Verification Handbook: A definitive guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage

Photo: Maddalena Biagiotti
Photo: Maddalena Biagiotti

Connor Martin

Is it real, is it fake?

This seemed to be the big question as 6 authors of the Verification Handbook came together at the Sala del Dottorato in Perugia at the International Journalism Festival to discuss the different tools and techniques on how to deal with user generated content during emergencies.

“In an environment where anyone can publish we can also have anyone involved in the process of verification” Craig Silverman an entrepreneurial journalist and founder and editor of regret the error, states that the book is not just for journalists, people should have the ability and knowledge on how to check whether or not content that has been published on the internet is actually true or false.

He also says that you need to “assume everything you’re being told and what you see is false”, as people post fake stories over social networking sites that are interesting or may be useful to another story, people want to believe that it is true, or they may just like the story so they will share or retweet it without seeing if is actually real.

Due to this the public see a lot of fake stories being shared over facebook or twitter and can cause quite a bit of a stir in some communities.

Steve Buttry an editor of Digital First Media asks the question to verify data “how do you know that” and this can be proposed to a variety of different people who publish stories, videos or any type of content onto the internet, as this allows you to find the best original sources of the data and how they actually found the data, were they there? Or did they just read about it online?

He also goes on to say not everyone has the whole piece of the puzzle which leads to stories being exaggerated over time.

Process of verifying data

Claire Wardle states that verification is never 100% accurate unless you were actually there, although there are processes to go through to find these witnesses and piece together the different pieces of information that people hold.

In quite a lot of cases the content that has the most views online is not actually the original content that was uploaded, rather content that has been scraped and then re-uploaded, Youtube is a prime example of people re-uploading original content. This is the process of provenience about finding the actual content that was originally uploaded.

She goes on to say once you have the original content you can use three main process to find if the content is accurate, these are: check the source, date/time and location.

Caroline Bannock then went on to describe the process of how the guardian tracked a story of a giant beach ball bouncing round central London during a storm last year.

Social networking plays a good role in this story as they used twitter to see if people were tweeting about this beach ball, and this allowed them to verify that this was actually happening in London at the time.

This is good for journalists as it means they don’t need someone in the field to check whether a story is real, members of the public are contributing to help prove the story.

These simple processes used by both Caroline and Claire are good for the public to use to verify content, and may help to prevent fake stories or videos going viral over the internet, this is covered by Craig’s point of the book not just being for journalists.

Mathew Ingram a senior writer at Gigaom states that people nowadays don’t have time to verify content. They may see something when waiting for a train and share it without checking the authenticity.

Using the crowd

Mathew wrote the chapter on how the crowd is used to verify stories and live news events. Having members of the public uploading content for news events is very useful for journalists as they are able to get live updates and photos from the public to use for the story, also if it is happening half the way around the world they may not have people on the scene straight away.

He also states that there is so much data coming from people on the scene that some of it is misleading and not entirely true, which makes it difficult to realise what is actually happening at that event, even though the public may not know its wrong they may not have time to see if it’s actually true or not.

Matthew also describes a type of networking strategy in which journalists ask for information from people who are actually there via social networking sites and having contacts in different countries contributes a lot to getting that information as if you ask people for information that you don’t know they may be more hesitant about giving you the information.

Risking people on the ground

One topic covered by all of the panelists during the talk was risking the people on the ground that are uploading the information online. It was said that people may be in physical danger whilst trying to take videos/images or get information from a live event, and that asking people to get the information, you are encouraging them and risking their safety.

When uploading content you are also publicly displaying yourself online so if you upload something which other people may find offensive or discriminating then other people can see exactly where you are and what you look like. Therefore people are in danger during and after the event has happened.

Tools and techniques

Throughout the talk a variety of different tools and techniques were discussed such as geolocation and using Google street maps, a few extra tools discussed at the end were Geofeedia which allows you to search for social media in a town or street. So everywhere is mapped and the public can easily find out what is happening in a variety of different locations.

A couple of other tools mentioned by the panelists included Google reverse image search and whois.

Disaster preparation

Rina Tsubaki – who works for the European Journalism Centre – brought up the fact about disaster preparation in a newsroom and asked the question what the best model is to use to prepare for a disaster event?

One point brought up to answer this was that all journalists should be aware of how to correctly verify content from around the world although a crack team of experts would be best to determine whether or not content is real.

Craig Silverman also brought up the point that if a disaster was to occur connections with emergency organisations and experts in the area should be contacted so that they can verify on actual events.

He also goes on to say that you need to have the workflow and communication sorted before an event happens so there is no panic when an event does happen, and people aren’t confused as who to turn to, to get information from.