September 20, 2017

First, it was Harvey. 

Then, it was Irma.

And now, with Hurricane Maria wreaking havoc on an already-battered Caribbean after nearly four weeks of storm coverage, fact-checkers across the United States are grappling with how to improve their debunking efforts during natural disasters — especially when it comes to that shark picture (you know which one).

“With natural disasters, it’s still a lot of the same stuff that fools people,” said Abby Ohlheiser, a reporter for The Washington Post. “I really want to say that people are getting better at detecting hoaxes, but then something like the shark comes along.”

Ohlheiser kept updated lists of hoaxes for both Harvey and Irma, which included everything from troll-created tweets about looting to a fake photo of the Miami airport that White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino Jr. shared. While she’s typically an internet culture reporter rather than a fact-checker, Ohlheiser said she learned a thing or two about how to compile useful and effective lists of misinformation for readers during breaking news events.

It wasn’t easy.

“A lot of people coming to it and reading it seemed to think of these posts as complete listings of everything that was incorrect,” she said. “People might read these posts and read what I’m trying to do in a way that slightly different from how I meant it. I was struggling with the best way to communicate that it was a work in progress.”

Getting timely and effective debunks to the millions of people who follow hurricane coverage is at the heart of fact-checkers’ challenge — one that mainstream reporters share (h/t to Nic Dias at First Draft News, who points out that several journalists shared false information during both Harvey and Irma). Claire Wardle, director of research and strategy at the verification outfit First Draft, told Poynter that Harvey seemed like the first major test of American fact-checkers during a natural disaster since the uptick of interest in fake news following the U.S. presidential election last fall. And in some ways, they failed.

“I think what we learned is that we’re just no better,” she said. “We’re so focused on Russian disinformation that when it comes to a natural disaster, we just replayed all the problems from Hurricane Sandy. To me, that’s just so frustrating.”

Whether by duplicating efforts (see BuzzFeed and The New York Times’ competing hoax lists) or debunking the same stories and images from past storms (see again the shark photo, or the fake #HarveyLootCrew), Wardle said Harvey and Irma showed that organizations trying to quash rumors — which, during Harvey and Irma, included everyone from local newsrooms to FEMA — are stretching themselves thin during natural disasters (FEMA had not responded to Poynter's request for comment as of publication). By repeating past fact checks and working in silos, debunkers are wasting time that could be spent checking additional misinformation or catering fact checks to audiences that need them most.

For future storms, Wardle said it will be important for media, nonprofit and government organizations to work together in order to effectively stop the flow of fake news online.

“There’s a case in point to say that sometimes in these situations the news industry isn’t the best place to get this information out,” she said. “I think we have to take a harder look at ourselves.”

During Irma, First Draft created a Slack channel for fact-checkers to collaborate and share what they were seeing and doing online. That was a good first step toward getting better at fact checks for future storms, but a little too late — by the time Irma made landfall, there was little discussion on the channel. Indeed, a key part of improving fact-checking for natural disasters is preparedness, Wardle said.

“We’re really good at reflecting on these things after the story, but we’re bad at preparing,” she said. “If 9/11 happened today, are we ready? I just don’t think we are at all — I just think we’re incredibly bad as an industry about this.”

And, from an industry perspective, Ohlheiser agreed.

“As an individual journalist trying to do these roundups and respond rapidly in situations like this, I feel like thinking more ahead of time about how to prevent these things can be very useful,” she said.

In that are two things: developing best practices for journalists before disaster strikes, and actively teaching news literacy to diverse audiences. Wardle said fact-checkers need a database of false images, videos and memes that they can use to debunk images quickly during breaking news events, and Ohlheiser said it’s important to plan how to respond when misinformation crops up on specific platforms in order to reach the people who need fact checks most. Tip sheets aimed at preventing people from sharing fake news can also be helpful leading up to emergency situations.

Another tip: build sources in places that are actually impacted by hurricanes. Ohlheiser said knowing someone from South Florida came in handy when debunking an image of a Miami inlet that was posted under the guise of floodwaters.

“Someone like me, who’s never been to Miami, might not immediately know that’s a river,” she said. “But someone who has lived there or does live there would know exactly what that is.”

One way to build sources in disaster-prone areas could be through local Facebook groups, which journalists covering Irma used to post storm-related content and take questions from readers. But fact-checkers should keep in mind that people in hurricane-affected cities often have little access to the internet, and when they do, they might not have the time, energy or battery power to read the news. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Skype have been cited as some of the only platforms that work well during storm conditions, and text alerts are frequently used by government officials to relay important information.

In short, improving the quality of fact checks during hurricanes has to start with catering to the audience, Wardle said.

“I think we’re really bad at connecting with community groups,” Wardle said. “I don’t think we’ve really thought through online communication channels during natural disasters and emergencies. How can we be better at putting out quality information and it reaching the people who need it?”

There’s a lot more to covering a hurricane than standing in the wind and rain. Poynter has compiled resources, tips and stories for journalists.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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