The Problem of Verification

Jalena Lecic, whose photos were stolen and posted on the 'Gay Girl In Damascus' site
Jalena Lecic, whos photos were stolen and posted on the 'Gay Girl In Damascus' site

Angela Philips of Goldsmiths College, at last Friday’s POLIS conference:

A Major skill for journalists is to learn how to authenticate sources

Or, words to that effect! I made the note on twitter and therefore may have paraphrased. To fully authenticate the quote readers will have to watch the video of the session when it becomes available.

This quote stuck out, because twice in two weeks, I’ve been quick to share information online which has then been questioned and discredited.

The first was the damning testimoney of an “executive of Sony Music UK” who described how Simon Cowell grooms and sexualises young performers, in his quest to find a British Justin Beiber.

Ronan was privately auditioned by SYCO scouts on two more occasions and, as is usual practice on BGT, he was “invited”  to audition for the show as a “preferred” contestant.  At the same time, Ronan and his parents were “required” to enter into a contract with SYCO.  Like all SYCO contracts, it is heavily  weighted in favour of the label and are notoriously bad, even in the cut-throat world of the music industry.  Simon effectively signed Ronan for life and he’s got little or no chance of ever  getting out of it…unless Simon decides to terminate.

Now the improbable perfection of little Ronan Parke has always made me feel uneasy, so I was quick to share the story on my Facebook page.  However, the original post quickly disappeared from the website where it was posted and Simon Cowell issued such a strong denial over matters of fact that I felt it rendered the acusatory, anonymous post unreliable.  The following day, James Ward posted an excellent analysis of how the attack was propagated by a twitter account @ukLegion, which has also now disappeared from Twitter.  I shared James’ link on Facebook too.


#include damage.h

An industry insider at #BGT spills his guts on how this year has been totally stiched up for Ronan Parke to win http://justpaste.it/c8g

Earlier this week, reports emerged of the abduction of a Syrian blogger in Damascus.  I duly tweeted out the links on the @englishpen feed, because that is precisely the sort of information we are supposed to share.  However, by Thursday it emerged that no-one can be found who has actually physically met the blogger, Amina Abdallah Arraf.  It appears the photos posted on her site are fake, but it is not clear whether the entire thing is an elaborate hoax, or whether she has cleverly covered her tracks by ensuring that if no-one has met her, no-one can unwittingly betray her.  I was reminded of the Ali Abduleman disappearance in Bahrain in March – I am still not clear whether he was abducted by security personnel, or has simply gone into hiding.

I have several things to say about this.  The first is that linking to hoax information is clearly embarrassing, no two ways about it.  Here’s my worst example, although to be fair it was reminiscent of a real story.  As the Literally Unbelievable blog shows with its comments on The Onion articles, other people are much more gullible than I.

The second thing is to say that, nevertheless, the internet can work as a sort of fact-check engine.  The act of sharing a link does not and should not imply complete endorsement.  In the case of the SyCo smear I, at least, was quick to share the original article and the rebuttals.  In this example, one could say that the act of posting/sharing is also an act of verification.  When you publicise some text, does it stand up to scrutiny?  If not, you have learned a fact about the world, which you also publish.  This method is something that bloggers understand inately.  However, in formal journalistic and legal circles such a practice would still be lumped in with ‘publish and be damned’ as irresponsible journalism.  But it is more akin to open-source fact-checking.

I will also say that internet publishing has the huge advantage over print in that it allows corrections to the original article.  In the case of Amina Abdallah Arraf, the three highly reputable news organisations I linked to (Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post) were all able to correct the original article.  This, I think, lessens the possibility of misinformation spreading.

Finally, this issue puts me in the mind of Ste Curran’s Monica, a play about a fantastic and witty online friend who turns out not to be real.

 

5 thoughts on “The Problem of Verification

  1. Have been thinking a lot about accuracy of links and information online lately and I agree totally with you. But I am not a journalist that makes things more difficult when it comes to verifying. But I always check out as much as I can and even though that is not very logic I also follow my instinct. If it feels odd I do not publish it.

  2. If journalists are to have a place in the future (and I think they will) it will be because they are trained to authenticate and therefore to provide accurate information. This will mean that people will still come to sites that provide journalism (as opposed to opinion or raw data) when they want to be sure that the facts have been checked. Transparency and linking also has a very important role to play: all of this is discussed in the chapter: Faster and Shallower in : Peter Lee Wright, Angel Phillips, Tamara Witschge, Changing Journalism, Routledge which will be available soon.

  3. Interesting post. I think it’s one thing for honest people to try to verify the information they get, but if journalists are to have a place in the future, surely something should be done about the tabloid tendency to just make stuff up, and with apparent impunity at that.

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