Note: This article is partly adapted from the author’s research report, “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.” Download it for free.
On Sept. 12, 2014, a rumor spread online that someone had stolen the Batmobile from a Detroit film set.
The claim originated with BleedingCool.com, a site that covers the comic book industry. It reported that, “The scuttlebutt from sources in Detroit is that one of the Batmobile models being used in the filming of Batman vs. Superman has gone missing, believed stolen.”
That single post, citing anonymous sources, was enough to set off a cascade of other articles on comics websites, as well as tweets about the missing Batmobile. Soon, the website of the Detroit CBS affiliate covered the story, giving it additional credibility:
“A website is reporting that the Batmobile, from the upcoming Batman v. Superman flick, has gone missing in Detroit … and is presumed stolen.
If this is true I could only imagine seeing it driving down 696 in rush hour. …
Does this person — if the rumor is true (we don’t know how credible the source is) — think that he or she can just go cruising around in this car no one will notice?”
Bleeding Cool’s “About” page says that it “doesn’t just pull back the curtains of the comic book industry, but gives you a series of upskirt shots.” It promises to deliver “news, rumors and gossip” as well as other content. That language should be a flashing red light to any journalist who is considering whether to follow up on a report from the site. And yet many did, giving the claim additional exposure.
Hours after the Bleeding Cool report surfaced, the Detroit Free Press published a story that quoted Detroit police spokesman Sgt. Michael Woody saying, “The Batmobile is safe in the Batcave where it belongs.”
With the rumor proven false, some sites updated their post. But many — including CBS Detroit — did not. At Bleeding Cool, they appended an update at the bottom of the original story.
“Okay, well we didn’t expect that to happen,” it read. “The story above got picked up by far more serious news organizations such as CBS who ought to know better. Thankfully the Detroit Free Press were on hand to scotch the story.”
It quoted from the Free Press article, but then also added a final line that seemed to raise the issue yet again: “Unless … there are more than one Batmobile being used for filming. Maybe …?”
No, the Batmobile was never stolen from the set. But thanks to the websites and Twitter users who spread the rumor and then never updated or corrected, there may be some people who remain misinformed.
A stolen Batmobile isn’t hard news, it’s but one example of the many kinds of rumors and invented claims that circulate online and can attract a significant amount of attention, social shares and traffic.
Today we are awash in unverified, half-true, unsourced or otherwise unclear information that constantly circulates in real time. Rumors and unverified information make their way online and quickly find an audience. It happens faster and with a degree of abundance that’s unlike anything in the history of journalism or communication.
Rumors and claims that 15 years ago may have found their way into a newsroom and been reported out are instead going public via social networks and other means. They circulate and gain credibility before anyone begins to apply a level of verification.
Unfortunately, as detailed in a research report I recently published with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columba University, journalists and news organizations frequently play a role in circulating false rumors, and they often apply little or no verification before publishing.
For my research, I used a database to collect and analyze examples of rumors and unverified claims that were being reported by news websites. Along with the false rumor about a stolen Batmobile, I collected examples of rumors about war zones, publicly traded companies and North Korea, as well as a rash of the kind of too-good-to-check claims that go viral today. (One example: A Florida woman claimed to have had a third breast surgically implanted. It was a hoax, in case you hadn’t heard.)
This research also involved a review of scientific literature related to rumors, misinformation and strategies for debunking false information. I also conducted interviews with journalists involved in debunking online misinformation.
The data showed that news websites too often play a role in helping spread dubious claims and outright falsehoods. Not all news organizations engage in this behavior, of course. But those that hold back and don’t rush to aggregate the latest circulating claim, viral news story or potentially traffic-generating post on Reddit typically greet this kind of content with silence. The result is that hoaxes, falsehoods and suspect claims are able to quickly gain traction online. Quality journalists and news organizations do not make enough of an effort to knock down false claims, debunk hoaxes and otherwise engage with emerging information.
That means that within minutes or hours, a claim can morph from a lone tweet or badly sourced report to a story repeated by dozens of news websites, generating tens of thousands of shares. Once a certain critical mass is met, research shows that repetition has a powerful effect on belief. The rumor becomes true for readers simply by virtue of its ubiquity.
What’s needed is for journalists to be better equipped to verify, engage with and, when necessary, debunk rumors and circulating claims. We must fulfill our role of providing accurate and trusted information to the public. Today that means knocking down the fake stuff and being more effective at handling information that resides in the gray space between true and false.
How can we do this? Here are some tips and advice I’ve developed based on my research and drawn from existing guides to debunking misinformation and handling unverified information.
BEST PRACTICES FOR HANDLING UNVERIFIED CLAIMS
Understand your impact
Whenever a journalist or news organization chooses to write about, tweet or otherwise touch a rumor, it adds power and distribution to the claim. This happens regardless of hedging language attached to the story, tweet or social media post. The very act of pointing to a rumor or claim adds a level of credibility. This must be top of mind at all times.
Set a standard
Newsrooms have standards and practices for anonymous sources, conflicts of interests and other areas that naturally crop up as part of the daily work of journalism. It’s essential to also set a standard for how you will handle rumors and unverified claims.
Have a discussion, using questions such as: Will you post something if it’s solely sourced from Reddit? Will you always follow up on a report from another news organization, or will you require your own confirmation? What sources do you need to see to write something? What evidence has to be there? Decide what you need to see before giving additional oxygen and credibility to a circulating piece of information. Then enforce this.
Part of setting a standard for handling unverified information also involves a discussion about the hedging words and attribution formulations you’ll use when you publish a rumor or claim. My research found that the most commonly used hedging word in headlines is “Report” and its variations, such as “Reportedly” or “Reports.” But I also saw that the same websites would use different hedging words in different stories.
It’s important to decide which hedging word(s) and attribution formulation (“according to reports” etc.) you will use. If all of your colleagues use the same formulations and words, then dedicated readers are likely to learn your approach, even on a subconscious level. Consistency breeds understanding. They will pick up these cues and understand what’s being communicated.
I also advocate for developing standard language that can be used in content. For example: “This claim has not been independently verified by (insert news org) and therefore should be treated with skepticism. We published it because (insert reason).” If you don’t feel comfortable explaining why it needs to be reported at any given moment, that’s a sign you shouldn’t publish.
Plant a flag and update
My research found that many news organizations will point to a rumor in its unverified stage and then not come back to it after it has been proven true or false. Covering a rumor or claim requires that we also commit to covering its resolution.
I also found that some news organizations will update an existing news story with new information, while others will keep the original story intact and write a new one. I advocate writing an initial story that sets an expectation for the reader that you’ll add more information to the story as things evolve — and then update it.
This may sound like a big commitment, but I saw that many rumors were resolved within 24 hours or less. Asking reporters and producers to own a particular claim and maintain a post is a reasonable request. If you expect a claim or rumor to evolve over a longer period of time, you can consider collecting all of your coverage via tags or categories, and pointing people to that.
The data I collected showed that initial rumor articles earned far more social shares and interactions than subsequent updates or articles. The problem is that journalists aren’t promoting updates and new articles as the claim evolves.
New evidence and details should be treated as new pieces of content and promoted as such on social media and via other channels. This helps spread understanding and facts, and it incentivizes reporters to stay on a claim. Re-sharing updated articles is also a way to drive traffic and communicate that you are the source for developments on a particular story.
Evaluate before you propagate
This may strike journalists as an unnecessary piece of guidance. Aren’t we as a rule supposed to verify things before putting them out? Unfortunately, a pattern of behavior identified in my research is that some news websites will see a claim online and immediately write about or share it without applying any verification or reporting.
Joshua Benton of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab put it best when he told The New York Times, “This is journalism as an act of pointing — ‘Look over here, this is interesting.’”
This approach is all too common, and it greatly contributes to the spread of dubious and false information. Here are five quick tips for evaluating a rumor or claim before you publish:
1. Locate the source
Who is the original source saying/sharing this, and what do they have to back it up? This is the most essential element. One of the easiest ways to avoid becoming part of a chain of dubious propagation is to take a few minutes and search/read closely to see where the claim or rumor originated.
2. Examine its history
Who are the people and entities involved in the rumor and its propagation? What does that tell you about its veracity and the players involved?
3. See who else is saying this
Are credible outlets or people saying the same thing? Are they questioning it?
4. Consider the motivation
Examine the motives of the propagator(s). Who benefits from this rumor? Are they involved in its creation or propagation? Is there anything about those amplifying it that causes you to question its credibility, or that offers insight and context?
5. Add value
In some cases, you can best add value by waiting and choosing not to give breath to a claim. Take time and see if you can be the person to turn up a key piece of evidence for or against it.
TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE DEBUNKING
It’s essential that news organizations use their influence and impact to help stop the spread of hoaxes and misinformation. It’s not enough to simply steer clear of the false stuff; we have to take an active role in helping the truth to spread. Here are some tips for more effective debunking.
False information becomes harder to dislodge the longer it goes unchallenged. The more people see an incorrect headline, image, video, etc., in their social media feeds and emails, the more they are likely to believe it. When something is verified as false, be fast and aggressive in getting it out.
Don’t be negative or dismissive
A common saying is that you debunk the idea or claim, not the person. Debunking should not make people feel stupid or attacked. Research has found that “conciliatory rebuttals were more effective than were inflammatory ones,” according to the book “Rumor Psychology.”
Provide a counter narrative
Don’t be a spoilsport denier. Rather, tell a great story. The goal is to replace the existing narrative in a person’s mind with new facts. This is more effective than a piecemeal approach to refuting rumors.
Anthony Pratkanis, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told The Boston Globe that a denial alone isn’t effective. “The more vivid that replacement is, the better,” he said.
Keep it simple
Journalists are sometimes guilty of overkill. We think that laying out all the facts in detail is an effective way to convince someone that they are misinformed. The reality is that misinformation often takes hold because it is communicated in a simple way, or through memorable phrases. (Remember “death panels” in the Affordable Care Act?)
“A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction,” according to the authors of “The Debunking Handbook.” “The solution is to keep your content lean, mean and easy to read.”
Understand the role of emotion and passion in driving shares
In a 2012 paper, a group of researchers, including the authors of “The Debunking Handbook,” outlined the role of emotions in helping information propagate. “Stories containing content likely to evoke disgust, fear or happiness are spread more readily from person to person and more widely through social media than are neutral stories,” they wrote.
Rumors and hoaxes often appeal to people’s emotions, as well as their existing beliefs and fears. Debunking should therefore aim to evoke emotion in readers. But it should also do so in a genuine, rather than manipulative, way.
Find the right source(s)
Journalists need to think about how they can buttress a debunking through sourcing. Whenever possible, find a member of the community in question to voice the correct information. The more people identify with your sources, the more likely they are to believe the information being conveyed.
Trying to knock down a piece of misinformation about a political candidate? Get a person or entity who is seen as neutral or who is aligned with the other side to articulate the debunking.
Make it visual
Studies have shown that visual presentation of information can help people get past biases and instead focus on the information being communicated.
“Graphics appear to be an effective means of communicating information, especially about trends that may be the subject of misperceptions (the state of the economy under a given president, the number of casualties in a war, etc.),” researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler wrote in their 2012 paper, “Misinformation and Fact-checking: Research Findings from Social Science.”
Craig Silverman is a fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, founder/editor of “Regret the Error” about news media mistakes, and an adjunct faculty member of The Poynter Institute. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @craigsilverman