As journalists, social media can be one of our best newsgathering tools. It opens the door to diverse sources as well as valuable photo and video content, but it is also full of pitfalls if you aren’t careful.
By Amy Kristin Sanders
Associate Professor, Journalism and Media, University of Texas at Austin
That’s why intrepid reporters and editors have to stay connected to the array of verification tools that can help ensure they are making the most of social media while minimizing the risk of spreading misinformation.
For the past year, I’ve taught students at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism and Media how to use the most important of these tools. If social media platforms are part of your newsgathering process (and they should be), I’d encourage you and your staff to check out these tools as well.
Photo Verification Tools
Good photo verification tools can not only tell you when an image first appeared on the internet, they can also help you tell whether and how a photo has been edited. At the lowest level, reverse image searches like TinEye (tineye.com) or Google can help you better determine when a photo was taken by looking for all of its appearances on the internet.
Find a photo of this summer’s protests on social media that you want to use but you aren’t certain it’s authentic? Pop it into a reverse image search to make sure it wasn’t from the 2014 protests over Michael Brown or Eric Garner’s deaths. If you find the image has appeared on other sites before 2020, you know it’s not from this summer.
Other more powerful photo tools like FotoForensics (fotoforensics.com) can help determine whether a photo has been doctored by examining its pixels and looking at its metadata.
If you’re new to image verification, the International Journalists Network has a great explainer (ijnet.org/en/story/9-tools-verifying-images) that reviews a number of tools.
Social Media User Verification
It’s not unusual to find a post on a social media platform that contains a news tip or that you might want to quote in a story. But how do you know it’s a from a real, credible source? More tools have been introduced to help us identify the owners of accounts and verify their posts.
A tool like Namecheckr (namecheckr.com) can help you track a username across dozens of social platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
You can use your photo verification tools to try to link profile photos to other photos on the internet as a means of trying to identify who’s behind an account with a pseudonym.
Many social profiles contain birthdays or celebrations of birthdays, which can help you link an account with a popular name to the specific person you’re looking to find.
Perhaps one of the most interesting tools you can use is TweetBeaver (tweetbeaver.com) – a really powerful tool to help you explore Twitter accounts and networks much more deeply. It lets you download timelines and favorites as well as view followers and other network information.
Deleted Content – Nothing Really Disappears on the Internet
Have a suspicion that someone deleted a previous Tweet? You can always use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (archive.org/web), which lets you look at cached versions of myriad websites. But if you’re looking for a politician’s post, you might check out ProPublica’s Politwoops (projects.propublica.org/politwoops), which catalogs disappearing Tweets from prominent Texans, including candidates for various state and local offices.
Still Looking for More Tools?
If you’re interested in learning more about verification and authentication – and who isn’t with the rise of edited audio and deepfake video – I highly recommend Verification Handbook, which is edited by Craig Silverman and available free online (datajournalism.com/read/handbook/verification-3). It’s easy to read, has great examples and covers nearly any verification situation you can imagine. I guarantee you’ll get ideas for how social media can help generate story ideas and improve source diversity.
Amy Kristin Sanders is an award-winning former journalist, licensed attorney and associate professor. Before joining the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin, she taught for more than four years at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. Prior to that, she earned tenure at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the intersection of law and new technology as it relates to media freedom.