Hurricane Sandy, Twitter Fact-Checking, And The Impact Of False Information
from the fast-lies-and-faster-debunking dept
As we begin to move into the aftermath stage of Hurricane Sandy, folks are beginning to look back on various aspects of communication during the storm and what occurred. Mike already touched upon this, discussing one dead-ender who decided to tweet a bunch of false reports under the name “@comfortablysmug”. As Mike noted in that piece, the Twitter community appeared to do a fairly nice job of labeling those reports as false, eventually, and even with some major news groups re-reporting bad information, the damage they did was minimal. However, that one instance isn't the whole of false reporting during Sandy. Most of us saw the myriad of fake photos that were posted of New York City in the midst of the storm. Some were fairly convincing while others were undeniably silly. Still, most of the fake photos were quickly debunked on social media as well, which is why it's interesting to see the takeaway some people are having to the role social media played during what was an historic event.
For instance, take senior editor for The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal, who clearly seems to think there should be concern in how the public reacts to social media posts purporting to be news amidst ongoing events. Madrigal notes that because of the way platforms like Twitter and Facebook work, the opportunity for disseminating false information and/or pictures is great. He says this is particularly the case on Facebook, whose algorithm for what users view favors pictures (real or fake) over anything else.
I'm not one for writing GET OFF MY LAWN posts about the social web. People have been creating and spreading bullshit since language was invented. But the way that the sites work is part of the problem. Right now, social networks are platforms of decontextualization. They could make creating chains of attribution easier. They could preserve the data embedded in photographs better. Instagram and Facebook, especially, in their closedness, make it more difficult to find any given source of information. Sooner or later, all the networks are going to have to take on the responsibility that comes with being millions of people's window on the world. Facebook, in particular, optimizes what you see for what you're most likely to click on. Is that the appropriate way to deal with news about a massive, dangerous storm?
While on the face of it, his argument about how we consume news differently on social media makes a great deal of sense, but I also think there is a major flaw here. That flaw is that Madrigal is confusing the platform and the usership of the platform. Is there authoritative weight to professional news media when it comes to trust? Of course. Does that weight disappear when we move the platform off of the television and onto social media? Of course not. Why would it? Facebook's algorithms may, as Madrigal goes on to say, favor photos, whether they are real or fake, but that's the platform, not the public consuming from the platform. In the same manner, one could say that television as a platform wants vibrant, explosive video when it comes to news. It's what the platform is built for. But that doesn't mean we discount video news footage as being universally overblown or exploitative. There is good, trustworthy footage, and there is bad footage. There are good, trustworthy social media follows and their pictures, and there are bad ones. It's simply a platform change.
Not only that, but the social media platform is particularly adept at mass-debunks of fake news and photos. Mike detailed as much in his post on one false reporter, but I'm sure most of us experienced this on Twitter and Facebook as well. For every Facebook picture post or tweet showing one of those false photos, there were 10 comments or responses debunking them. To his credit, Madrigal himself was instrumental in this, as he notes.
The first decision we made was to focus on photographs. Those are relatively easy to debunk or confirm. And we could take advantage of the preference for visuals that I noted above. Then, we realized that we needed a way to post the photos without adding to the problem. So, anytime we posted a fake photo, it had a prominent (digital) red sticker on it that said, “FAKE.” And I put, in text overlaid on the photos, how we knew it was fake with a shortened URL to that information. That way, even if people did cut and paste those images, the key information would remain attached to them. In fact, the branding practically encouraged people to take the images and post them to social media.
He, of course, wasn't the only one. There were a great many trusted news sites, both digital and paper, that worked quickly to inform the social media universe what was real and what wasn't. Which is why, on the larger scale, all the hand-wringing is a completely moot point. Madrigal makes the argument that all social media pictures are the same, as though users don't consider the source. This is obviously nonsense. We follow sources we trust because we trust them. There is an incentive to not post blatantly false information: trust and followers. Becoming a known source of bullshit means you won't be paid attention, which is the opposite goal of social media.
Another take on this situation sees this clearly. As Jared Keller of Business Week writes:
Twitter proved effective not just as a newswire, but as a medium for distributed fact-checking. As quickly as the falsehoods emerged, journalists and city officials moved to swat them down. BuzzFeed’s Jack Steuf quickly revealed the identity of @ComfortablySmug, who issued a public apology Tuesday night.
After the storm passed, BuzzFeed’s John Herrman argued that Hurricane Sandy established Twitter is a truth machine that, under the right circumstances, systematically vets and destroys rumors as quickly as it propagates them. “Initial misinformation has consequences, and a consensus correction on Twitter won’t stop any number of these rumors from going viral on Facebook,” Herrman writes. “There, your claims are checked by your friends; on Twitter, if they spread, they’re open to direct scrutiny from people who might actually know the truth.” In the echo chamber of social media, truth is louder than fiction.
This is because, as I mentioned, the incentive for factual reporting is abundantly clear: followers and trust. Can a single line or picture of nonsense go viral? Of course. But the more viral it is, the greater the community of fact-checkers to which it is subjected. This is an important continuation of thought that many critics of social media never complete. There are some that love to claim that anybody can make something up on the internet. That's true, but the point is that anybody else can then debunk it. It's true of Wikipedia, it's true of Facebook (amongst friends), and it's true of Twitter. People love something sensational, but ultimately they're bigger suckers for the truth.