Craig Silverman, a longtime chronicler of media misinformation, has created a real-time rumor tracker called Emergent.info. Brooke talks with Craig about the life cycle of rumors and how news outlets handle debunking them.
BROOKE: Here are just a few of the rumors snowballing through the press recently:
Male News Anchor: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in the hospital because he’s so heavy his ankles have fractured under his own weight.
Female News Anchor: It turns out the man who jumped the white house fence and made it inside the executive mansion got much further than originally thought..
Male Annoucner 2: A massage therapist had surgery to add an additional third breast in the hopes of becoming a reality TV star...
We all know that rumors flare in unpredictable directions and are notoriously hard to corral. But the claims you just heard, and many others, are being monitored, on a new site called Emergent.info. Emergent has three rankings for rumors: Unverified, which applies to Kim Jong Un’s ankles, Confirmed True, which applies to the White House intruder, and Confirmed False, that would be the woman with the third breast. Craig Silverman created Emergent, inspired by his years chronicling media misinformation on his blog, Regret the Error.
SILVERMAN: I see a lot of stuff that gets reported that you might argue never should have made it into the press. What I realized is that there's so much information that gets out there and that you can't pretend to put a lid on.
BROOKE: YOu can't ignore the fact that it's out there you have to deal with it one way or another.
SILVERMAN: That's it. And I think obviously one of the reasons why news organizations are picking these things up is that they see a spike with traffic. So that motivation is part of it. And then I think there's also a conundrum for journalists. Today a lot of this stuff starts on social networks. That maybe in the past they would've had a crack at trying to verify, before it actually got out in wide distribution. So that's a new challenge. If we're going to deal with it at this early stage, how do we do that in a way that creates understanding rather then creates confusion.
BROOKE: Ok, if the cart of bad information is put before the horse of the media, why? Let's talk about why people start rumors.
SILVERMAN: There's about a century or so of research into rumors and at the core of it is that when we have situations where there's a level of uncertainly and particularly where there's a level of anxiety in the abscence of real infomation we tend to process an event new information. It's been shown that we're more likely to share information if we feel it has kind of an urgent nature to it. So in situations of natural disaster or crisis I mean we're seeing lots of rumors around ISIS. People are more inclined to pass on information because they think it's really important for people to know it.
BROOKE: But you also note that often the most shared rumors are pretty absurd. I mean the claim of the Florida woman with her third breast was shared over 400,000 times. Compare that with the claim that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by a US airstrike (Also untrue) was only shared about 29,000 times. It suggests that we really mine these rumors for their entertaiminet value.
SILVERMAN: There's absolutely and emotional connection.
BROOKE: A third breast?
SILVERMAN: (Laughs) People might share it and say 'Can you believe this?' or 'Look at what's happening to the youth today!' You could imagine different viewpoints being grafted onto this fake story. There are dyanmics of just sharing in general. You mix them with things that have been designed to attract attention and they tend to be rewarded with social shares. And there's even been research that suggests in a lot of cases people don't even read what they share. They see the, the headline or the tweet and on it goes.
BROOKE: Do we think that we're actually better at susssing out rumors then we really are?
SILVERMAN: The short answer is yes. I think the average person thinks that they evaluate in a very reasoned way. And, again, research tells us that that's usually not the case. If it's something that conforms with our pre-existing beliefs or something that we want to be a certain way, then we're more inclined to go along with it. Things that challenge what we think we actually tend to double down on our pre-existing beliefs.
BROOKE: In addition to tracking the rumors, you also track the changes to the story. What have you noticed about how news organizations deal with making corrections?
SILVERMAN: You know the best data we have about corrections from a newspaper study is that only about 2 percent of articles that had an error were ever corrected. We overall don't see a huge amount of updates being made.
BROOKE: But there are news organizations that are willing to concede that they've made a mistake than others.
SILVERMAN: Absolutely. Certainly there are some places that have a culture of correction to them. One that does come to mind would be The New York Times. They've committed a resource that I can't think of anyone who has which is that they have a senior editor whose almost his sole responsibility is dealing with requests for correction. But what we see with a lot of these stories - which are stories which are spreading online is that rather than calling it a correction or admitting they got something wrong. They're usually just updating and sayig 'Oh, hey -- it turned out to be a hoax.' I don't see a lot of evidence that tonce this new information comes out they actually make an effort to get it re-shared and to re-circulate it.
BROOKE: Is that because the news outlets don't try? Or is it because people just don't have the same interest in sharing a correction to a story?
SILVERMAN: There's certainly an element where the lie is much more attractive and much more shareable than the debunking of it.
BROOKE: How do news organizations make the truth more sharable?
SILVERMAN: I don't know yet. Hopefully towards the end of the year we're going to be able to analyze the debunkings that generated some engagement and some interest. And see if there's anything that connects them. And it's kind of shameful to think that you know we don't have a body of evidence or a body of research to draw on already. What we do have is some research that talks about ways to get past some of the bias that people have. And advice for that are things like trying to find neutral sources who appeal to people from both sides of an issue or a particular side of an issue who can express the debunking rather than just putting it in the voice of the news organization
BROOKE: Can you give me an example of that?
SILVERMAN: A really good example of that would be what happened when Barak Obama and John McCain were both running for President. There were of course you know, a persistent rumor, or a persistent lie that Barak Obama was Muslim. And at one of the events where John McCain was doing a townhall - a woman stood up and she described Barack Obama as a Muslim. And John McCain actually said to her very clearly that 'no, He's not. he's a Christian.'*** (correction - see below) And so, out of all the attempts by the Obama campaign and by everyone else to convince people that Barack Obama is a Christian, I would argue that that was probably the most effective.
BROOKE: Wow. I don't see that happening a lot.
SILVERMAN: No. You don't.
BROOKE: Craig thank you so much.
SILVERMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE: Craig Silverman is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia and founder of Emergent.info a real-time rumor tracking tool.
CORRECTION: In the townhall meeting Silverman refers to, the woman addressing McCain called Obama an "Arab," not a Muslim. And McCain responded by saying, "No, he is a decent family man, citizen - that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about. He's not. Thank you."