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When facts are fluid: Emerging best practices to verify information on social media from Alfred Hermida

In his recent keynote presentation at the Journalism Education Association of Australia annual conference, Alfred Hermida, associate professor at University of British Columbia, shared best practices that journalists and content publishers should follow to verify the accuracy of social media content before they share it and write about it. Citing errors in reporting based on tweets and social media postings by Globe and Mail and other leading news organizations, Hermida urged journalists and content publishers to use a combination of traditional journalism and computer science best practices to answer two specific questions when trying to verify the accuracy of social media sources and content:

  • Who owns the social media account?
  • How is the message spreading?

To get the ansers to those questions, Hermida explains, "We need to follow the trail left by everything a person does on social media." He offers the following four steps to verify the accuracy of social media content.

1. Look at the message.

First, you should analyze the content of the message. What language is used within the message? For example, someone caught in the middle of a catastrophic event is unlikely to tweet using perfect grammar, spelling, and capitalization.

2. Research the user/source.

Next, you need to identify who the user is and whether or not that user makes sense as a verifiable source. Where are they located? Contact the user to verify their claims. Reliable sources often have large networks of followers.Read the user's postings, retweets, and conversations. Look at their followers. Is the user's social media account brand new or well-established? An established account with a consistent history of content publishing and sharing is usually more reliable than a brand new account with few postings or followers.

3. Analyze the online discussions on the topic.

Third, find out how many people are sharing the information you're trying to verify. Are other people questioning the information? What information is being contested? Research shows that misinformation spreads faster than corrections do, so tread carefully.

4. Investigate how the information spreads across the network.

Finally, analyze how the information is spreading across social media, because speed can be an indication of accuracy. Hermida cites research studies that prove accurate information typically spreads at a steady pace from the start. On the other hand, inaccurate information often spreads very slowly at first then spikes.Hermida also urges journalists and content publishers to analyze how information spreads across networks to sniff out propaganda messages. For example, some people will try to create a groundswell message by grouping together to spread that message. These people work together to retweet each other's content, share similar messages, and so on. Sometime a single person will create multiple social media accounts to share a specific message thousands of times per hour.


Hermida urges journalists and content publishers to remember, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is."