How Do You Detect B.S. On Social Networks?

BOSTON — The Times Square subway station suffered from severe flooding during Hurricane Irene. Steve Jobs died. The London Eye is on fire.

What does all this have in common? They’re all pieces of false information that were spread over Twitter. With lots of real news spreading like wildfire over social media, it is inevitable that false news spreads over Twitter too, and it does.

The Huffington Post‘s Mandy Jenkins and Regret the Error‘s Craig Silverman held a session at the Online News Association Conference here on Friday afternoon with the goal of preventing the participants from falling into a trap. (Slides from the presentation are available here.)

One of Jenkins and Silverman’s biggest pieces of advice—mentioned multiple times during their presentation—seemed old-fashioned for two highly-respected online journalists: When in doubt, pick up the phone and call a source to verify a piece of information you see.

They also encouraged folks to do some research about people who are posting breaking news to Twitter. Is their account brand new? Do they not have a profile picture? Are they just following a bunch of spam bots? All of the above are suspicious signs.

To verify images, they encouraged looking at EXIF and geolocation data that is embedded within many images. When and where was a picture taken? That data, if available, can answer those questions.

Silverman shared one of my favorite tips that I have used for some time. Domain name verification (to answer the question of whether or not you’re looking at a sketchy website) can often be easily accomplished by running a WHOIS search. Ownership and contact information for domains can be found via WHOIS, provided the domain is not privately registered.

Jenkins and Silverman discussed corroborating information that is found on Twitter. An important question to ask, they said, is if other social media accounts are reporting similar information. (In the case of the Steve Jobs death tweet, no one else did report it.) They also encouraged crowdsourcing to find answers.

Storyful, a startup that provides social media verification and curation services, got a shout-out from Anthony DeRosa, Reuters’ social media editor, who was in the audience.

“Storyful is a great service to use,” he said. “I ask them questions if I’m suspicious about something I see.”

At the end of the day, Jenkins and Silverman encouraged everyone to ask themselves a simple question when faced with a situation in which authenticity of something found via social networks needed to be verified.

“Is it worth the risk if it is wrong?”