how can we combat the spread of misinformation online?

In looking at a platform like Twitter, one which has experienced remarkable growth in user engagement over the past year, the impact of social media on journalism and news media practices is abundantly clear. Twitter is structured in a way that facilitates citizen journalism and crowd-sourced reporting. Features like hashtags, embedding links/images, live streams, and retweets all encourage the public sharing of information about current events. Twitter also recently doubled their character limit to 280 allowing for longer ‘headlines’ and tweets, which no doubt has amplified its potential as a digital news space. The Twitter format enables fast publication or consumption of information to its users on a global scale, however this effectiveness is a double-edged sword; Twitter is vulnerable to the spread and propagation of false material by trolls and bot accounts. Alarmingly, fake news on Twitter has been found to reach 1500 users six times faster than truthful content.

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Recently, on April 3rd of 2018, there was a shooting at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California. The identity of the shooter was Nasim Najafi Aghdam, a 39 year old woman who created many YouTube videos about veganism and Persian culture. She was motivated to open fire on the company headquarters because of her dissatisfaction with new video policies. The event was central to a frenzy of misinformation and fake reporting on Twitter regarding the identity and motivations of the shooter. Various hoaxes emerged soon after the story broke; images of a woman wearing a headscarf were falsely used to speculate a jihad attack, and several YouTubers and other celebrity personalities were also accused. In one instance, a YouTube employee’s account was hacked by trolls as the shooting was still taking place and used to post deceptive information. Buzzfeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko used her presence on Twitter to crowd-source examples of misinformation about the shooting and collate them into one thread as these hoaxes were gaining traction across the internet.

This action taken by Jane was an effective step in combating the overwhelming amount of misinformation being circulated at the time. The MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics outlines the importance of honesty and accuracy in news reporting, and that all news published by journalists must be attributed to its source. However, in the digital age of retweeting and rapid circulation these ethical guidelines should be closely adhered to by not only journalists, but general users too. It is essential that both journalists and consumers are able to identify deception, fakery, and false news sources on platforms like Twitter to avoid the propagation of misinformation on the internet.

Identifying trolls and false tweets

  • Always check the Twitter account of the source tweet; Is the account newly made with very few tweets? What kind of content can be found in their previous tweets? Keep an eye out for throwaway or troll accounts with little credibility.
  • Cross-check facts through other platforms; Use other sources to check and confirm facts, such as news websites, television, radio, or online fact-checking services including ABC News Fact Check or Snopes.
  • Analyse tweets from trusted or certified sources that seem sensational or suspicious; Is their language consistent with previous tweets? Does the content of the tweet seem uncharacteristic? Hacked accounts can be the most deceptive podium for misinformation.

Avoiding the propagation of misinformation as a journalist

  • Approach a balance between being first to break the story while remaining accurate in reporting; cross check all facts and sources before publishing, and do not cut corners for the sake of fast reporting.
  • Publicly acknowledge and correct any errors as soon as they are identified; do not attempt to cover up your mistakes, and instead make consumers aware of any inaccurate reporting.
  • Aim to inform others of any fake news sources or falsified information.