Emergency information response is a public service we can coordinate through real-time verification

It didn’t take long for a variety of debunking efforts to help combat misinformation and fake images related to Hurricane Sandy.

The Atlantic launched InstaSnopes, the “Is Twitter Wrong?” Tumblr spread quickly, BuzzFeed collected fake images and produced a related quiz, and Storyful did its usual #dailydebunk of fake content. Others stepped in to help with verification efforts.

Articles at The Week, the “Today” show, ABC News and numerous other media outlets debunked fakes and helped spread the word. But it wasn’t only journalists that tried to stop the flow of false information:

Con Edison’s Twitter account even responded directly to a Twitter user that BuzzFeed called out as being a source of misinformation:

As a result, Mathew Ingram and John Herrman emphasized the efficient way that Twitter can knock down misinformation. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman also looked at the self-correcting nature of Twitter.

“Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace,” Herrman wrote. “To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: That we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

Yes, Twitter is used to spread misinformation, and it’s also a powerful fact checking network. Any tool or network that can spread information will spread both good and bad information. This is because humans offer an abundance of both, especially during fast-moving breaking news events.

The question, then, is how can we make Twitter and other networks more efficient at debunking lies and spreading facts?

I believe part of the answer is for news organizations, journalists, government agencies and other entities to coordinate and cooperate on big breaking stories, especially during crisis situations and natural disasters.

Collaboration and coordination

Federal agencies coordinate with state and local officials during events such as Hurricane Sandy. At the same time, we saw New York papers knock down paywalls as a public service so anyone and everyone could freely follow the storm’s progress and effects.

This same spirit of cooperation and public service should extend to the coverage of these extraordinary events.

The idea is to bring news organizations and other key players together during disasters and big breaking stories to coordinate the creation and sharing of debunking, and the spread of quality information.

This happened in small doses on Monday. Here’s Stephanie Haberman of Mashable pitching in to help Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic verify an image:

Tom Phillips and “Is Twitter Wrong?” also partnered with Madrigal.

Here are folks from The Huffington Post, The New York Times and Mashable, among others, interacting to verify another image:

Collaboration and coordination are key during an event like Sandy. We need to formalize this process.

What would that look like?

I previously wrote up a Knight News Challenge proposal for a similar service called TruthTrend. (It was submitted privately, and was therefore not made public.) A central goal of it was to “alert journalists and the public to emerging hoaxes, misinformation and other forms of false information that are making their way into the press and onto social networks.”

A few months ago, I updated the proposal after talking with Felim McMahon of Storyful about their debunking work, and how it might be used to help inform the public and other journalists.

I renamed the project WarningWire and focused less on using technology to identify trending misinformation and more on creating a network of news organizations, journalists and other parties to establish a human debunking network.

I hope a group of organizations, including Poynter, can work together to secure a grant and test whether a centralized, non-profit organization could act as a (mis)information clearinghouse during breaking news and other big events, as well as a source of best practices for knocking down misinformation. (A non-profit seems to fit with the goal of it being a public service.)

At the core of the concept is a recognition that many news organizations will still want to do their own debunking work. But now they can avoid the duplication of tasks by focusing on information that hasn’t yet been investigated, and hopefully see their work spread farther and faster thanks to a coordinated effort.

WarningWire would aggregate debunkings on its site with clear credit and links out, and work hard to help push out links on Twitter and elsewhere. It would help coordinate debunking efforts, and encourage outlets to promote their work and the related work of others. That’s the public service.

A clearinghouse and air traffic controller

The idea is that news organizations — especially those not engaged in debunking — will now know where to check an image or stat before they report or retweet it. Government and aid agencies would have a central point of contact to help spread correct information and share their debunkings. And everyone can work together to combat the flow of misinformation.

There will, of course, be outlets who choose to only trust the information that’s been processed by their people. It’s a great instinct. But the vast majority of outlets do not do this work. What they need is a place to find some of the best debunkings, especially during a breaking news event.

Outside of breaking events, the small team at WarningWire would track misinformation, suspicious images and video, and aggregate them so as to provide something of an assignment desk for any news organizations checking content. They would also provide guidance as to the best ways to sort misinformation from accurate information.

An obvious challenge: getting news organizations that compete every day for information and stories to work together. One way to get past this is for WarningWire to become a driver of traffic to organizations that do the debunking. The aggregation model of Mediagazer is an example of how the site could showcase content while still driving traffic to participating outlets.

In this sense, WarningWire is a clearinghouse and air traffic controller not a source of all or even most of the debunking. It’s a platform for people to share what they’ve done, see who’s debunked what, and have access to important information for dissemination during breaking news events.

People coordinating WarningWire would work in the service of everyone, rather than any single organization or partner. That may suggest the need for a cooperative ownership or oversight structure.

If it proves popular enough to attract ads and/or sponsors, then there would need to be a revenue sharing model after costs are covered. Ultimately, it will need to be self-sustaining so a revenue model built on traffic, sponsorship, and/or a membership structure is eventually essential.

We will never rid public networks of fakery and misinformation. But by banding together to share resources and coordinate efforts, the press and other entities can be more effective at spreading the truth.

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  • http://www.sltrib.com/ Scott Sherman

    It’s a good idea. I’ve been part of a media panel that talked to a room full of disaster coordinators from various state and federal agencies in Utah. They meet to discuss disaster prep plans, who handles what, where information will be centralized, etc. But of course they do it well in advance. This post touches on some of the problems, such as competition among orgs and when does that get put aside, or what’s the benefit of an org contributing (although ideally I think we all want correct information out there).

    One big problem for media orgs is that those most knowledgeable about what might be misinformation on a given event are also the ones often least able to address inaccuracies because they’re in the thick of the event. New York has far more media than we would in Utah, so Sandy probably isn’t a good model, though it shows the possibilities.

    To really make this happen, you almost need to get buy-in and cooperation from at least one major media outlet in each state or major metro area before disaster strikes, then lay out how the system works when the real thing happens. Those government people I mentioned do mock drills fairly often, which is why they’re able to coordinate as well as they do in a real event. They enter the event with the expectation of collaboration, whereas we very rarely do that. In fact they asked the reps from the local TV/Radio/Print outlets whether just calling one of us with information would be fine and we would let each other know. Naturally, everyone said, “Just call me first and I’ll make sure the info gets out.”