Twitter and Reddit as crowdsourced fact-checking engines

Social networks like Twitter and web communities like Reddit often get criticized for being the source of nefarious rumors and false news reports, including the deaths of innumerable celebrities who are very much alive. But just as fakes and hoaxes can spread more widely and efficiently through the web than they can in print or other forms of media, they can be debunked more quickly as well. The story of how Reddit members fact-checked some fake Wikipedia entries is a great example of this in action, and journalism professor Alfred Hermida also points out in an interview with the Poynter Institute that Twitter and other social tools have crucial roles to play in the future of digital journalism.

As Yoni Appelbaum describes in a post at The Atlantic, the fake Wikipedia entries were deliberately created by students at George Mason University as part of a class taught by T. Mims Kelly — whose exercises in fakery of various kinds are presumably supposed to show how easy it is to fool a gullible public. The students came up with several fake historical events, including the alleged reign of terror sparked by a serial killer, and created websites, YouTube videos and other sources they they linked to from their fake Wikipedia entries in order to give them the veneer of authenticity.

Reddit spotted the fake in less than half an hour

The last time Kelly’s class tried a similar hoax, in 2008, it apparently went off without a hitch — and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was apparently not too impressed. This time, however, one of the hoaxers posted it on Reddit. Within half an hour, a keen-eyed user had already questioned the veracity of the entry — and others quickly joined in, pointing out a number of strange coincidences and irregularities that raised doubts about the information. As Appelbaum describes it:

The Wikipedia articles had been posted and edited by a small group of new users. Finding documents in an old steamer trunk sounded too convenient. And why had Lisa been savvy enough to ask Reddit, but not enough to Google the names and find the Wikipedia entries on her own? The hoax took months to plan but just minutes to fail.

As The Atlantic piece notes, one of the strengths of a community like Reddit is that it can come together extremely quickly around a single purpose, something that periodically erupts into public view in “flash mob”-style events — like the recent campaign that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for 9-year-old Caine Monroy, whose cardboard arcade captivated millions of YouTube viewers. In the case of the Wikipedia entries, that community power was focused on fact-checking — something that communities like Hacker News also do extremely well.

In a recent research paper entitled “Tweet and Truth,” University of British Columbia journalism professor Alfred Hermida wrote about how Twitter can be used in a similar way to fact-check news in something approaching real time. Anyone who followed National Public Radio editor Andy Carvin’s Twitter stream during the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere had a ringside seat for this sort of crowdsourced journalism, as Carvin fact-checked YouTube videos and photos and news reports flowing out of the Middle East, using his sources and followers as an army of editors.

More people fact-checking means fewer mistakes

As Hermida puts it in an interview with Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute, verification of media reports and events used to take place inside newsrooms, far away from the prying eyes of the public — but that kind of process is inherently flawed. As open-source advocates say about programming, the more eyes there are looking at the code, the less chance of bugs. The principle is the same for real-time journalism: that if it occurs out in the open, there is more likelihood that the truth will emerge. Says Hermida:

Real-time, networked technologies can unbundle the verification process. Contradictory reports and rumours can be contested or confirmed in public in exchanges that involve not just editors and journalists, but also members of public.

This is what journalism theorists like Jeff Jarvis mean when they talk about news as a process, rather than as a finished artifact that is delivered to a waiting audience. It may not be pretty — crowdsourced journalism often calls to mind the aphorism about how “He who enjoys the law or sausages should not watch either one being made” — but in the end it tends to produce facts more quickly. It’s true that hoaxes such as Abraham Lincoln inventing Facebook can spread, just as Twitter can become obsessed with something like the Kony2012 video, but what’s remarkable about such events is not that they spread, but how quickly they are debunked or fact-checked.

As Hermida suggests in his interview with Poynter, tools like Twitter can be powerful resources for journalists of all kinds, not just for providing early warnings of news events, but for helping to generate verified reporting about those events as well. In that sense, a Twitter stream or a community like Reddit can act like a crowdsourced version of the BBC’s “user-generated content” desk, which fact-checks and verifies reports that come in through social media. All it takes is for journalists to overcome their reluctance about performing such tasks in public.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Future Atlas and Petteri Sulonen

Join the discussion about the ever-changing media landscape at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads on May 23 in New York City.