Twitter is like the coffee machine in the newsroom. Get a shot of caffeine and chat with colleagues; exchange useful information but also get the latest gossip and rumors. The difference is that what you hear at the coffee machine you will not publish. Twitter works different; gossip, rumors and other unverified information are published and cause sometimes a hoax. The tweet about the suspension of the famous CNN talk show host Piers Morgan over the phone hacking scandal is a recent example of a Twitter hoax. An other one from the beginning of last year was about a tweet spreading the rumor that Mandela had died. Published on Memeburn: http://memeburn.com/2012/01/seven-top-tips-for-verifying-tweets/
Think before you (re)tweet would generally be good advice. However journalists should not rely on good advice only in a situation were Twitter has become an important news source. Of course check the information is the rule for journalists. How do you do that, because social media and the Internet work different then traditional sources? This question evokes a big debate among journalists. Craig Silverman wrote a story about the different solution in the Columbia Journalism Review. Most of them working with Twitter have found ways check or verify tweets, which can be summed up in a list of best practices.
Check the account
This is the first rule in journalism: Is the source credible? On Twitter you should check the account of the tweep. Obvious items that could be found are: when was the account created, when was it last updated, how may followers and following, and last best not least: is there a picture? One should be suspicious when dealing with brand new accounts, not regular updated, and with suspicious followers. In the Piers Morgan case the tweet originated from a fake account (@danwooden) meant to parody Dan Wootton, former show biz editor for News of the World.
Check the person
Looking at the tweets from that account it is easy to notice whether it is an isolated account with no interaction at all. Or more detailed try to find out how important the person is, that is plays a central role (hub) in the the Twitter network. The Klout score gives a reliable figure for estimating a persons influence. Next: there is always the possibility of web search: check the web on a persons name and see what comes out. Identify, a Firefox extension, searches more specifically, and result in a social profile of the person. Also in the Mandela a simple check on the originator of the tweet would have been enough to denounce the credibility.
Follow the lead
In Febr. 2009 a airplane crashed on the runway of Schiphol airport at Amsterdam. Because the runway is close the highway, the accident was witnessed by one the commuters on the highway. He send a tweet, within seconds the message was spread around. Journalists where trying to contact the mobile phone of the tweep who send the message. They wanted not only a live report of the accident but also a check on the information. Others were watching too and were sending follow-ups. Again a possibility for checking. And finally in the case of the crash, the location is also important, some tweets contained maps of the place of the accident.
Corroborate the story
When a journalist hears that Piers Morgan is suspended, the first think he would do is ask CNN or Piers Morgan himself. Of course Piers could be difficult to contact, but CNN is easier. In the Mandela case simply contacting the official institutions – ANC or Nelson Mandela Foundation, Mandela web page – would have falsified the message. Of course official institutions are slow, but they have no interest in letting false information do their devastating work.
Checking the web could be tricky as well, the design could be eye candy and the latest information was updated. But how do you know that this is the official web page? martinlutherking.org looks at first glance perhaps official but a search in the allwhois.com, the database of registers of domains, shows that it is owned by the Stormfront, an American white nationalist movement. An other check on the credibility of web sites is the importance or centrality in the network of web pages. Several services are available for checking the page rank. Or check delicious, a plugin for Firefox to share bookmarks, to see if the site is regular bookmarked. Technorati has a nice set of tools and figures to check a blog
If nothing helps, send out a tweet to your followers for help; ask if there is someone who could substantiate the claim, true or not. An interesting example is the work of Andy Carvin. When several news organizations posted stories claiming they had evidence of Israeli munitions being used in Libya, my Twitter followers and I investigated the claims and ultimately debunked them, says Carvin. Here's the story.
At the end of the day there will also be a decision to make: publish or not? There are two things consider here. First how urgent is it? And secondly what is the damage in case of falsehood? This is difficult to measure, varies from to case to case; and one has to try to balance the good over the bad. If you think it is not urgent your competitor could do otherwise. Falsehood damages your credibility, but if true you win the race with a scoop.
Verify images is a special element in the overall process of corroboration of the story. In the world of Photoshop and the Gimp, two software programs for editing images, I stopped believing what I see...on the picture. I never forget how a designer took a picture of the Reichstag- the German Parliament- and put it on fire with a few keystrokes including people running away. Or how a photo editor choose an old picture (by mistake) to illustrate a recent flooding.
Every picture taken with a digital camera has information about how and where it is taken, that is Exif data. Geo information of the picture could be combined with the local weather report for example. A reverse lookup in Tinyeye could help to find others who used the picture.
To know truth from falsehood is difficult on Twitter. Asking for a lie detector or filter, which controls the information send, would be a limitation of the freedom of speech. I would argue that the damage by control is bigger can than damage by false tweets. Because false tweets can be detected. Skilled journalists would be the first in line in successfully combating falsehood.