social media keyboard
Credit: Public domain
In between the ubiquitous cat videos, the conversation on social media can be rather insightful "when it comes to things like social, political and cultural change".

BBC journalist Mukul Devichand explained he created the BBC Trending team after feeling that his colleagues at the organisation were not entirely plugged into this conversation.

Launched around 18 months ago, BBC Trending is the broadcaster's 'bureau on the internet', publishing videos and text blogs on the BBC site as well as producing a weekly radio programme on World Service.

It's not possible for one individual to be across every single social media storyAnne-Marie Tomchak, BBC Trending
The team covers "social conversations that really have some traction in the place that they're from", and Devichand, now editor of BBC Trending, told Journalism.co.uk these stories are reported in a way that can "shine a light onto some issues" relevant to the BBC's international audience.

So what new challenges come up when the patch you're reporting on is the entire social web?

Finding trending stories


Doing original journalism around trending stories is the ethos of the team – and it's not just about English language trends, explained reporter Anne-Marie Tomchak.

This "really broad remit" also works partly due to the team's chance to collaborate with the BBC's language services, keeping an eye on platforms from Facebook and Twitter to the Chinese Weibo and Yoku, the Russian VKontakte and even chat apps like WhatsApp, Viber or Snapchat.

"[Language teams] can bring extra context around those stories and help us bring more understanding to it," explained Tomchak.

Hashtag analytics also play an important role in understanding trending stories, she added, offering reporters a chance to track down the person who first started a trend, and the moment the story exploded on social.

But while networks like Twitter have advanced search features journalists can use to find information and more background around trends, how can reporters tell what's trending on more closed networks like Snapchat or WhatsApp?

"It's not possible for one individual to be across every single social media story," she explained.

When you start setting up original interviews and you start talking to people, you can suss out fairly early on whether or not that seems genuineAnne-Marie Tomchak, BBC Trending
"[It's] about both being in the space but also having your other network of journalists who are flagging up interesting trends that they notice too."

Verifying stories

A challenge journalists who work on social face daily is sorting the truth from the fabricated stories and fakes.

"[It's] part of our public service journalism to say what's real and what's not real," said Devichand.

And Tomchak explained how it's always important to keep questioning the content and the story in the back of your mind.

One debunking success at BBC Trending was highlighting the video of the 'Syrian hero boy' who appeared to save a girl from a hail of bullets. The video was in fact a Norwegian film designed as "an exercise in virality".

Establishing the video as a fake was a collaborative exercise between the Trending team and the BBC's UGC Hub.

The "story basically spread like wildfire, within the first 48 hours two million people had read it on the BBC website", said Tomchak, who wrote the accompanying article.

These cases don't happen every day, but "it's about degrees" of verification, she said. "Original journalism will naturally lead you to that point anyway.

We don't mind being a bit later than everybody else, as long as we're adding somethingMukul Devichand, BBC Trending
"When you start setting up original interviews and you start talking to people, you can suss out fairly early on whether or not that seems genuine."

This week, the team discovered the man who claimed to be a migrant posting Instagram updates of his route from Senegal to Europe had actually been living in Barcelona for over 10 years.

Being first or being right?

So how do you balance reporting on stories that are currently trending with the verification process and the time commitments of original reporting?

Devichand said it's not about being first with the story. "There are some stories that are important, and we'll run them even if they happened a while ago, because maybe the world hasn't understood something properly and we can bring context and analysis and something that the audience probably hasn't got yet."

But only if there is something more to say. BBC Trending's debunk of the 'Syrian hero boy' video, for example, was published days after other outlets ran it at face value.

"We're certainly not saying that we only want to do stories that are happening right now," he said.

"In a way we don't mind being a bit later than everybody else, as long as we're adding something."

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that the BBC Trending team did not interview Hagi Toure, the man featured in Instagram posts purporting to show his journey from Senegal to Europe.

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