing? What happened? Why were you there?
Does your source have a name? Double-check whether you can find the person in online phone directories, or call the population registry office or the person’s workplace switchboard.
Google the name of the person. If you have an email address, try googling it too.
Go backwards through the person’s history and see what photos, texts and videos they have posted to get a quick overview.
If you search for a person’s email address on Facebook, which Facebook account do you find? And which friends does the account have? See also People Finding.
Time and place
A common internet phenomenon is that photos and videos that are disseminated in connection with major news events were taken at a different time and/or a different place. If you are uncertain, you can check the following:
What does the place where the photo/video is alleged to have been taken look like? Are there characteristic buildings, crossroads, mountains or anything else that can easily be checked in a tool like Google Maps/Streetview? Compare with other photos taken at the same time, for example by searching in Twitter or Instagram.
Are there specific events to check, for example a demonstration, burning cars, or a violent uprising? Check with the police or rescue services, compare with the reporting by other media sources or search for local people via social media (see Fast news research).
The weather. If it is raining, snowing or windy in the photo/video, check with weather services on the internet.
Location services and geotags are not used or specified by everyone but can be a clue.
Independent sources (that confirm the above)
Have you confirmed genuine photos taken in the same place but from a different angle? Are there facts from news agencies that confirm the information you have? Are there verified, reliable individuals who know your source? The credibility of the source is then greater, provided that they really are independent and are not citing the same source as you. It is a good basic criterion to always have more than one source before you use a photo/video/information in your reporting.