Since traditional news sources become less popular, social media are becoming a source of information selected by the users themselves. It is not just about following other people or businesses they like - not to mention their own updates with useless pictures and statuses - but also about following news they like, when they want to see it, about topics they picked, and, not least important, from sources they ‘trust’. Although this paradigm shift from traditional newspapers to online sources has these advantages for users, the connected ‘dangerous’ sides should not be forgotten. Moreover, should we believe everything on Twitter, Justin Bieber died five times already…


The vicious circle

It is very important for journalists to gather and verify interesting information in order to bring accurate news on time. And, of course, we cannot disagree. News would cease to be news if it’s already in circulation. This causes, however, a vicious circle: since official news reporters experience the need to inform their public, they need to collaborate with people on the ground who are first to see and document new information. Therefore, Twitter is increasingly being used by journalists.


Social media contains a wealth of information and value for journalists and has already proven to have a large impact on news reporting. Whether it’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai or a plane crash landing on the Hudson River, the use of  social media in news reporting is no longer uncommon.” - Diakopolous, De Choudhury and Naaman


Ebola hoax responsible for human casualties

But, as every journalist should know, social media spread rumors too. For those - which actually should be every single journalist - who have followed the news recently, probably heard about the Ebola virus. We all know that doctors, and a lot of other people with their own expertise in this field, are still busy with a treatment for Ebola. Instead, according to ‘a lot of tweets’, people should use salt as a cure for Ebola. 


This original message begun as a text message sent by a female student in Nigeria and was apparently intended as a joke. However, it did not take long before this rumor was spread by Twitter. Due to this hoax, two Nigerian people died and 20 people were hospitalized by drinking and bathing in salt water.


Twitter as a news source

According to Hermida - who examined how social media are influencing the core journalistic value of verification - news these days consists of unstructured data which is coming in fragments of raw unprocessed journalism from both professionals and the public. This causes contradictory news, rumors, speculation, confirmation and verification via social interaction on Twitter. Since it is often unclear what the truth exactly is, journalists ought to deal differently with this information - especially for breaking news events where non-professionals may already be on the scene to share a photo or video. Moreover, Mendozam, Poblete and Castillo - who examined the behavior of Twitter users under an emergency situation - state that it is possible to detect rumors by analyzing tweets. Confirmed truths are for 95.5% (approximately) affirmed by tweets regarding the subject. Only 0.3% of confirmed truths were denied. Additionally, when the information correspondents to a false rumor, 30% consists of affirms and 50% of denied tweets. False rumors also tend to be questioned much more than confirmed truths, which is, therefore, a good predictor for rumors on Twitter.


‘If telling the truth is our goal, verification must be our standard’- Steve Buttry

The question still is, how are you going to verify tweets in order to avoid spreading misinformation? The verification handbook describes some strategies, which are easily summed up here, so every journalist can use this valuable information:

      Provenance: Is this the original content? It might be that the content is shared from another source or there are similar posts online. You can use several tools, e.g. GeoSocial Footprint.Try to identify what the original source is.

      Source: Who uploaded the content? If you find the original source, it is important to know who uploaded this. First, check the history of other uploaded content and who the friends and followers are. Try to identify the uploader in other social media, such as LinkedIn, to find more background information. If it is possible: contact him by e.g. phone calls, e-mails or whatever, to confirm your found information. Ask critical questions, such as “How do you know that?” In order to save you time, here are some useful tools to verify the identity: Muck Rack, Person Finder, Spokeo and WebMii.

       Date: When was the content created? It is especially important when you are dealing with photos or videos. Therefore, some practical tips: check the weather information on the day and location where the event happened - it should be the same. Search also for other news sources which may be report the same event. Try to identify if there are elements involved which indicate date or time, e.g. clocks or television screens. Some practical tools to identify images: Google Search by Image, Jeffrey’s evix viewer and JPEG snoop.

       Location: Where was the content created? Does it include automated geolocation information? Try to identify reference points to compare with geolocated photographs, such as lettering on buildings, billboards, landscapes, buildings, weather conditions or license plates on vehicles. Some useful tools: NASA Earth Observation, Panoramio and Google Maps.

      Do not forget that verification is not just about whether information is simply verified or not. It’s a process. Everytime you need to confirm information it can be different. Therefore, ask yourself every time “do I know enough to verify?”. Be sure you fully understand the topic. Watch out for cultural or religious complexities.

       Most important: only publish information you can confirm.


Our job is not to parrot sources and the material they provide, but to challenge them, triangulate what they provide with other credible sources and verify what is true, weeding from our work (before we publish, map or broadcast) what is false or not adequately verified.” - Steve Buttry




Are you a professional journalist?

In order to guarantee the quality of information obtained and disseminated by professional journalists, the profession should be certified. But in order to raise the professional standard through certification one has first to invest in better education for aspiring journalists. Through technological developments the job of a journalist is way more multifaceted than in the old days of one-way mass communication. A development as the Internet makes the world more interactive than it ever was. Partaking of amateurs using mobile devices and other technologies in registering events puts high pressure on the need for scoops for news media and the accuracy thereof. Also because of the participation of amateurs the competition between news media is murderous in a globalizing capitalist world of 24/7 economies. The technological developments alone require a broad skillset of the professional journalist to assess, verify and process information as fast as possible. Investing in education to improve, for example, data-processing is key in the process of the professionalization of the branch in order to prevent becoming irrelevant should the profession not have any checks and balances to warrant the information disseminated. Should the profession be certified journalists can distinguish themselves from amateurs. This in turn leads to less misinformation by taking into account the use of the right methodology in processing information. Following this path means rumors on Twitter, as presented in the case of the use of saltwater to combat ebola, would be easier to intercept.