Factually: Checking news as it breaks

It’s now a given in today’s information environment that major natural disasters, acts of violence or other big news events will spawn a flood of misinformation. It’s spread by nefarious actors seeking to sow chaos as well as those who just don’t know better and are looking to amplify their agendas at a time when people are paying attention.

Whatever the motive, unfolding tragedies give misinformers a moment to break through, putting fact-checkers and other journalists on alert to either debunk the false information or, at the very least, avoid repeating it.

The Amazon forest fires provide a solid case study.

As Cristina reported for Poynter, Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cristiano Ronaldo were among the celebrities who posted old photos or out-of-context images on Twitter or Instagram to pressure the Brazilian government to take action against the fire. Ronaldo, the Portuguese soccer star, posted a photo on Instagram that was actually taken in Rio Grande do Sul, in the southern part of Brazil, in 2013.

Brazilan President Jair Bolsonaro, in a nationally televised speechdefending his handling of the fire, called out those who would post “unproven” data or messages, saying it wouldn’t help solve the problem. Later, though, he tweeted an image that had been taken in 2014 to show how the Brazilian air forces were combating the fires.

Similarly, false rumors were spread widely after shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. And those rumors continue.

In a piece for (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact, Daniel explains how misinformation is gaining a foothold in private messaging apps like Apple iMessage and Snapchat. Messages on these platforms, Daniel wrote, are obscured from the public eye, making it harder for journalists to debunk them, though some are screenshotted and posted to more public social media platforms.

In breaking news situations, the sheer number of social media posts creates a rich environment for hoaxers, who hijack popular hashtags and keywords to amplify their views.

The spread of fires in the Amazon region, for example, was the topic of 10.2 million tweets posted between Aug. 18 and 23, with 4.3 million of those just on Friday. According to data scientists at the Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo in the southeastern part of Brazil, the online activity related to the environmental devastation was similar to levels usually seen after terrorist attacks.

Some journalists like BuzzFeed’s Jane Lytvynenko have made it their specialty to jump into debunking mode when there is a breaking news event to identify such misinformation in real time.

Such work helps not only the public, but other journalists as well, so they can spend less time disproving things and more time reporting on actual developments and explaining the underlying issues.

Natália Leal, director of content for the Brazilian fact-checker Agência Lupa, expressed that exact concern in her conversation with Cristina this week.

“Instead of debating about solutions for the fires in the Amazon, which are pretty serious, people might spend time and effort pointing out what is true and what is not,” she said. “We don’t need that. We don’t need to use old photos or out-of-context pictures to show how serious the situation is.”

. . . technology

  • Following Twitter’s decision to ban sponsored content from state-backed media outlets, YouTube is being pressured to do the same. And in Washington, lawmakers are starting to ring the alarm over Chinese disinformation campaigns.
  • In April, Facebook announced the winners of a research grant from Social Science One and Social Science Research Council, in which they would be given access to some of the platform’s data. ButCraig Silverman reported for BuzzFeed News that those academics are still waiting for Facebook to give them the data.
  • An old privacy hoax recently made the rounds on Instagram, where several celebrities fell for it. Writing for Wired, Paris Martineau explains that people don’t fall for these recurring hoaxes because they’re stupid — they fall for them because they support their existing worldviews.

. . . politics

  • Facebook is tightening its rules for political advertisements, it announced Wednesday, requiring organizations that purchase the ads to take steps to verify their identities. One expert told The New York Times that the move represented “incremental baby steps forward.”

  • Police in Singapore are investigating rumors being spread via video and text messages about gang activity. It’s the latest action the government has taken against the spread of online misinformation, which is outlawed in Singapore.

  • A campaign to boycott Olive Garden emerged on Twitter after a professor falsely tweeted that the restaurant donated to Donald Trump’s campaign. Newsweek noticed that it was just the latest in aboycott trend, or what Reason magazine called “conspicuous non-consumption.”

. . . the future of news

  • Being a fact-checker in Kashmir demands on-the-ground verification. Read the interview Cristina did with The Quint and AFP in India, as well as a first-person account from a fact-checker at Boom Live. Meanwhile, Boom has also uncovered several fake Twitter accounts impersonating army officials.
  • Remember that too-dangerous-to-publish research about an artificial intelligence news writer? Now a new version has been released. The BBC tried it out.
  • A new study from the Association for Psychological Science foundthat reading fake news stories could lead to the creation of false memories.

When Axios reported this week that President Donald Trump questioned whether nuclear bombs could be used to prevent hurricanes from hitting the United States, journalists came out in force to defuse the idea.

Trump, in a tweet, called the story ridiculous, and “just more FAKE NEWS!”

The Axios reporter, Jonathan Swan, stood by the piece.

Because the Axios report was based on anonymous sources, it was hard to check the story itself. But for fact-checkers, the question of whether hurricanes could be nuked was like candy to a toddler. We are choosing their collective work to highlight this week.

In his original report, Swan did a good job of explaining the history of this idea, and its implausibility.

Fact-checkers took it further.

“Bombs won’t stop hurricanes,” PolitiFact wrote in a piece that explained the history and science of the idea. The Washington Post also contextualized the story. National Geographic did a step-back piece on how scientists have looked to stop hurricanes, as did Vox and Wired.

CNN asked a scientist about it. He wrote that he was less interested in debunking the idea than in explaining why it keeps coming up. BBC and other networks went to the U.S. government agency that studies the atmosphere.

What we liked: The range of angles this story generated was impressive. If the nuke-hurricanes idea isn’t dead by now, it never will be.

  1. The Arab Weekly reported that a Tunisian news outlet is the first from the country to join the IFCN. That was news to us! Baybars Orsek, IFCN’s director, and his predecessor, Alexios Mantzarlis, both raised questions about the report and denied the news onTwitter.

  2. The New York Times ran a lengthy profile of The Western Journal, a website with a long track record of publishing misinformation on social media.

  3. PolitiFact turned 12 years old last week. And editor Angiel Holanpointed out what she considers its biggest strength.

  4. The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon has been unable or unwilling to police thousands of mislabeled products on its site.

  5. The feud between Snopes and Christian satire site The Babylon Bee continues, this time with an editorial from the Bee’s editor in chief in the Wall Street Journal.

  6. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani promoted a long-discreditedconspiracy theory about Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was murdered in July 2016.

  7. The use of social media by the Chinese government has drawn heightened scrutiny. Now The New York Times reports that LinkedIn is a prime hunting ground for foreign agents trying to recruit assets.

  8. Also in the Times, Carolyn Kylstra explained in an op-ed how the news media’s reporting on celebrities’ opinions on vaccines could amplify false medical information.

  9. Students at Budapest’s Central European University (whom Daniel taught earlier this year) have published several projects related to fact-checking and misinformation, both in Hungary and around the world. Check them out.

  10.  Did you see this year’s IFCN’s fellows?

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org.

DanielSusan and Cristina