In May, eight students and two teachers were killed after a gunman opened fire in a high school in southern Texas, just the latest mass shooting involving children to plague our country.
But as reporters, producers, and editors at media companies across the country were scrambling to keep their readers updated with the latest developments (mass shootings, especially at schools, have sadly become local and national stories), crackpots, partisan hacks and fake news purveyors were also hard at work spewing misinformation into the media ecosphere. Sadly, many newsrooms remain unprepared to combat these brazen attacks on the truth, according to a report late last year released by the American Press Institute (API).
According to Daniel Funke, who covers fact-checking and fake news for Poynter Institute, the most vulnerable time for a newsroom is during breaking news events, such as foreign attacks, transportation accidents and weather incidents. But by far, fake news trolls typically gravitate the most toward shootings, a trend Funke said can largely be attributed to the partisan opinions about gun control in our society.
“Reporters don’t really know the details until officials tell them, which fosters an information ecosystem of uncertainty where people like to speculate,” Funke said. “This environment makes it really easy and profitable for hoaxers and fake news writers to push false narratives. This happens literally after every shooting.”
Take what happened during the aftermath of the Santa Fe, Texas shooting. As reporters waited for confirmation about the identity of the shooter, there were several fake Facebook profiles created under the name of the suspect almost immediately, including one false profile that featured a cover photo of the campaign of President Trump.
Another issue that arose during the aftermath were claims that the survivors were in fact “crisis actors” whose involvement was faked by liberals hoping to press for tighter controls on guns. It’s something Funke said “literally happens” after just about every mass shooting, and this time around, one video even made it to the top of YouTube’s “Trending” list.
Sometimes, the fake news can be repetitive. After many shootings (including the one in Santa Fe), websites like 4chan pushed out a fake photo and identity of the shooter as comedian Sam Hyde. Even CNN fell prey to the hoax after a November 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez identified the gunman on national television as Hyde.
“Sometimes it can be politicians and public officials themselves that unintentionally spread rumors and fake news,” Funke said.
In other instances, fake news is more difficult to spot, making it much more problematic for both reporters and readers.
Following the Valentine’s Day massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris was targeted by trolls with doctored tweets making it appear as though Harris had asked a victim for photos or videos of dead bodies and asked if the shooter was white.
Regardless of Harris’ repudiation of the tweets, they quickly went viral, flooding his inbox and making it much more difficult for Harris to actually do his job of reaching out to victims online in order to tell their story. Making matters worse was Twitter’s refusal to take down the tweets because they didn’t violate the company policy on impersonation.
“This was a really convincing fake. I probably would have fallen for it myself. It was really well-Photoshopped,” Harris said on NPR’s Morning Edition following the incident. “I think people should be very wary of screenshots. If you can find a link to a live tweet, that’s what you should look for.”
So, how can newsrooms combat this growing trend of social media networks like Twitter and Facebook being flooded with fake news? According to Funke, it all starts with preparation.
Funke suggested at the very least, coming up with a breaking news checklist for reporters, producers, and editors who are tasked with covering a lengthy live news event. That way, the focus can be less about the technical aspects of obtaining news information, and instead focus on verifying the information that’s coming in to your computer.
“I would encourage social teams to spearhead this stuff in their newsroom,” Funke said, a point echoed by Jane Elizabeth, the author of the API report that found most newsrooms structured in a way to make them susceptible to fake news.
“There really is very little leadership and very little strategic thinking about what the social media team should be doing and how they can help with the problem of fake news, misinformation,” Elizabeth told Poynter. “Which makes no sense because these people are on the frontlines of misinformation every single day. They are seeing these things more than anyone and they weren’t empowered to do anything about it.”
Here are some additional quick and practical suggestions Funke has for newsrooms to help combat the increasingly-annoying problem of fake news:
- Get your TweetDeck in order. If you’re covering an event from afar, say a national shooting or an international incident, TweetDeck’s ability to look at multiple curated Twitter lists at once is an essential tool. One of the first things on your to-do list when covering an event is to create two new sets of lists—one populated by official sources, and one with legitimate news sources covering the same event.
- Install InVID and TinEye. Both programs are plug-ins designed to help easily debunk fake content that comes across social media. InVID is a useful tool when it comes to verifying the authenticity of videos, while TinEye is an easy-to-use tool that allows you to search online for older versions of an individual photo. But make sure you download, install and practice with both programs before turning to them in the middle of a breaking news situation.
- Sign up for either Signal or CrowdTangle. Both are owned by Facebook and both are free to use, but require you to request access through your newsroom. Signal essentially allows reporters to discover relevant content from across both Facebook and Instagram, while CrowdTangle tracks the performance of articles in your market across the most popular social media websites.
- Check the “joined on” date on suspicious Twitter accounts. “You can mostly determine whether a Twitter profile is authentic usually by the age of the profile,” Funke said, noting that fake Twitter accounts are generally on the new side and filled with random posts with no apparent rhyme or reason. “One thing we know about hoaxers is they’re lazy, and they like to maximize their reach while doing as little amount of work as they can.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.