“How can you build debunking beats into your newsroom?” – notes from a panel session at #ijf17

I’ve been at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and here are my notes on a talk all about debunking false information, which featured Alison Gow of Trinity Mirror, and Mark Frankel of the BBC

Mark Frankel, Social Media Editor, BBC News

Mark Frankel, like many people at the festival in Perugia, was desperate to avoid using the phrase ‘fake news’ during his talk, as it has become such a debased and ill-defined term so quickly. And that was important, because he said when you approach debunking something, you first of all have to decide what type of thing it is you are debunking. The reality, he said, is that there are many kinds of misleading news.

Is a story just misleading, or is it outright fabricated? Is it something that is true, but is being presented with a false or manipulated context? Is the piece actually intended as parody or satire? Or are you just dealing with something as simple as some poor journalism?

It’s quite easy to myth-bust some information – for example the fake endorsement of Donald Trump by the Pope. You simply have to find the story, establish it hasn’t happened, and bob’s yer uncle. But other stuff is a lot murkier.

He was the second presenter in Perugia that I saw reference Ryan Broderick’s piece looking at US alt-right dickweeds trying to influence the French election. Mark observed that it required a really intensive deep-dive by Buzzfeed to get to grips with what was going on and where the material was being posted and shared. It’s a huge effort, and all the time you are investigating it, the tireless army of shit-posters are evolving their approach and tactics.

Frankel also spoke about people staging things in order to change or manipulate public opinion. He cited the “too good to be true” viral video of a cyclist taking revenge on a van that had cat-called her. The agency who had made the video were doing it to raise awareness of a cause, and so deliberately left the water muddied for a period of time over whether the video was genuine or not. There was also confusion because you could find eyewitnesses to the event, but they themselves didn’t have the full picture because there was no sign at the time the sequence of events was being staged.

It’s a golden law of the internet for me. If it looks too good to be true, it is probably too good to be true. This is why people think I make up all the tweets about things my woke 8 year old says, because they are too good to be true.

At the Guardian, Elena Cresci was immediately sceptical about that video, and did a great piece about it. But other media outlets don’t have such scruples. Even after it had been thoroughly established as not a genuine event, outlets like the MailOnline left their original posts up on Facebook, amassing huge numbers of views, with no indication that the clip had subsequently been exposed as fake. I think it’s an important ethical problem for us. It’s a lot harder to call out the constant conspiracy-theory led misreporting bullshit of outlets like Breitbart and The Canary when our own house isn’t in order in the endless quest for #numbers.

Personally I also think there is also a question of whether you are using your megaphone to debunk something, but in effect are actually spreading misinformation further. Psychologically, in order to dismiss something as a lie, you have to briefly hold that it is true.

And there are some things that are hard to totally debunk. Take the conspiracy theory that via halal certification, Easter Eggs made by Cadburys actually fund terrorism. I know, right. It is patently absurd, but to do a 100% concrete debunk you’d have to do a forensic audit of years of donations to Islamic charities by the halal-certificating boards, and in the end you still won’t convince the hardcore islamophobes propagating the idea, but you might have sown a seed of doubt in people who hadn’t previously been exposed to the racist nonsense.

In Perugia Frankel also touched upon the role the BBC now has taken on during terror attacks or breaking news incidents around dispelling misinformation being posted to social media. Having covered many such events now, there’s always false information of another shooter/explosion/gunshots heard somewhere else in a city, and tweets saying “My sister is missing in the vicinity of the incident, please help” that are much more often than not fakes. The BBC social media team now assigns two people to debunking during these kinds of situations. Again, it is something that worries me. It is media companies being pushed into spending resources on debunking information that is posted to further a political agenda. That seems a good cause to me. However, it is also resources wasted on people who are just posting fake info for the lolz, which seems a tedious thing to be up against.

Alison Gow, digital innovation editor at Trinity Mirror

Alison Gow bought a really useful and practical approach to the topic for newsrooms. She said that fake news isn’t new – at the local and regional level they’ve always had to deal with the compensations hustler (“Can you take a picture of the hair I found in my Boots’ sandwich”), the green ink brigade, and the people who keep having similar newsworthy misfortunes – Ron, I’m looking at you.

Alison went on to explain what her golden rules of verification are, especially for stories spotted on social media:

  • Get in touch with the source, preferably by telephone.
  • Think about who else you might be able to contact to verify what they are saying – can you confirm any details from official sources.
  • Ask around your newsroom. Especially at a local or regional level, if it is someone who is a serial hoaxer or faker, there will be someone in the room who has dealt with them before
  • Check your own news archive to see if this person has been a source or featured in stories before.
  • Google them – what sort of digital footprint has this person left behind.
  • Use TinEye reverse image search on everything – including avatars and profile pics. This can be especially useful during breaking news situations if you see tweets like “My sister was in the area and I can’t get in touch with her. Please RT”.
  • Without giving a story away, it’s sometimes worth checking to see whether there is any interest in a topic. Use local forums or your own social media presence to test the waters on whether this is going to be a story that resonates.

Alison also addressed the way you behave when you do get caught out. She said the worst thing you can do with fake news is to just try and hide it. Instead, try and be as open and possible – edit your posts and articles so that people can see the original mistake in context, and make sure that any subsequent corrections are prominently displayed. In the longer term, people will trust you more for being honest about your mistakes, rather than trying to memory hole them.

Find all my blog posts from the 2017 International Journalism Festival.