The urge to share major breaking news events quickly is often born out of anxiety and uncertainty. But this hurry means too few take the time to check if what they are sharing is accurate.
Journalists also face this risk as they find themselves under greater pressure to deliver, under tight deadlines.
Added to this trend are people deliberately sharing unverified information to grow their online influence, and others who deliberately wish to spread panic.
In the midst of this, how can you check whether the information you receive is credible?
Here’s a quick, simple guide you can use to verify breaking news.
1. Ask yourself, what’s the source?
Up front, if something has been shared with you on social media or a messaging app, proceed with caution. It’s not easy to pause, because we feel the need to share information, thinking it might protect our loved ones or that we’ll be first with the news.
But the flood of misinformation surrounding the death of Kobe Bryant in January 2020 was an example of this. Bryant was in a helicopter with eight other passengers, including his 13-year-old daughter, when it crashed close to Los Angeles in the US.
Bryant’s death was heavily covered in the media. But among the reportage were many false claims, such as that his daughter and wife had died by suicide, or unrelated videos of previous crashes. Photos of Halloween props were also passed off as being of the victims.
The fact that something was shared with you on a social media platform or messaging app, by someone you know, does not make the information trustworthy.
If you have come across breaking news through WhatsApp or by seeing the news on your Facebook or Twitter feeds, pause to check if it’s being reported by other sources.
Often, breaking news spreads via these platforms first because of eyewitnesses. But if you can't verify what an eyewitness claims to have seen, you should look for a trusted source for information.
There are also services that make it easier to sift through online sites. Newsguard offers a browser extension and apps that give trustworthiness ratings next to links on search engines, social media pages and other platforms. KnowNews, a South African database, keeps tabs on credible and dodgy news sources.
You can also check who wrote the message. Is the information from a verified account or is it just a forwarded message with no author or source given? On many platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram a verified profile will have a blue badge to show it is an authentic account. But keep in mind that verified accounts can share inaccurate information too.
And sometimes little things are big clues: take note of spelling or grammatical errors. These are often signs information comes from an untrustworthy source.
2. Check what search engines reveal
A massive blast at a port warehouse in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, claimed nearly 200 lives in August 2020. The explosion sparked global interest. But many posts, photos and videos shared in the aftermath on social media were false.
How could you check their accuracy? One way would be by comparing the content with information found through a quick search on search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo.
Searching “Beirut explosion” surfaces many articles by credible news organisations.
Google also shows an SOS Alert against search results and maps during such crises. For the Beirut explosion it used a red exclamation mark. At the time of writing, Google has an alert for Covid-19. This “aims to make emergency information more accessible during a crisis”, says Google.
This also helps inform users of the facts surrounding a breaking news story before they share or post about it.
3. Ask official organisations and fact-checkers
Official sources are also a useful source of information for breaking news. For the Covid-19 pandemic and other health emergencies examples include the World Health Organization and individual government websites. Others are organisations such as the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Searching fact-checking organisations for claims around a breaking news story can also help you separate fact from fiction. Some fact-checking organisations in Africa include:
Members of the International Fact-Checking Network, who are located all around the world, are also a good source of accurate information, especially when claims are made about breaking news. Many fact-checkers are able to get accurate information from official organisations quickly.
4. Crowdsource and contact people
Another way to check whether breaking news is fact or fiction is by asking people to help, or crowdsourcing.
The Columbia Journalism Review’s guide to crowdsourcing explains that this approach can be used for newsgathering, data collection or analysis, and can be either open or targeted.
You can crowdsource via emails or phone calls, or on social media platforms, website forms or discussion groups such as Quora or Reddit. A crowdsourcing call to action can take the form of a polle or asking users to share what they saw or experienced or to volunteer specialised expertise or skills.
The trick is all in how you ask, according to DataJournalism.com, a reputable site for data journalism. And remember not to contribute to the false information but make it clear you are looking to verify events.
Africa Check recently used crowdsourcing techniques to investigate the context behind a video of two small crying boys in martial arts stances. The video had been viewed at least 10 million times on Twitter.
We reached out to our followers on Facebook and Twitter to provide any knowledge they might have of the video and posted the story on our website. We didn’t completely solve the puzzle, but we got several useful clues from our audience.
Sifting through user comments on a breaking news story also often gives valuable crowdsourced insight.
5: Tools for fact-checkingFalse news stories can come in all different forms, be it images, photos, texts or articles.
PhotographsA helpful tool to check for manipulation is Google’s reverse image search.
This tool can be used to find related images from the web and establish if a photo has been used prior to a news event. Using out-of-context or out-of-date photographs is one of the most common types of misinformation.
You can also enter a description with the attached image into the tool to refine your search.
For more on how to do a reverse image search on four major search engines, see this handy guide.
It’s also a good idea to try this with other tools such as INVID. This has been described as a “Swiss army knife” of verification and can be used to check whether content spreading on social media is reliable.
Another handy option is TinEye, which searches for images across various search engines.
Read: Where was that photo taken? How to locate (almost) any place on Earth
VideosYou can use Berify to upload thumbnails taken from videos to find matching content. The INVID extension also offers this option. Both also work for images.
Another useful tool for videos is YouTube Data Viewer, developed by Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog.
READ: How to spot cheap, out-of-context and deepfake videos
LocationsYou should also look at the background in a video or photo for clues to its location - what is known as geolocation. This could be a road or shop sign in a certain language, or a building in the distance.
Google Earth for example gives you access to satellite imagery of the earth and can be accessed through an app on your phone. Wikimapia, a community mapping project that collects information about places on the globe, can also be useful. Anyone can contribute to the maps by tagging pictures and adding descriptions, categories and locations. Browsing through these could reveal the location of your image. (Want a more practical lesson? Test yourself here.)
If you establish a location, you can search online to establish if news like it has been reported in the area.
WebsitesIf the breaking news claim is on a website you don’t know, you can use ICANN lookup to check whether the site is trustworthy.
This tool lets users check whether domains have been registered and are therefore legit. Third-party sites can however be used to mask owner details.
If all this has whet your appetite to become a digital spy, investigate this detailed toolbox from verification firm First Draft to set you on your way.
But as a rule of thumb, don’t share breaking news without trying to verify it first. Just because something is travelling fast on social media doesn’t mean it's true.