Factcheck Your Friends: Misinformation on Social Media
New Yorkers experienced two major life events in the past few weeks: a superstorm and a hotly contested presidential election. Those two events have more in common than you might think. They both stressed us out. They both left us blurry with some of the details... what happened and what didn't, what was said and what was only hearsay. What was underreported and what was blown way out of proportion.
With social media being so much a part of our lives, unlike previous elections or natural disasters, misinformation had a chance to spread like wildfire and be reinforced within these echo chambers. Even trusted news authorities repeated false information in the heat of the moment. You might not always have access to a reference librarian, so here are some tips and tricks to identify and avoid perpetuating falsehoods within your circle of friends and followers.
The image of the rollercoaster in the surf seems terrifying and incredible; so does the one of the shark swimming down the flooded street. Which is real and which is fake? Or rather, which one is from the actual event it purports to be from? Images were passed around on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr during and immediately after the storm. A few looked familiar to me, and it's probably because I saw them during previous scary storms (or perhaps just movies about them.)
Remember that Photoshop exists and can be used for more than just airbrushing fashion models in magazines. It can be used by a talented prankster to create a composite image that isn't real. Look at the light sources and background clues to judge the veracity of an image.
When in doubt... reverse image search! Two tools to know and have in your back pocket at all times are TinEye and Google Reverse Image Search. Paste in an image URL or upload a file to either of these services. You will be able to see all the different versions of an image and determine when it was first posted, who has posted it, if the sources seem reputable, and if there are any telling differences in the images available.
If you want to be a super sleuth, you can also look at the metadata encoded in the image, or the exif data.
- "Sorting the Real Sandy Photos From the Fakes," The Atlantic, Oct 29 2012.
- "Hurricane Sandy: Five ways to spot a fake photograph," BBC Future, Oct 31, 2012.
- "A journalist's guide to verifying images," IJNet, Sept 30, 2011.
As Sandy approached and the night wore on, unbelievable but true reports appeared alongside unsubstantiated rumors. During the storm itself it was difficult to have reporters on the ground, so it wasn't until the next day that we began to take stock of what happened.
One Twitter user in particular went on a tall-tale telling spree, his "BREAKING" news retweeted and repeated by many; around the same time, police scanners tipped off listeners to a potential hospital fire that turned out not to be as serious as initially thought.
- "Hurricane Sandy, @ComfortablySmug, and The Flood of Social Media Misinformation," Forbes, Oct 30, 2012.
- "Even a superstorm is no excuse for journalists not to check Twitter trolling," The Guardian Comment is Free, Oct 31, 2012.
- "On Twitter, Sifting Through Falsehoods in Critical Times," The New York Times, Oct 31, 2012.
- "Whose fault is it that ‘Comfortably Smug’ lies about Hurricane Sandy spread?" Poynter, Nov 1, 2012.
A side project of journalist Tom Phillips, the Is Twitter Wrong? Tumblr examines tweets that have gone viral with facts or images that may be untrue.
Likewise on Facebook during the election, you might have found your feed brimming with political vitriol from family or friends on either side of the red-blue color spectrum. Snopes has long been known as a place to check the accuracy of those once-ubiquitous email forwards, now more likely status updates — search or check their 25 hottest urban legends to see what's spreading right now, along with TRUE/FALSE/HOAX/MIXTURE judgment and supporting research. Factcheck.org also has a section devoted to social media rumors.
The radio show On the Media produced an episode on November 2 called "Misinformation Around Sandy, Calling the Election, and More" with several segments on the topic.
And now for a fluffier take on accuracy in social media; those inspirational quotes we pass around sure are stirring, but are they even real or attributed to the right person? How can we know for sure?
When Osama Bin Laden was killed in May 2011, certain rousing quotations captured the social media sentiment and were repeated and spread widely. The problem with two of them, attributed to Mark Twain and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was that while they fit our understanding of their personalities, neither man ever said the words.
"Notable Quotables: Is there anything that is not a quotation?" The New Yorker, Feb 19, 2007 — Review of The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, a reference work of quotations misapplied, misattributed, or miswritten (Read an excerpt on JSTOR from The Antioch Review).
Garson O’Toole is the Quote Investigator, and he blogs about popular quotations and their origins.
How to identify a misquote? Be skeptical, and take President Abraham Lincoln's wise words to heart: "The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that it's difficult to determine whether or not they are genuine." That said, Wikiquote is a good way to check the veracity of quotations, because they should all have a source supplied that you can follow through and check for yourself. Credo Reference and Oxford Reference Online also have quotation sources you can search across; log in to access with your library card number.
Before social media, we had other means of being incited to panic. The War of the Worlds broadcast is a famous example, but did you know it was performed multiple times in ensuing years and locales and still caused terror and confusion? The "War of the Worlds" episode of the radio show Radiolab provides an annotated guide, asks if it could happen again (and again), and tries to figure out what they were thinking?!
For more hoaxes from before 1700 all the way to the 21st century, visit the Museum of Hoaxes. And please, think before you RT.