A leading expert in verifying stories and photos shared on social media believes most people have some basic motivations for sharing fake images.
He also believes it’s possible for journalists to discover newsworthy eyewitness images and steer clear of hoaxes and old pictures from unrelated events.
Often people pass along jaw-dropping photos because they get caught up in the moment. Some of them don’t know how to tell what’s real and what’s not on social media. Sometimes people are joking, but the photos are shared with people who aren’t in on the joke.
And then there are people who use images as a form of rhetoric, sharing ones that validate their beliefs, said Steve Myers, a former Poynter Online editor who just completed a stint as professional-in-residence in Texas Christian University’s journalism department.
Myers routinely shares his work during Kiplinger Fellowship Week at Ohio State University.
“People see something that is too good to ignore and without spending the time to verify it, they do the natural thing, which is to comment and pass it along,” Myers told Kiplinger Fellows at a recent presentation. “Other times, even when the message or image seems out of place, it validates what they believe about a topic, so it seems perfectly fine to share.”
Myers showed an image of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant that was alleged to have been vandalized during riots in Baltimore. Some people posted the photo with racial slurs aimed at the looters. The image actually was from a looted restaurant in Karachi, Pakistan.
When a journalist told a Twitter user that the image she had shared wasn’t from Baltimore, she defended using it: “It’s not like it could have been portrayed worse than it was.” In other words, according to Myers, sometimes people don’t care if the image itself is truthful as long as it supports their beliefs.
To find newsworthy images and avoid fakes, Myers recommends:
- Work with social media skeptically, but don’t reject images just because they originate there rather than a traditional news source. Trace images back to when they first appeared and use time-worn journalistic practices to see if they check out.
- Rationally but firmly call out fake news and images — without sharing the images yourself. Photos continue to be passed around long after they’ve been debunked because people don’t know any better.
- If you anticipate a flood of first-person photos — during a snowstorm or a hurricane, for example — tell your readers and viewers to be wary of incredible ones. Encourage them to use reverse-image search tools before sharing them.
- Recognize that social media becomes more energized during major news events. When you’re in the middle of a hurricane or a mass shooting, treat information on social media as skeptically as you would if they came over the police scanner. Validate the truthfulness of images before publishing or sharing them.
- When in doubt, wait.
Quoting former CNN iReporter Lila King, Myers said validating images beforehand can save time on the back end of the reporting — and preserve one’s credibility — even if it means sacrificing being first on the front end.
“We’ve never had something that we vetted and put on air that we had to take back,” King told Myers. “In some ways I think we’re maybe a little more conservative than we need to be, but I think the conservatism works in our favor.” Others who work every day to seek out eyewitness accounts in breaking news situations told him similar things.
When it comes to breaking news, Myers said the first five minutes are critical.
“This is the speed by which social media races. This is the time you have as journalists,” he said.
In that time, he recommends journalists:
- Set up persistent searches for keywords, which you can combine in a single column on TweetDeck.
- Lock in and follow sources early. They will shut down quickly when reporters swarm.
- When you identify a promising source or keyword, go back as far in time as you can. The earliest posts are often the closest to the source or news event.
- Take screenshots of everything that seems important. People often delete posts after they get attention.
- Do a reverse image search. (Tineye, Reverse Google image search)
- Interview the image, using critical thinking. What does it seem to show? What’s missing? What did the photographer want to convey?
- Look for visual clues to confirm that the image comes from the place where the news is happening. Steer clear of Photoshop forensics unless you’re skilled with the software.
- Check the background of the person sharing the image and contact him or her to get additional information. One key question: Did the person who shared the image actually capture it? If not, who did? Does the person have other images from the same event? Were there other witnesses?
- Seek corroborating information, such as social media posts from others and news stories that cite sources.
- Weigh the evidence carefully and make a judgment call.
- Don’t be swayed if your competitors decide to publish an image; they may not have vetted it properly.
If you do decide to go with an image, tell people where it came from. Cite the user account, not simply “YouTube” or “Twitter.” By being upfront with your sourcing, you help others trace the image, which is especially important if it turns out to be fake.
Remember that images published on social media are not in the “public domain.” You should get permission from the copyright holder before publishing a photo. Find out who in your newsroom has the authority to make a decision if you can’t get permission.
When you do get something wrong — not if, Myers said, because it happens to everyone — correct it as soon as possible, wherever you published it. Consider using a socially friendly form of correction such as retweeting the image overlaid with something that shows it has been debunked, like the word “false” or “hoax” printed in red.