Lessons in the crowdsourced verification of news from Storyful and Reddit’s Syria forum

One of the most powerful trends in media over the past year is the crowdsourced verification of news, whether it’s the work of a blogger like Brown Moses or former NPR journalist Andy Carvin. Two other interesting efforts in this area are the “open newsroom” approach taken by Storyful — which specializes in verifying social-media reports for mainstream news entities — and a Reddit forum devoted to crowdsourcing news coverage of the civil war in Syria.

Storyful journalist Joe Galvin recently looked at some of the incidents that the company has helped either debunk or verify over the past year — including a fake tweet from the official account of the Associated Press about explosions at the White House (which sent the Dow Jones index plummeting before it was corrected), a claim from Russian authorities that a chemical attack in Syria had been pre-meditated, and a report from investigative journalist Seymour Hersh about the same attack that questioned whether the government had been involved.

Debunking some of these kinds of claims can be relatively straightforward, Galvin notes: in the case of AP’s tweet, for example (which was the result of a hack), a simple check of other sources should have made it easy to dismiss:

“The tweet was non-AP style, Storyful’s White House Twitter list contained no corroborating reports, and livestreams from the White House showed no evidence of an attack. Within minutes, we were able to advise clients to be cautious in reporting the information.”

Crowdsourcing is a key journalistic tool

Citizen journalism

Similarly, the Russian claim — which was based on the allegation that videos of the chemical attack appeared to have been posted before the attack even occurred — was fairly easy to debunk once Storyful confirmed with YouTube that all videos are posted with a time-stamp that shows Pacific Time, and therefore the clips in question were clearly posted after the fact.

The piece from Seymour Hersh was somewhat more problematic, Galvin says, in part because he is a famous investigative journalist with a long and distinguished track record of reporting on incidents such as the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war. Hersh’s article in the London Review of Books questioned whether the Syrian government would have used the type of weapons that were seen during the attack, and also argued that the army wasn’t even within range.

Eventually, however, Hersh’s claims were rebutted by an overwhelming number of reports from multiple sources — including Eliot Higgins, the blogger known as Brown Moses, whose speciality is verifying videos posted to YouTube about Syria and who is also an active participant in Storyful’s “open newsroom,” which is based on Google+ (and is apparently planning to launch his own investigative journalism network). As Higgins noted in his piece for Foreign Policy magazine:

“Open-source information may become even more important for understanding hard-to-access conflict zones, and learning how to use it effectively should become a key skill for any investigative journalist.”

Reddit shows how to aggregate breaking news


Reddit, meanwhile, has been conducting some “open newsroom”-style experiments of its own around a number of news events, including the Syrian civil war. The site has come under fire in the past for some of those efforts — including the attempt to identify the bombers in the Boston bombings case, which went badly awry — but the Syrian thread in particular is a good example of how a smart aggregator can make sense of an ongoing news event.

In a recent post at a site called Dissected News, one of the moderators behind the /r/SyrianCivilWar sub-Reddit — a 22-year-old law student named Christopher Kingdon (or “uptodatepronto” as he is known on the site) — wrote about his experiences with the forum, which is trying to be a broadly objective source for breaking news and information about the conflict. Kingdon says he decided to start the sub-Reddit after reading some of the other coverage on the site:

“I was determined to create an alternative forum where standards for sources and conversation would be enforced to combat this vitriolic debate. The ultimate goal of our moderating team continues to be to create an online forum that ‘fosters an informed and civil discussion of the facts.’”

Some of what the moderators do in the forum is similar to the kind of verification that Storyful or the BBC’s “user-generated content desk” do — checking photos and video for obvious signs of fakery and hoaxes. But Kingdon also describes how much effort his team of volunteers puts into ensuring that the sub-Reddit doesn’t degenerate into trolling or flame-wars. Strict rules are enforced “to prevent personal attacks, offensive and violent language and racism” and the moderators favor posts that “utilize sources, background information and a dash of common sense.”

As always when I read about what Storyful or Brown Moses or even Reddit are doing when it comes to crowdsourcing, I wonder why mainstream news organizations don’t do more of this kind of thing themselves. As Eliot Higgins notes, these tools are becoming increasingly important — and learning how to use them effectively is a crucial skill in an age of real-time news.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / donskarpo and Flickr user Petteri Sulonen