Meet the man behind "Is Twitter Wrong?" who helped debunk fake pictures during Hurricane Sandy
Yesterday was a big day for citizen journalism. At one point during the storm users were posting 10 pictures to Instagram every second, and check out this dizzying website that displays in real-time every photo uploaded to Twitter with the tag #Sandy. But it was also a day for citizen and professional trickery. Fake photos and news spread across Twitter and, in the case of the fake news item about the New York Stock Exchange flooding, infiltrated the mainstream media. Perhaps a spot about traders making money off of underwater mortgages, then literally going underwater themselves, was too good to pass up. Some were easy to spot, like this shot of the Statue of Liberty lifted from the film "The Day After Tomorrow." Others were harder. This picture of a flooded McDonald's, for instance, which was, in fact, a photo of an art installation.
That's where journalists like Tom Phillips come in. Phillips, international editor at MSN, started the Tumblr "Is Twitter Wrong?" in August because he felt social media needed its own real-time version of the mythbusting site Snopes.
"When you're trying to correct things through Twitter alone, it's a losing battle from the beginning," Tom Phillips said. "You end up chasing Tweets that spread faster than you can keep up; it's like putting toothpaste back in the tube, except the toothpaste is alive and didn't like it in the tube and is dreaming of Broadway."
So how does he tell if a photo's fake? Duh, it's often as easy as doing a quick Google search, at least until Instagrams started coming in too fast to keep up with. Most took Phillips, who doesn't claim any special aptitude for this, less than a minute to debunk. There are also a number of free tools available that can reveal hidden data about a picture, like when it was taken or whether it had been edited in Photoshop. And when all else fails, there's always old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism, like when Brooklyn resident Vinny Piccolo, urged on by the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal and Mashable's Stephanie Haberman, braved the storm to snap a picture that independently verified what another less verifiable photo had already showed that the N subway line had pretty much become a river.
So if debunking a photo is as easy as a minute-long Google search or, at worst, an hour or so of journalistic enterprise, why is it so hard to stop fake photos from spreading? A big problem is less technological and more organizational. While fact-checking has always been a part of a newsroom's workflow, few organizations have a system in place for vetting social media content, and many journalists lamented the results yesterday. Freelancer Andrew Katz Tweeted, "Half of Twitter is debunking #sandy photos posted by the other half. Second half should vet images so everyone can focus on news." Buried in a Twitter conversation that included journalists from the New York Times, Mashable, and the Huffington Post, Haberman threw up her hands and Tweeted, "Wish there was a good way to verify these things."
That feeds into another reason Phillips started "Is Twitter Wrong?" which he calls "a bit of a journalistic experiment." While he checks facts on the job, he wanted to see if checking photos and facts in real-time over social media could be done in a way that would work as part of a newsroom's workflow, or whether "it's the sort of thing that would end up eating your whole day to little benefit."
With Sandy blowing in from the south, journalists designed their own workflows, independent from their newsroom or brand. Reporters from sometimes competing organizations worked with one another to verify the accuracy of photos and videos in real-time: Phillips worked with Alexis Madrigal on the Atlantic's epically helpful "InstaSnopes" post. Madrigal and Mashable's Stephanie Haberman collaborated to verify that the N line was flooded. Journalists from the Huffington Post and the New York Times also crossed the aisle in the interest of vetting social media content. Meanwhile, Phillips was back at it this morning, helping out the Atlantic's Megan Garber and Chris Heller with the InstaSnopes post while Madrigal was off at a conference.
There's a lesson in yesterday's social media vetting bonanza: Journalism innovation isn't simply about technology — who's got the flashiest iPad app and the most responsive Web design. Journalism workflows also require reinventing, and projects like InstaSnopes and "Is Twitter Wrong?" are a glimpse into social news and the need for constant monitoring and fact-checking. Staunching the tide of information becomes almost as important as opening its floodgates, and separating fact from fiction becomes the ultimate curation.
But "Is Twitter Wrong?" fits into another common narrative of "new journalism." Often those reinventing journalism come from outside traditional journalism circles.
"I've never formally trained as a journalist, and there's a slight suspicion that I've been making it up as a I go along," Phillips says. "I guess that's why I feel at home in online journalism; to an extent, everybody's making it up as they go along."