Social Media Versus The Hurricane


Reporting and analysing critical incidents such as Hurricane Sandy using Twitter presents a particular challenge: filtering high volumes of information, and getting information out not only quickly but accurately.

As BuzzFeed’s Deputy Tech Editor John Herrman points out:

"There was no shark in Brigantine, and certainly no beached seal in Manhattan. The NYSE trading floor did not flood, and the 10 or more Con Edison workers trapped at a damaged plant turned out not to exist."

There was, however a 168-foot tanker ship that washed ashore on Staten Island, a major New York public hospital that had to be evacuated, and seven New York subways that flooded.

More than 80 houses burnt down in Queens, NY. 70-80 per cent of Atlantic City disappeared underwater, and at last count at least 133 people were confirmed dead throughout the Caribbean, US and Canada.

The claims appearing on Twitter during Hurricane Sandy beggared belief and
demanded fact-checking — at least, for all of us who seek accuracy in news reporting.

Twitter in itself is not a truth machine — it is awash with crummy claims and false data. But the
platform is a goldmine of open source information, waiting to be vetted and verified.

We know traditional media outlets are increasingly relying on social media. Checking ascertainable details from online sources takes time and commitment. "Horse-race" journalism is simply dangerous during critical incidents: sharing bad information may have potentially perilous consequences, as social media users attempt to gather vital information to respond to emergencies.

New York Times’ journalist Ravi Somaiya raised a relevant issue on Twitter on Tuesday:

"Question not ‘does Twitter peddle misinformation’. It’s ‘why do some treat information on Twitter with more credulity than other sources’".

As Hurricane Sandy bore down, we were awash with information. Over 4 million tweets flooded the Twitter hashtag #Sandy over a 24 hour period.

But the enormity of the social media information ocean won’t send the public scurrying back
towards mindless traditional media outlets. This week Fox News suggested their audience should boil contaminated water for drinking purposes (potentially deadly), and a Today Show host less than helpfully advised viewers to "poop on kitty litter if they lost power".

Encouraging both the public and journalists to take responsibility for verifying social media
information of interest can’t really be worse than drinking cholera-infected water and shitting on grits as a result of relying on a traditional media organisation that doesn’t care for fact-checking, can it?

Interactive mapping tools like @ushahidi and Google Public Alerts can provide a wealth of up-to-the-moment information. And of course, Twitter Lists remain a solid tool for filtering news sources.

Of course, for most of us, it’s only apparent how much we really need to be using data analysis and filtering tools when the shit actually hits the fan.

But maybe, sorting out the "trust" issue cannot necessarily be simply resolved using new platforms, software, online tools and applications. Perhaps we need to find new individual methods for verifying accuracy and deciding "who do we trust?"

I don’t have all the answers, but I suspect projects engaging in collaborative, crowdsourced fact-checking methods as a basis for reporting not only creates the potential for quality journalism — it also promotes the public interest.

For instance, The Atlantic‘s Alexis C. Madrigal created "Instasnopes" — a crowdsourced project currently helping to sort real images from Hurricane Sandy from the fake photos currently doing the rounds.

Likewise, the international hacker community has also fronted up to provide indispensable assistance, working around the clock to create the Hurricane Hackers project. The group are utilising their talents to provide much-needed interactive online resources for people seeking information and support services.

There is something quietly inspiring and egalitarian, as journalists, technological experts and members of the public collaborate in sharing and verifying information for social good.

Much has been made of the idea that "trust is the real currency of journalism".

But without a consistent commitment to accuracy in reporting, public trust for news sources is a precarious — and possibly fleeting — asset at best. We have the tools to verify claims made on social media and we should use them together more often.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.