The Internet, being as open as it is, is rife with rumor, fabrications, conspiracy theories, opinions and outright lies. And since photos and videos are so easy to fabricate, this adds a new layer of challenges. However, social media and cloud tools enable verification on a scale — it just takes some manual fact-checking in the right places.
At the TEDSalon in London, Markham Nolan, managing editor of Storyful.com, shared the investigative techniques he and his team use to verify information in real-time for media organizations. His lessons are instructive for anyone relying on Internet-based information for business or personal purposes.
For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeastern U.S. and New York City, there was a flurry of doctored photos being posted on the devastation — in one case, a photo of the Statue of Liberty being inundated by a tidal wave was circulating online. This was a photo from the movie The Day After Tomorrow:
What you had with Hurricane Sandy was a superstorm, the likes of which we hadn’t seen for a long time, hitting the iPhone capital of the universe — and you got volumes of media like we’d never seen before. And that meant that journalists had to deal with fakes. We had to deal with old photos that were being reposted. We had to deal with composite images that were merging photos from previous storms. We had to deal with images from films like The Day After Tomorrow. And we had to deal with images that were so realistic it was nearly difficult to tell if they were real at all.”
Nolan explains the often painstaking work that is required to get to and verify if Internet posts, pictures and videos are true or not, employing online tools for clues that can be cross-referenced:
Dig into social conversation tools, such as Twitter: Many newsmakers, opinion leaders, and even individuals in relative obscurity can be tracked down employing Twitter, Nolan says. “Finding the source becomes more and more important — finding the good source — and Twitter is where most journalists now go. It’s like the de facto real-time newswire, if you know how to use it, because there is so much on Twitter.”
Employ data visualization tools: Twitter and other social media conversations and connections can be mapped out and diagrammed, revealing patterns and thought leaders. “What you get is hints at who is more interesting and who is worth investigating,” Says Nolan.
Peruse online verification services: Use tools such as online directories (Nolan cites Spokeo) to verify identities, and Wolfram Alpha to verify environmental factors such as weather conditions at a particular locale and at a particular time.
Scan online maps and satellite images: To verify locations where videos may have been shot or photos taken. Clues seen in videos — such as nearby trees or buildings — can be authenticated via Google satellite imagery, for example.
(Link to Markham Nolan’s TED presentation.)