Whether you view it as long overdue or just in time, I believe we are starting to see the emergence of best practices for verifying social media content and citizen reports. Recent weeks and months have seen leading practitioners of social media verification and crowdsourced verification share tips and thoughts to help move the discipline forward.
Below is a summary of what I’ve collected to date. I’ve teased out the core details from longer blog posts and columns, and encourage you to click through and read the full text of each piece I’ve excerpted.
The most recent bit of online verification advice came in the form of a blog post from Mark Little, the founder of curated news startup Storyful. Much like Storify, Storyful offers a tool that enables you to build a story using tweets, video and other online elements. The difference is that Storyful also employs curators to use the tool to report stories from all over the world.
Little’s post is a fascinating addition to the growing body of writing about news curation and online verification.
He went into detail about the value of the “human algorithm”—applying people to the problem. And he’s not just talking about the curators employed by Storyful.
“Every news event in the age of social media creates more than a conversation, it creates a community,” he wrote. “When news breaks, a self-selecting network gathers to talk about the story. Some are witnesses - the creators of original content - others are amplifiers - passing that content on to a wider audience. And in every group are the filters, the people who everyone else looks to for judgement.”
Here are his tips for verifying user-generated video:
- Review of the uploader’s history and location to see whether he/she has shared useful and credible content in the past, or if he/she is a “scraper”, passing other people’s content off a their own (location is a big clue: don’t trust uploaders in Japan to post video from Syria).
- Use of Google street view/maps/satellite imagery to help verify the locations in a video.
- Consultation of other news sources or validated user content to conﬁrm events in a video happened as they were described.
- Examination of key features in a video such as weather and background landscape to see if they match known facts on the ground.
- Translation of every word that comes with a video for additional context.
- Monitoring social media traffic to see who is sharing the content and what questions are being asked about it.
- Develop and maintain relationships with people within the community around the story.
In conjunction with the recent BBC Social Media Summit, a reporter with the user-generated content “Hub” in the BBC Newsroom in London published a blog post about the ways that group works to verify video content. Note how some of these tips align with Little’s offering:
Referencing locations against maps and existing images from, in particular, geo-located ones. Working with our colleagues in BBC Arabic and BBC Monitoring to ascertain that accents and language are correct for the location. Searching for the original source of the upload/sequences as an indicator of date. Examining weather reports and shadows to confirm that the conditions shown fit with the claimed date and time. Maintaining lists of previously verified material to act as reference for colleagues covering the stories. Checking weaponry, vehicles and licence plates against those known for the given country.
I recently wrote about how NPR’s senior strategist engages in real-time verification and curation to track events in the Middle East. Carvin’s work has been celebrated widely, and there are lots of lessons for journalists in the way he has cultivated sources on Twitter and elsewhere and transformed his Twitter account into an invaluable newswire.
One of the biggest verification lessons from Carvin relates to the human algorithm idea put forward by Little. One thing that is often overlooked by people who write about Carvin is that he interacts directly with sources via Skype and e-mail and other means to gather information. He does a lot of old school verification and talking to sources, which cannot be underestimated. He also, of course, practices a form of crowdsourced verification. If he sees a tweet that reports something of a newsworthy nature, he will often quote that tweet and add a request for his followers to help him verify if it’s correct, as in this examplehere. Carvin also published an online case study of how he and his followers debunked a claim that Israeli munitions were being used in Libya. It should be required reading in every newsroom and journalism school.