What can you believe online?
Entire videos can be convincingly fabricated to show a world leader saying and doing things that didn’t happen in real life. Armies of bots can drive conversations on social media, repeating false information over and over again until it almost feels like fact. And videos and images of old events pop up with alarming regularity, recaptioned to make it seem as if they are part of current events.
In normal times, this would be cause enough for alarm. But in the past two years we have lived through a pandemic – and with it, a fake news "infodemic" – and now, with the Russian invasion, a war in Ukraine. More than ever, we need to be able to trust what we are seeing. "Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it" – and that subsequent truth is rarely as well shared as the initial attention grabbing misinformation.
Whether it is footage of the Ghost of Kyiv – later discovered to be a video game – or photographs claiming to show Nazi activity, there are some tools and resources you can use to weed out the false information before you unwittingly become part of the misinformation machine.
Manipulated images are everywhere. Whether it is carefully retouched advertising images or filtered Instagram pictures, we have learned not to trust everything in front of our eyes.
However, some fakes are more blatant than others. One tool you can use is an image’s metadata, also known as EXIF data. This is information embedded in the image file that tells you what device the photo was taken with, the date it was created, exposure values, white balance, the lens used and so on.
If an image claims to be of an event that took place in 2022, but the EXIF data shows it was taken several years previously, the story is effectively debunked.
On smartphones, there are several apps that will help you read the metadata of photos sent to you, including ExifWizard. On desktop, you can use Jeffrey's Image Metadata Viewer to see some of the hidden information.
However, some platforms strip the metadata out of the image, giving you very little to go on. In that case, you can do a reverse image search to see if the image has appeared anywhere else. That can give you a decent clue about whether the image is genuine or has been faked.
It can also reveal images that have been taken out of context. For example, in the first few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, footage claiming to show troops facing off against each other emerged; while the photos were of genuine troops, they were from 2014. A quick reverse image search, either through Google Image search or TinEye, would reveal previous uses of the image – and any accompanying information that could date them.
There are limitations to the technology, however. If an image is flipped, for example, into a mirror image of the original, it may not be picked up by the image search.
Amnesty International has also got in on the misinformation fight, with a tool that helps verify videos on YouTube. YouTube Dataviewer takes the URL of the video you are trying to verify, and pulls out important information such as the time and date of its upload to YouTube, which can help you track down the original upload, and thumbnail images that can be reverse-searched to find anywhere else the images have been used.
Myth busting and fact-checking sites
If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. But what if the news being shared is the opposite? That’s when you can turn to the numerous fact-checking websites out there, taking down one hoax at a time. Don't rely on one source for your information though, as sites can sometimes get it wrong too.
When it comes to hoaxes, urban legends and misinformation, Snopes is usually the first port of call to check fact from fiction. In the past week or so, the site has dealt with a number of claims about the Ukraine invasion, including a climate protest miscaptioned both as genuine war footage from Ukraine and crisis actors; debunked Ebay listings selling Russian tanks captured by Ukranians; and cats trained to spot sniper lasers.
Sources are listed for each fact-check, and the site is open about its fact-checking procedure, and who is behind the entire operation.
It is a similar procedure over at FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center in the US. The website details its funding and its objectives, and its link to Facebook, where it debunks misinformation.
It also has a number of guides for users, including a guide on how to flag suspicious stories on Facebook and information on how to pick out the fakes.
Bellingcat, an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists, is also working to debunk disinformation, and offers guides on how to vet social media claims.
Meanwhile, Google Fact Check Tools gives you a list of recent fact-checks carried out by various online publications, from AFP and Politifact to Vera Files and the Quint. You can search by topic, and whittle it down by outlet.
According to figures from Statista, about 51 per cent of Irish adults regularly use social media as a news source. But trust in the platforms isn’t exactly high, and given recent events that isn’t all that surprising.
Twitter has introduced a number of tools to help stop the spread of misinformation on the platform. If you retweet a link, Twitter prompts you to read the article first. In the past it has also labelled tweets containing misinformation, rather than removing them completely, and redirected users to more trustworthy sources of information. Facebook also applies similar labels on articles that have been run through fact-checkers.
However, it is not a fool-proof system so it is worth double-checking where the information is coming from before you share.
Check the profile carefully, starting with the user name. There are clever tricks to make a username seem like a well-known person, such as using a capital “I” in place of a lowercase “l”. Twitter verification doesn’ mean the account is trustworthy in its views, but that blue tick can instil a certain level of trust in people.
If an account has no profile picture or an image that is definitely not theirs, it may not be a genuine account. That’s not a given; plenty of people don’t bother putting their own face to an account for a number of reasons, not all nefarious.
Does it have any contact details in the bio? Is the bio misspelled, or missing altogether? Have they recently joined the platform? Some social media platforms let you see when an account was activated. A new account could have been created solely to spread disinformation about a particular event.
Follower count is no indication of the legitimacy of the account – followers are easy to manufacture or buy, so don’t trust someone just because they have thousands of followers.
What kind of posts are they making? If the account is repeating the same posts over and over, it may not be a genuine account. The same goes for repeated use of hashtags or replies to people that seem out of context.
Not sure if that Twitter account is genuine? Check with Bot Sentinel. The Osome project rates accounts on their activity and how likely it is that they are inauthentic.
There is another thing to take into account: not all bots are bad. In fact, some exist to spread real information, either through automated tweeting of legitimate news sources, or scraping data from official sources and tweeting it out to the world.
This is where our innate sense of judgment has to take over.