In this day and age the internet plays a very large role in our lives. Vacation pictures are going on Facebook and Instagram, our funny conversations with friends are Tweeted and Retweeted and songs we or our children sing are recorded and uploaded to YouTube. Most of us are glued to our phone and computer and rely on the internet for all sorts of things. Not just recreational and fun things, but we rely on the internet as a source of news and information as well. And that is exactly where it gets problematic.
Imagine that you are scrolling through your favourite news website to see if there is anything new happening in the world. You see a catchy headline, click on the story and start to read. The story sounds plausible and has a picture with proof that the described situation happened. So the story must be true, right? Why else would a news website give this story any attention? Well, think again. Of course a news website is dedicated to real news and real events and not fake stories, but even people who write for news website might get caught in this web of internet lies. Take for example, the story that has been circulating about a tourist who came back from a vacation in Bali and found out that there was a spider living in his body. This story has circulated on social media, but has also been posted on various news website all around the world. Websites like the Australian NT News, the Dutch Algemeen Dagblad, and the Irish Daily Mirror to name a few have published this story. It was later stated by various experts that spiders are not naturally inclined to show this kind of behavior and that, therefore, the story was fake.
Even journalists might find it difficult to verify certain stories. Unless you witnessed something in person, it is not easy to determine whether or not a certain situation has actually happened. So how do you know what event is real and what event is not? A sufficient, concrete answer to this question is not easily found. According to Claire Wardle there is not any technology that can verify a specific user-generated content (such as the Twitter picture of the man with the spider in his body) with a 100 percent certainty. However, there are a few guidelines that can help you predict whether a story might be true or not. Wardle describes the following steps that can help you determine how plausible a story is and that can help you as a journalist decide whether or not to publish a certain story. There are more verification methods that you can use, but this blog post will focus on the four main factors. If you are interested in other verification methods or more detailed descriptions, you can look at the Verification handbook.
Step 1 & 2: Look at the provenance and the source
When a certain story has been shared on social media and other websites multiple times, it becomes difficult to determine who the original source is. The first thing to do is to browse though all the links and go back to the first time the story has been published. When you find the website or the profile of the person who has brought the story into the world, there are a few things you need to pay attention to. Look at previous articles or status updates, the people in the friend list or the followers and the pictures and videos that have been shared. Do you notice anything striking about these things? Have they been talking about serious matters or more about fun and playful matters? Use your common sense here. If something already seems a bit off at this point, it probably is. However, if you want to be sure, there are a few tools you can use to verify the information you have gathered during your search. Reverse image search tools such as Google Images or TinEye can, for example, help you check whether a picture has been published online before. Another way to check a story is to simple get in touch with the original publisher and ask him or her questions about the content.
Step 3: Look at the date
When looking at pictures or videos it is not only important to see if the picture or video has been posted online before, but also if what date it is taken. The date can reveal if it could be taken during the event that is shown. You can also verify the date by checking the weather of that specific date. Let’s for example say that the picture you have found was taken on the 1th of November 2014 in the Netherlands. In the picture you found you can see that it was a very dark, rainy day, which sounds plausible if you think that November is indeed an autumn month. However, if you go to Google and you look at the weather that day, you can see that it was actually a pretty hot and sunny day. Thus, the picture you have found probably is not taken on that exact date.
Step 4: Look at the location
Besides the date, the location is also an important factor. You can verify the location by searching it on Google Street View. If there are key elements missing from the Google Street View picture that are shown in the picture itself, it probably is not a real, untouched picture.
To answer the question proposed in the title of this blog post, you probably can trust news websites most of the time since their main goal is indeed to provide you information about real events and not to share fake stories. However, the same lesson, namely ‘do not trust everything you see on the internet’, that applies to the internet in general also applies to news websites. You cannot trust everything that is reported on news websites either. Use your common sense when you look at news websites as a source of information. And when you are still in doubt, make use of the tools that are available to you to verify the information. The most important thing to remember is that when something sounds off, it probably is even when it is published on a website with the intention of sharing only real news.