Tom Phillips, the man behind a website called "Is Twitter Wrong?" worked hard during Sandy to debunk many of the false images of the storm and its aftermath. Bob speaks to Phillips about how easy it is to differentiate the real images from the fakes.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Her point about traditional media’s far-from-spotless history bears repeating. They were ComfortablySmug's accomplices because they re-tweeted his tweets. As Heidi Moore wrote in the Guardian, his claim about the New York Stock Exchange was re-tweeted nearly 650 times during the height of the storm, often by credible journalists. “The reach of that tweet,” she wrote, “was so powerful that the National Weather Service repeated it, which then allowed it to make its way to the Weather Channel and CNN. Within an hour, the national press was reporting this completely made-up statement as fact.”
BOB GARFIELD: Those actually skeptical of the false images being spread during Hurricane Sandy had one-stop shopping for verification in a website called “Is Twitter Wrong?” The site was created by Tom Phillips, an international editor at MSN in London, who spent much of the mega-storm debunking fake images from more than 3,000 miles away. Tom, welcome On the Media.
TOM PHILLIPS: Thanks very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Pictures, of course, don't lie, except they sometimes do. Give me some examples of the visual whoppers that you located.
TOM PHILLIPS: The one that did the rounds most was a series of pictures supposedly of a shark swimming along the flooded streets of Brigantine, New Jersey.
BOB GARFIELD: Which you proved, once and for all, [LAUGHS] was not a shark.
TOM PHILLIPS: Yeah. It was Photoshoped. It was tricky to prove actually because it's just on the edge of plausibility. It could happen but it probably didn't.
BOB GARFIELD: The very process of getting out the truth has this perverse effect of giving the lie or the error more life. Do you have any way of knowing whether your efforts are yielding more truth or its just exactly the opposite?
TOM PHILLIPS: I know for a fact that the site was seen by tens- maybe hundreds of thousands of people that day. I know that the post on The Atlantic which Alexis Madrigal did, which we ended up collaborating on for a while, I know that was seen by nearly a million people. One of the key things that Alexis did on The Atlantic was he’d overlay on that picture a big, nice fake or real banner and would also include information about where the picture came from, in text, on the picture itself.
BOB GARFIELD: So in the event that his tweet got re-tweeted, at least that would not propagate misinformation.
TOM PHILLIPS: And rather than just bluntly saying, yep, this is fake, this is real, guide people through the process of how we'd reached that conclusion. It kind of gives people a toolkit for how to do this stuff themselves, ‘cause there’s no special secret trick to this. All of the stuff we did was using free publicly-available tools, and an awful lot of it took less than a minute, 30 seconds to actually get done.
BOB GARFIELD: How effective were you in correcting bad tweets that were carelessly passed along by CNN and others?
TOM PHILLIPS: It’s often likened to trying to get toothpaste back in a tube, once a rumor gets out there and starts spreading. I think it’s actually harder than that. It’s like trying to stuff an angry cat into a condom.
We focused on pictures because we thought that was the place that a lot of the fakes were likely to come. And in the early stages, before landfall that was what they were. But, of course, once landfall happened, most of the hoaxes, misunderstandings, outright lies, they were simple statements, and we were focusing so much on the pictures that I think a lot of those passed us by.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any thoughts as to what prompts people to pass this stuff on, to begin with?
TOM PHILLIPS: A mixture of honest misunderstandings, jokes that get out of control, and then just plain trolling. I think one of the ways that it happens is people see a picture they don't understand the context of it – an newspapers used a stock picture to illustrate a story about the upcoming storm, you know, a blog has just done an image search to illustrate, you know, their piece about something, people don't realize that that’s what it is and they go, ‘oh my God, that’s the thing,’ and then they take it away from that original context and they share it, and all of a sudden, it’s got a life of its own.
The other one is jokes that get out of control, There was one particularly staggering image, which I honestly didn't think anybody believed was real, until I saw enough tweets of people going, oh my God, this is terrifying, which was the picture of the Statue of Liberty being submerged by a wall of water.
Now, there was no sort of clever technological wizardry needed to disprove that. You just needed to remember what happened in the film “The Day After Tomorrow.”
It was in the trailer, for goodness sake. That was clearly created as a joke, except a lot of people didn't get the joke. Much the same… the sharks in the street in Brigantine, New Jersey. The guy who created those in the first place: they were on his Facebook and you could see the conversation happening around them. And his friends in the comments are going, yeah, nice Photoshop skills. You nearly had me there, well done. And, once again, that was a joke that got taken out of context.
Then there are people who are doing it because they want to feel superior, they want to show, oh, look how gullible everybody is. And some people are just – sociopaths.
But, you know, we knew that.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thank you so much.
TOM PHILLIPS: Hey, it’s been a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Phillips is an international editor at MSN in London and, in his free time, founder of the “Is Twitter Wrong?” Tumblr.