traffic lights red yellow green
Credit: Image from Pixabay

Conversations surrounding the results and media coverage of the US election in the aftermath of the vote have revolved heavily around fake news and the role of publishers and platforms in combating misinformation online.

An analysis published by BuzzFeed last week found that fake stories that went viral received more engagement on Facebook than the coverage provided by established news organisations in the run up to the election.

However, the definition of 'fake news' can be expanded beyond a made-up fact or allegation to other types of online content that could pose challenges to journalists.

Speaking at the WAN-IFRA International Newsroom Summit in London today (22 November), Jenni Sargent, managing director of First Draft, outlined some other types of problematic content news organisations may come face to face with, as well as some of the challenges journalists face in the verification process.

Authentic material used in the wrong context

This refers to a scenario in which people may, either on purpose or due to confusion, contribute to the online conversation during breaking news events by sharing images or videos that are authentic, but that have been recorded in the past or that in fact relate to different events.

After the Paris attacks in 2015, images of the Eiffel Tower with its lights turned off started circulating on social media. People assumed this had been done to honour the victims, but actually, the two events were unrelated, as the Eiffel Tower goes dark every night at 1am.

Imposter news sites designed to look like established brands

In this case, individuals knowingly attempt to shift or shape the debate around a particular issue by hijacking a news organisation's brand, particularly a title that is popular and trusted among readers, and producing content meant to mislead audiences about where the material actually originated from.

Sargent pointed to a recent example from October, in which a fake video started circulating online with the branding of NowThis, which prompted the outlet to take action by tweeting a screenshot from the video to draw attention that they were in no way affiliated with the content.

Fake news sites, fake information and parody content

In July 2016, a website called WTOE 5 News reported that Pope Francis had endorsed presidential candidate Donald Trump, a fake article that received widespread coverage.

Sargent said that with basic verification skills, journalists should have been able to debunk the story by simply visiting the 'about us' section of the website in question, which identified it as a "fantasy news website" where "most articles published are satire or pure fantasy".

In this post on the First Draft website, managing editor Alastair Reid provides some other examples and explains the veracity of parody websites or fake domains that claim to be established sources can be verified by conducting a WhoIs search.

This process will return information about when a website was first set up, to help determine if it's newer than it claims. Journalists should also bear in mind that hoaxers can go the extra mile by creating similar domain names to news outlets, he added, even though these are usually harder to spot.

Challenges and possible solutions

Sargent also outlined some of the challenges with identifying and verifying these types of content, such as translating materials and the "heavily manual" process of discovering fake stories.

"It's difficult to search and monitor Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube... We all tend to stick with Twitter because their search is the most accessible, but that does mean we are missing vital stories that are probably being shared on Facebook or elsewhere."

News organisations and social platforms have to collaborate to develop tools, techniques and best practices for verification, and First Draft is hoping to facilitate this approach through its Partner Network, which launched in September.

Some of the possible solutions that Sargent outlined include: designing a visual watermark for flagged content; crowdsourcing and keeping a database of fake news and parody sites that journalists can cross-reference easily; improving media literacy among readers; incorporating verification training in the curricula of journalism schools; and working with platforms to build better search functionalities.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).