Rem Rieder, USA TODAY
It’s the perfect initiative for the era of the three-breasted woman.
You know, the story late last month of the woman who supposedly had a third breast attached to make herself less attractive to men.
The ridiculous saga was — go figure — debunked, but not before it got plenty of attention on the Internet and on social media.
Well, Craig Silverman, who has spent much of his professional life countering erroneous journalism, is determined to do everything he can to help news organizations and news consumers alike separate fact from fiction.
That’s why he recently launched Emergent, a website designed to track rumors and anonymously based stories as they, well, emerge on the Internet.
Emergent will analyze how news outlets are treating the stories and, most important, place them in one of three categories: confirmed true, confirmed false and unverified. And it will shift the classification as new facts come to the fore.
For example, when The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that Hewlett-Packard planned to split into two companies, citing unnamed sources, Emergent classified the story as not verified. But when the development was confirmed, it shifted into the confirmed true category.
So why did Silverman, who has been researching this issue at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, create this new endeavor?
“There’s a huge amount of misinformation spread online,” he says. “A lot of things that are not true spread very quickly.”
Years ago, if a news outlet broke a story, others would either ignore it or nail it down themselves before publishing. Today, in a world of fierce 24/7 competition, where everyone seems to think they need to have everything, and right away, if they are to stay relevant, it’s common practice for news organizations to instantly post a story simply attributing it, to the outlet that published it. Then, hopefully, they work to make sure that it’s true and then update their story.
But before the dust settles, a lot of erroneous information gets into play. And often stories from less-than-reliable outlets are uncritically disseminated. Remember the story that North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un had executed his uncle and onetime mentor by throwing him to a large pack of ferocious dogs? Completely bogus, but it got way further into to the mainstream than it should have.
And all of these stories, not to mention a huge array of snippets of unverified information, are widely distributed on social media.
Silverman stresses that his new operation, which debuted in late September, is in its very early stages — “an initial prototype.” He’s on the Columbia payroll and has a research assistant there, but so far he’s funding Emergent by himself.
Now he’s turning his attention to the “sustainability piece.” Possibilities include aggressive fundraising, becoming a stand-alone non-profit or finding a home at an existing news organization or foundation.
So how does Emergent work? With a mix of human and algorithmic intelligence. Silverman and company watch to see what rumor-fueled and unnamed source-based stories are rising to the surface. They put the stories into a database and assess how news outlets are treating them: as true, false or straight down the middle. They evaluate the headline as well as the story, because often the headlines lack the necessary qualifiers. And since headlines have so much impact, that’s often how bad content enters the information bloodstream.
And, as mentioned above, Emergent decides how the overall meme should be categorized. And it watches how the stories evolve. Do news outlets update them as new information becomes available?
“News organizations often don’t follow up,” Silverman says.
Emergent also keeps an eye on at what stage stories are shared. Early findings suggest that the unverified first draft gets far more exposure than the debunking. Silverman hopes that ultimately, once Emergent catches on, people will check the site’s conclusions before pulling the trigger and retweeting misinformation or sharing it on Facebook.
Silverman, who wrote both a blog and a book about journalism corrections calledRegret the Error, points out that many stories remain stuck in that unverified category. As Emergent grows, that will serve as an assignment desk for the new site. It will investigate on its own whether the stories are true.
So here’s hoping Emergent gains traction. The war on disinformation needs all the help it can get.
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