When it comes to user-generated content and social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter are one of the first websites that pop into our heads. Facebook as a social sphere contains around 1.35 billion active users per month, where Twitter brings an average of 50 millions Tweets per day. Therefore, it is not surprising that a huge amount of information floats inside out on daily basis. Information that can embrace personal posts, commercials, politics, news or any kind of topics we can imagine. Among variety of posts within social media, we can come across exciting & hot news reported by any of us or so called ‘accidental journalists’ – people, who happen to be in the right place and time with a phone in their hands. This kind of user-generated content can be considered a valuable source of information for journalists and news agencies. Hence, it is highly important to verify whether provided info is true or false, real or imaginary, in order to avoid confusion, falsehood or propaganda. False information can not only lead journalists or each and all of us to uncertainty but also create unwanted panic and fear. The following case will illustrate the importance of user-generated content as sources to collect data.
Ukraine situation: case of Russian soldier’s posts online
Early this year Ukraine crisis hit news. As things got intense with Russia and Crimean area, people from all around the world kept themselves on their toes. Social media pages became a sphere for discussions or publications of latest news regarding Ukraine issues (e.g. “Euromaidan in English” on Facebook, “Ukraine Reporter” on Twitter), or even support groups based on the web (“I support Ukraine“, “United we stand for Ukraine“). User-generated content on social media, became a tool to follow these hot events, therefore, providing users with unlimited stories, variety of approaches, both close to and far from reality.
Later this year, on 23th of July, a provoking post showed up online. It was posted on Vkontakte, whcih is a Russian website made according to prototype of Facebook. Russian soldier posted variety of pictures and posts indicating that Russian artillery unit is shelling Ukrainian positions from Russian area. The information was perceived as true one due to visual information (pictures), date it was published and geotag function, which indicated exact location from which it was posted online. After a few days, US confirmed attacks from this area.
This case showed how highly important it is to validate information and then, put it in practice. As these posts of Russian soldier were sortly removed from Vkontakte, luckily, its’ prints were left on social media. Therefore, we can realize that bits and pieces found online can bring crucial changes. These findings can be a valuable information which can help to either inform people about present/upcoming event or even prevent it from happening.
Is this valid? Steps to verify user-generated content
Verification plays a big role when it comes to sources. Taking into account the risk of providing misleading information, it is incredibly important to treat gathered data in a cautious manner. As technology provides power to control our content, it is always significant to challenge information on all occasions. According to researcher Claire Wardle, in addition to Craig Silverman and Rita Tsubaki provided verification list, there can be 4 steps to verify user-generated content:
Provenance. We answer the question whether provided data is an original piece of content.
It can be done by taking into account few steps. Firstly, we can find out if account is verified – Facebook introduces verification programs which shows if profile is verified by adding blue tick near profile picture. Additionally, another observations like post history, visual material, locations, friends and followers can help to verify authenticity of the post and content.
Source. We identify who uploaded the content.
The main strategy is to figure out who is the uploader and try to reach him. When (and if) conversation takes place it is important to question cues that might help to identify is the person really created the content or no, e.g. location, time, surroundings, instruments that were used, other people involved, etc.
Date. We indicate the date content was created.
This step requires to confirm the exact date the content was created. It can be done by viewing information on social media pages. Even so, sometimes it is hard to distinguish the time content was created as it can be uploaded later than it was created (e.g. videos or pictures). Therefore, it is important to challenge all the elements that the content contains in order to find out the date.
Location. We indicate the place content was created or/and posted.
If the content is automatically geolocated – there is no difficulty to identify the location (like Facebook or Twitter geo tags). Although, location confirmation can face the same challenge as date verification. Advanced settings, different location of publishing can mislead. Hence, it is advised to take same actions as regarding date confirmation – analyse all possible cues.
These steps indicate how we can verify the content. Additional search on search engines like Google (searching if similar posts were uploaded, news reports from official trusted sources) and inner logic should lead to conclusions whether to trust or dismiss information.
In summary, as we can see from the case example of Russian soldier’s posts, it is essential to verify user-generated content we find on social networking sites. The key is to challenge gathered information, question any possible relations, analyse all kinds of cues within and outside the content, that can indicate whether it is true or false. We have to keep our eyes open to any kind of clues and only then, we can sense if we can trust the user-generated content or no. These findings can provide key information for journalists that might have significant difference in ongoing events.
Verification handbook. An ultimate guideline on digital age sourcing for emergency coverage. Edited by Craig Silverman. Pages: 25 – 31, 97 – 103.
User-generated content. John Krumm, Nigel Davies, Chandra Narayanaswami. IEEE CS Pervasive computing journal, 2008. Pages: 10-11. Retrieved from here.
By the Numbers: 170 Amazing Facebook User & Demographic Statistics. Craig Smith, 2014. Retrieved from here.
#numbers. Twitter, 2011. Retrieved from here.
4 Ways to Squash Silly Facebook Rumours. Stacey Santos, Stikky Media. Retrieved from here.
Ukraine@war blog, 2014. Retrieved from here.