Misinformation can spread like a disease on social media. Journalists and news organizations have taken the bait, reporting inaccurate information gathered from social media. We’ve seen this in cases such as the Boston Marathon bombings and Hurricane Sandy, among many other examples.
“What’s the Real Deal?” is an exercise that teaches students to be critical of information on social media platforms. Students learn how to analyze the credibility of user-generated content, social media sources, and news tips from social media. They also become aware of a major challenge facing journalists — balancing the pressure to publish quickly while upholding traditional news values.
Journalists’ use of social media as a tool for newsgathering, dissemination, and connecting with audiences is the new norm. Students and working journalists can get caught up in the excitement of social media’s speed. However, it’s important for budding journalists to understand the strengths and limitations of social media information. In the sea of all the “noise,” traditional journalistic skills, such as verification and accuracy, are more important now than ever. This exercise teaches students to value these skills while harnessing the potential of social media for journalism.
WHEN COBRAS TWEET, HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE?
Shortly after a cobra went missing from the Bronx Zoo in 2011, the Twitter account @BronxZoosCobra surfaced, claiming to be an official Twitter account of the zoo. News outlets reported information from the account, as if it were “real.” Because of the comical nature of the tweets — along with a statement from the zoo, denying any connection with the tweets — it didn’t take long to realize the account was a spoof. That prompted me to raise this question to students: “When cobras tweet, how do you know what to believe?”
I used this case to draw my journalism students’ attention to the pitfalls of taking social media information at face value. The “What’s The Real Deal?” group exercise developed from that discussion with students, and it has been used in my Mobile and Social Media Journalism and Visual Journalism courses. The exercise is also part of a media literacy lesson plan in my interdisciplinary social media and society course.
HOW THE EXERCISE WORKS
This activity takes approximately 40 minutes and works best when the instructor has already covered the topic of journalists’ use of social media for sourcing and to find story ideas.
- I select real and fake photos and information that circulated on social media before being reported by news outlets. I use national/international scenarios (a shark swimming along a flooded street) and at least one from my local media market (for example, a photo of Paul McCartney at a trucking company in the Syracuse area. Yes, it actually was real). View sample scenarios here.
- Students are divided into groups. Each group is assigned one scenario, which includes a photo with background information.
- I have group members discuss how they would determine accuracy of the information in the assigned scenario. After 10 minutes, the groups report back to the class, explaining the steps they would take.
- Students put the tips they brainstormed into practice. The groups go online to find out the “real deal.” Is the social media information credible and accurate? If the social media information in the scenario is a hoax, which news outlets reported the misinformation? In addition, students research whether the news outlets issued a correction. After 10 to 15 minutes, the groups report back to class.
- Collectively students synthesize their group lists into one master list of 6 to 10 tips for verifying social media information.
MY VERIFICATION TIPS
I also share my recommendations for analyzing the credibility of information on social media. In addition to my own tips, I have students read Steve Buttry’s checklist and portions of The Verification Handbook.
- If it looks/sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be skeptical.
- Go old school! Contact the source of the post to ask questions, preferably via phone. If the information was retweeted or shared on social media via another person, track down the original source — the person who initially posted the information.
- A review of the original source’s social media history can reveal whether the person typically tweets about the topic under scrutiny, the tone/type of previous posts, when the account was created, and the location they normally tweet about, among other items.
- If the source has GPS enabled for Twitter or Facebook, you can check the location of posts to see if it matches the location they are talking about.
- Seek social corroboration by asking tweeps, for example, in the respective location if they can verify the information. Are they seeing/experiencing the same thing?
- Seek official corroboration of the social media information by contacting traditional sources, such as a police agency.
- Use TinEye or Google Images to verify amazing images. After uploading a photo, the sites will search for similar images to help determine if a photo was altered.
LAUNCHING POINT FOR positive practices
This exercise serves as a launching point for a discussion of social media policies in newsrooms. I have students select a news outlet that has a social media policy publicly available, and they analyze the policy, paying close attention to whether it has guidelines for vetting social media content. And, yes, many are surprised to learn the lack of such guidelines.
Policy has not caught up with practice, as one of my recent research projects confirmed. In a survey of local TV news directors, a third of respondents indicated their stations have reported information from social media that was later found to be false or inaccurate. One of the more striking findings of this study is, of those newsrooms that have social media policies, nearly 40 percent said the policy does not include procedures for verifying social media content before it is included in a newscast.
Anthony Adornato, a former broadcast journalist, is an assistant professor of journalism at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications. Adornato specializes in teaching and researching mobile and social media journalism. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyadornato.