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Nov 1 / King Kaufman

Hurricane Sandy’s lessons on verifying online images, info

As breaking news stories often do, the superstorm Sandy offered a laboratory about the importance of verifying the accuracy of online reports before passing them along.

That’s an important issue for Bleacher Reporters, as one of the main things we do is react to and analyze breaking news in the sports world. We have to be experts at verifying that what we’re seeing online and via social media is accurate.

As phony images of Sandy went viral over the weekend, the Tumblr site Is Twitter Wrong? went right along with it, thanks to a post headlined Is that really a picture of Hurricane Sandy descending on New York?

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman grew curious about the work Is Twitter Wrong? does and interviewed Tom Phillips, who runs the blog, which he calls “a public service pedantry hub.”

Via email, Phillips talked—with his native British spelling—about his methods, and responded to Sonderman’s question about whether, given all the debunking that Phillips finds necessary, he thinks Twitter is “a net positive in spreading true information efficiently”:

I think it is a net positive, although only just … Plenty of the rumours explode rapidly, threaten to get out of control, but are eventually tamped down thanks to a combination of both journalists and the general public going through the motions of being sceptical, asking for facts, and making sure good information is shared widely enough to drown out the bad …

We’ve got all these platforms built for rapid spreading of information, but we don’t really have any architectures of verification.

So it needs social structures to make up for that lack; standard ways of interacting that help us get to the truth, and a degree of social censure that provides a disincentive to spread misinformation.

Little functional ways of pushing ourselves in that direction can be newsrooms building this kind of verification into their workflows, journalists collaborating with each other across organisations outside of their newsroom structures, journos and non-journos working together, or the public simply getting on and doing it themselves regardless of what the hacks are up to.

Breaking news and viral stories, by definition, happen when you least expect them, so it’s never a bad time to review Bleacher Report’s advice and requirements about verifying and attributing any information—or images—you pass along.

Thanks to Phillips, I’m now hip to a tool I feel like an idiot for not having known about before: Google’s reverse image search.