“Do Assad’s men wear trainers?” – the BBC’s Trushar Barot on social media verification

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Like a man tracking Africa for missing episodes of Doctor Who, I’ve fearlessly found some notes on my laptop I never wrote up into blog posts. Back in May the BBC’s Trushar Barot was talking at Hacks/Hackers London about verifying social media.

“Do Assad’s men wear trainers?” – the BBC’s Trushar Barot on social media verification

Trushar Barot is an Assistant Editor at the BBC, and was talking about their “UGC hub”. The team was set up seven years ago, when they didn’t even offer 24/7 staff coverage to handle material, and their purpose was to find an efficient way to co-ordinate the vast amount of user-generated content that is submitted to the BBC. It has grown significantly, and they work to source content, verify it, and then distribute it to the right bits of the BBC. Trushar said about 50% of the material they deal with has been submitted to the BBC, and the other 50% they actively source.

They don’t have one set of rules for approaching material, and their verification process is a mix of old editorial skills with new technological checks. The Boston bombing story was fresh in everyone’s minds when this event was held in May, and Trushar cited it as a classic example of where there is a lot of material out there, but a “real fog of information” and a lack of understanding about how credible sources or material was. He spoke about what has gone down in history as Reddit’s tremendous failure to accurately crowdsource the identity of the bombers. But he also said that Reddit had provided a lot of information that BBC teams followed up upon, and which ended up on air.

With Boston, Trushar said that geo-tools had been very useful. They knew where the incident happened, and they knew the route of the marathon, so any images that were automatically geo-tagged to the right sort of location gave a strong signal of being authentic. Not 100% verified, but at least worth investigating.

Incidentally, I saw a recent study which said that “29 percent of the most viral messages were inaccurate and/or contained fake or spam-related content” in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing. But then, you have to wonder how mainstream media fares under the same scrutiny. The Sun published a front page blaming Al Qaeda for Anders Breivik’s attacks in Norway. And BuzzFeed just reported the Twitter inaccuracy story with the headline “Most Of The Tweets During The Boston Marathon Were Inaccurate” which makes 29% a pretty odd definition of “most”.

Trushar spoke about how they dealt with people tweeting that they were at the Boston marathon finish line when the explosion happened. He showed a sceenshot of Twitter users besieged by hundreds of journalists asking questions. He explained that the “UGC Hub” plays the pivotal role for the BBC in trying to contact witnesses. It aims to stop people, who may be traumatised and not want to speak to the media, from being contacted by many different BBC journalists from different bits of what Trushar called “the empire.”

Just because the hub can’t verify something, it doesn’t mean the information is useless. They will pass on tips and intel to journalists covering stories, with the caveat that it needs further investigation or standing up. Trushar cautioned that the BBC’s trust ratings would plummet if it started putting “stuff out on the fly”, which I think was a slight dig at other broadcasters who are maybe a bit quicker off the mark to show footage which they label “unverified”. Trushar said the UGC Hub “won’t allow [programmes] to broadcast [social media material] using cautionary wording”, which did open a question up about the Byzantine reporting lines of the BBC. If the Savile/Newsnight inquiry taught us anything, it is that pinning one person down to being responsible for decisions within the BBC can be pretty tough. What, I wondered, would the UGC Hub be able to actually do if a producer just pressed ahead with airing material anyway?

Trushar then showed the audience at Hacks/Hackers some really bleak video footage which appeared to show an enemy combatant being buried alive by soldiers in Syria. He asked us if we thought it was genuine. The general consensus was no, for varying reasons, including the fact that the clip cuts before the man is in a position to suffocate, so you can’t tell whether it has been staged purely for fear and propaganda purposes. Trushar said that the BBC had an advantage over a lot of media organisations as it has a large number of people on the ground thanks to the World Service. In this instance, for example, the fact that the military men were wearing trainers wasn’t a sign the video was faked, but a common sight, as Assad’s military have notoriously uncomfortable army issue boots.

That did, though, lead us slightly down the route of thinking that the BBC’s main verification technology is having lots and lots and lots of journalists everywhere. Which isn’t really a scalable approach for the rest of us…

You might also like these posts about talks at Hacks/Hackers London…

“Anyone referring to journalism as ‘a product’ should be shot” – Quartz’s Leo Mirani & Jason Karaian
“Do Assad’s men wear trainers?” – the BBC’s Trushar Barot on social media verification
“Telling the story of Firestorm” – The Guardian’s Jon Henley & Robin Beitra
“We aren’t here to steal anyone’s lunch” – Buzzfeed’s Luke Lewis
“The future for investigative journalism funding” – David Leigh
“Journalists want convenience, not security” – Daniel Cuthbert