There was a time when sending hand-written letters to newspapers, and then subsequently waiting for weeks before getting a proper reply, was the only way readers could connect to a media organisation.
This time-consuming process always kept readers on one side of the spectrum. It created a clear division between them and journalists. Today though, with the tremendous increase in the number of social media users, that line has begun to blur a bit.
An ordinary reader today does not just consume news, but also has the ability to become a source of information. Take for instance the case of the video of a police officer mercilessly beating up a driver in Dhanmondi for not paying bribe, which had gone viral on Facebook earlier this year.
There was no professional journalist on the spot to cover this issue. It was only after the video was shared a number of times in the public domain that reporters decided to pursue it. The person who had shot the video was probably just another social media enthusiast who had a good instinct. Eventually, there was action taken against the police officer and the driver was let go.
The incident above is just one of the many examples when journalists have depended upon user-generated content for news. And unsurprisingly over the years, this trend has become more and more frequent. After all, there are at least 300 hours of video uploaded every hour on Youtube, more than 6000 tweets every second, and around 136,000 photos uploaded every minute on Facebook.
With so much information available in the public domain, journalists are bound to find something newsworthy. A good social media editor, with the right skills, can supply some of the most interesting news pieces by just sitting at his or her desk today.
However, the increasing dependence on user-generated content is also the reason why fact-checking has become all the more important. You need to know what’s true and what’s not. It’s obvious that not everything shared on social media is true and it’s a journalist’s duty to filter the stream of imformation before it is published under the media organisation’s banner.
And it’s not enough for a social media editor to merely decipher the validity of the information; the person in-charge needs to do it quickly, because there are plenty of other people in rival news organisations who are probably working on the exact same news piece.
This scenario has given birth to a separate entity, fact-checkers, in the world of media. They may work as a part of a news organisation, or they may work independently. Their sole job is to verify a particular piece of content that generally deals with politics or anything that goes viral online.
Fact-checking first became popular in the United States in the early 2000s when fact-checkers would often come to light during election campaigns in order to spot the lies of the presidential candidates.
It has gradually spread across the world. Some of the most popular fact-checking organisations in the world include Politifact, The Washington Post Fact Checker and Snopes. Each of these organisations has a different way of representing their analysis.
The Politifact, for example, uses a ‘Truth-o-meter,’ which ranges from ‘Mostly True’ to ‘Pants on Fire.’ While the former rating is given to articles that don’t have any false information, the latter represents the complete opposite. Unsurprisingly, it’s a rating that Donald Trump had received a number of times during the last elections.
The current circumstance in Bangladesh is ripe for fact-checking organisations for a number of reasons. For starters, critical digital thinking is a theory that’s still relatively unknown to many new internet users of the country, and fact-checkers can help prevent fake news from being spread on Facebook and other social media platforms.
Secondly, the national elections are due in a year’s time and specialised fact-checking organisations can actually help the public make well-informed choices, provided that there is an opposition ready to take on the current government.
The launch of an official fact-checking organisation can be a stepping stone for a creation of a more well-informed audience.
Even if you’re not a journalist, there are always ways for you to ensure the validity of a video or a picture doing the rounds on social media and you can do that with the help of a number of free tools available online.
For instance, you could use Tineye (www.tineye.com) to find out when a particular image was first uploaded online. This can actually help you find out whether the current picture that has gone viral is a copy.
WolframAlpha, a computational search engine, is another software that users could use in order to analyse videos. It’s particularly helpful to get details regarding a location’s weather on a particular day. For instance, if a user claims to upload a video on June 19, 2014 and you notice that it’s raining. You could go to WolframAlpha and check the weather on that particular day three years ago in order to verify if had actually rained on that day.
You could also use the Wayback Machine. It’s a software that helps you see older versions of a particular website. If someone deletes a particular image or a line from his or her website, you could go back using this software to check the difference.
There are several other tools that could be used to separate facts from fiction online. However, at the end of the day what matters is common sense; what matters is how critical you are of a particular piece of content. After all, Internet tools can’t support you if you yourself aren’t ready to question.