When big news breaks, it’s usually followed by big hoaxes.
Take the recent school shooting in South Florida; following news that 17 people had died and scores injured, online fakery flooded social media. In Mexico, misinformation spread rapidly after a massive earthquake shook the capital, killing hundreds of people. When another terrorist attack struck London last year, more hoaxes ensued.
Given the nature of social media platforms, where emotions are charged and sharing is a measure of virality, this kind of internet fakery is common. But in situations where misinformation gets big enough — or likely to cost people’s lives — setting up last-minute verification or fact-checking projects is essential.
Here is a list of tips for those looking to set up last-minute projects and debunk rumors during a crisis.
1. Be sure to constantly question what it is you’re trying to learn. Are you trying to track down when or where something happened? Are you trying to figure out if you can use a specific piece of media? “When I see a lot of the mistakes happen is when people fail to ask that question,” Sam Dubberley, manager of the Digital Verification Corps at Amnesty International, told Poynter.
3. Split people into roles when a major incident breaks. Prioritize monitoring social media for hoaxes so as to stay ahead of the rumor mill.
4. Assign someone to each platform that’s likely to gain traction (Note: This depends largely on where the event took place, as different outlets vary in popularity and access from country to country). From Eoghan Sweeney, global training director at First Draft:
“These things go through peaks and troughs. You have to be aware of regions and localities — what do people tend to use? … You need to have some recognition of what platforms are likely to be the most promising.”
5. Approach every post with skepticism — analyze profiles’ ages, bios, links, following lists and prior posts to determine whether they’re authentic. Here’s a good tool for doing that.
6. While one team monitors social media platforms, try also having a team on the ground to verify third-person accounts. If you don’t have enough staff, consider soliciting volunteers in the place where news is breaking.
7. If you can’t get someone to the site where news is breaking, curate social media lists of official sources in the area. That way, you can stay up-to-date on official announcements.
8. Remember to be sensitive when requesting information from people on the ground. Following a shooting in Dallas in 2016, one eyewitness received more than 200 requests from reporters — and a hoax following the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, used that flawed strategy to target a Miami Herald reporter. Here’s a guide on how to work better with social media sources.
9. When sharing up-to-the-minute information, prioritize Twitter over Facebook. While the latter’s algorithm will continue to make urgent information look relevant for several days, the former is clearer about the date and time something was posted.
10. Consider setting up a call line for people affected by the event to ask questions and verify information. This could also give you leads on potential hoaxes.
11. Design and distribute fliers with quick tips for people using social media to get information about the event. Teaching news consumers to be cautious about sharing unverified information could prevent hoaxes from spreading. From Gisela Pérez de Acha, a journalist for Horizontal in Mexico City:
“It might seem like journalism 101, but it really helped us to put out these fliers … social media started regulating itself. Starting digital literacy campaigns is crucial.”
12. Include clear timestamps on all the information you put out so as to avoid confusion. What might be true one moment might completely change in a matter of minutes.
13. Consider setting up bots to amplify your fact checks during a crisis. Your work won’t always scale to the amount of misinformation being shared, and bots are relatively easy to set up. Here’s how to create one in less than 30 minutes.
14. If you’ve got some time, consider doing some advance preparation by catching up with recurring hoaxes (Here’s how). Especially in instances of mass shootings or terrorist attacks, the same rumors tend to spread right after the incident.
Have a tip that didn’t make the list? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.