Over the last several months, Craig Silverman, author of Poynter’s Regret the Error blog, has been tracking the way rumors and unverified claims spiral through the news. He founded the website Emergent not only to trace the rumors, but to track how the press deals with debunking them. Well, patterns are already emerging...and they will make you sad.
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Bob Garfield: Some people dubiously delete obvious facts. Others pass along obviously dubious hogwash. Over the last several months, Craig Silverman, author of Poynter’s Regret the Error blog and a fellow at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, has been tracking the way rumors and unverified claims spiral through the news. He founded the website Emergent not only to trace the rumors, but to track how the press deals with debunking them.Well, patterns are already emerging...and they will make you sad.
Craig: When it comes to the misinformation problem online, news organizations are in many way more a part of the problem than they are a part of the solution. One of the most clear things we saw is when a news website chooses to talk about something is unverified-- something that is circulating but we're not sure if it's true or false-- there's a lot of pointing and then retreating. They don't apply reporting they don't apply verification, and they often don't actually come back to that particular claim once it's been resolved. One example of a claim that we tracked was a report that a mass grave that had been discovered in Mexico was connected to the disappearance of more than 40 students who had been at a protest. And we saw a good number of news organizations jump on that and it took a little more than a week to resolve itself, where they did DNA testing on the mass grave and found out it didn't belong to the students. And then we went back to see how many of those news organizations actually wrote the follow-up story to say hey, it turns out that these students weren't in the grave. We found it was about roughly 35 percent who actually kind of closed this loop for readers. So we saw them jump on in the early stage, and the majority of them did not come back to it in any meaningful way.
Bob Garfield: One of the problems you've identified is a different standard for the reporting within the body of the story, within the text, and the headline summary.
Craig: What we saw a surprising amount, we saw what we call headline-body dissonance. News sites who would take a rumor that was unverified and write a headline that actually clearly says that it's true, and then in the body text they would walk that back, and they would use "allegedly" or "reportedly" of things like that. An example of that comes from Vox. They had a story about the protests in Hong Kong. So here's the headline: "Hong Kong's protesters are using the same Hands Up Don't Shoot gesture used in Ferguson." And then if you actually read the article, you then were greeted by a sentence that says, "It's impossible to say the degree to which protesters are using the gesture as a deliberate nod to Ferguson or borrowing something they'd seen in the news for their own purposes, or using it coincidentally."
Bob Garfield: What is the dumbest single thing that you have seen reported without any level of appropriate journalistic skepticism?
Craig: We logged a bunch of news sites talking about a sighting of Bigfoot in Russia. There was a video, it was clearly fake, it was a man running in a hairy suit, and news sites said hey, Bigfoot in Russia?
Bob Garfield: Ah the question mark! Which absolves you of any responsibility for the fundamental ridiculousness of the story.
Craig: The question mark is actually a very serious issue. It's been studied, and it's called an innuendo headline. So if you're going to put kind of a claim or an accusation in a headline, and you're going to put a question mark on the end of it, the way that people read that headline, is that first they have to understand the claim, so they process that as true, and then after that, they add on the question mark, and so in most cases, they lean towards believing it as true.
Bob Garfield: Tell me what advice you do give to news organizations to stay off of your radar?
Craig: When it comes to rumors, one of the most important things that journalists have to understand is that no matter how we do it, when we decide to give a rumor a little more oxygen, when we decide to kind of point to it, we're giving it an element of credibility. Just talking about something and saying, well it's rumored, or allegedly, or reportedly, the fact is that there's a connection between repetition and belief. The other thing that I think is really interesting and useful is to understand that rumors emerge in specific contexts. When there's uncertainty, when there's fear, when there's lack of information. And so if you look at rumors, not as something to just jump on quickly, but as a reflection of a very human process at play, of people trying to make sense of something, then maybe you start to understand the motivations behind the rumor and you can tell a better story.
Bob Garfield: Complicating the problem, scholarship has made more than clear, that even when the media try to debunk a rumor, that the very process of debunking tends to cement the misinformation in the minds of people who don't necessarily want the debunkitude.
Craig: Yeah, this is called the backfire effect. When deeply held views are challenged, our instinct is not to say, well let me understand your point of view on this, it's to double down on those beliefs and to reject what's being told to us. And this is one of the reasons why debunking is so difficult. Another reason is that when you're the debunker, you're almost like a spoilsport. You're kind of ruining a joke, especially when it comes to an entertaining story. A lot of research has found that what you actually have to do, is tell a causal narrative, saying actually here's why this is what happened, and when you do that people can replace that misinformation with the new narrative in their mind.
Bob Garfield: You have an example. Can you tell me about the condoms?
Craig: I would love to tell you about the condoms, Bob. So there was an image created by a guy on Twitter, and this was back in the fall when of course, pumpkin spice products were everywhere. And he decided to mock up an image and share it on Twitter of a pumpkin spice flavored Durex condom. And then over the next few days, the image starts to get taken and used by other people, to the point where a reporter with Quartz sees this condom circulating and wondering well are they actually making it? Rather than just writing a post that says hey, there's a pumpkin spice condom maybe? She actually called the company and called their PR rep and tried to get an answer--
Bob Garfield: Wait wait wait! A reporter reported?? Stop the presses!
Craig: It was like the heavens had opened up, it was just amazing. And the PR firm couldn't really tell her either way, so she published an article saying that Durex could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the pumpkin spice condom. But Durex responded relatively quickly. Within a few hours, they denied that they were making one, they put out kind of a playful tweet about it, and the amazing thing that happened is that we saw a huge pile-on of news sites now suddenly writing about the pumpkin spice condom and all of them were correctly saying that it was not real. So this was the most debunked claim that we had seen, there were many many times the shares for the debunking than for the initial false reports. The other thing that I think that was really key about this, I talked about debunkers often seeming like spoilsports, Durex made a little joke about spicing it up in the bedroom, when they denied the existence of this condom, and the fact that they actually played along with the joke, a lot of the articles that we saw debunking it, were still able to make all of the pumpkin spice condom jokes they wanted to. So they didn't kill the joke, they opened up the door to fun debunkings, and I think that's one of the reasons lots of people still decided to write about it.
Bob Garfield: Alright, Craig, thank you.
Craig: Thank you.
Bob Garfield: Craig Silverman is a fellow at Columbia's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and founder of the rumor-tracing website Emergent.