Storyful uses tool to monitor what reporters watch
Company insider describes tracking activity as ‘tremendously wrong’
Storyful was set up by former RTÉ journalist Mark Little.
Software developed by a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to help journalists verify content on social media is also being used to monitor the videos and images viewed by reporters who use the tool.
The technology was built by Storyful, an agency that finds, verifies and licenses newsworthy or viral social media content on behalf of media organisations, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and ABC News.
In 2016, journalists were encouraged to install a Storyful web browser extension called Verify that informs users when videos or images have been verified and cleared for use by the company’s in-house journalists.
But the Guardian has established that data acquired through the Verify plugin is also being used by Storyful, which was founded by former RTÉ journalist Mark Little in 2010, to actively monitor what its clients are seeing on social media. The incoming social media browsing data has been turned into an internal feed at the company that updates in real time.
More than 40 Storyful employees, including journalists, editors and senior executives at the company’s offices in Dublin, London, New York and Sydney, have been granted access to the feed, providing them with a window into what other journalists are looking at on social media.
The Guardian has obtained a recording of the feed, which is a purpose-built channel in Slack, a commonly used office software. The channel, called #verify-notifications, displays a constantly updated list of videos and pictures being viewed on social media. Over a four-hour period, more than 200 videos and photos are shown, beside the notification: “New item viewed by client.”
Two former Storyful insiders, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, described how the feed was considered a resource that could be mined by journalists at the company looking for newsworthy, viral or monetisable social media content that is first spotted by clients.
“In my opinion it is tremendously wrong that this is going on,” one said, adding that journalists who have installed the software may have no idea their browsing activity is being monitored in this way.
Storyful strongly disputed that, insisting it made “clear disclosures” about how the extension works. “The data that Verify collects appears in an internal Slack channel called #verify-notifications,” it said in a statement. “Links flow into the Slack channel with no personal data that identifies the user who is viewing the content.” The company said the purpose of the channel was to “improve the user experience in order to serve our customers better”.
It said any allegation that the tool constituted a data breach or amounted to spying was “factually wrong and defamatory” and said: “We take privacy matters very seriously, we collect all data responsibly, and we are transparent in the way we use that data.”
Storyful, which was acquired by News Corp in 2013, uses its own team of journalists to verify material that appears on social media, from YouTube videos of military attacks in Syria to videos of pets posted to Facebook.
The Verify extension, which was launched in November 2016, was billed as a tool to streamline that process, providing what Storyful called “a one-click analysis of any piece of content on the social web”. Both the Telegraph and Reuters are understood to have previously used Storyful, which lists the BBC and Google as other clients on its website. It is not known whether journalists at any of these technology or media companies installed the Verify plugin, but the
Chrome webstore suggests it has about 500 users.
Once a user has installed Verify and logged into a Storyful account provided by their employer, they see a green or red signal depending on whether the content accessed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo or YouTube is on Storyful’s Newswire of content that has been cleared for use. Verify also has a button clients can use to voluntarily send content to Storyful that they would like the company to investigate content.
The hunt for newsworthy social media content has spawned a competitive industry, and there is often a race among reporters to find, validate and seek permission to use videos posted to Twitter and YouTube. Viral clips can be highly valuable, and in recent years Storyful and other companies have also begun licensing social media content, charging for its use and then sharing the revenue with whoever captured the image or video. – Guardian