If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Subvert ‘Em: Countering Misinformation on the Viral Web

From The Atlantic:

First came the fakes. Old storm photos dredged up and labeled Sandy. Photoshopped sharks in a flooded New Jersey town. A still from the Day After Tomorrow of the Statue of Liberty. An empty Times Square. A scuba diver in Times Square station. A lost seal borrowed from Duluth.

But very early Tuesday morning, a few hours after Sandy had made landfall, the flow of fake images of the storm began to slow, and by Tuesday afternoon, the unbelievable photographs of damage were almost all, tragically, real. For two days, our team here at The Atlantic along with journalist Tom Phillips (@flashboy) did our best to reduce the amount of disinformation spreading on the web and to confirm the work that amateurs and pros alike were publishing about the storm. Through the hours of detail-oriented tasks, some thoughts accumulated in my head about the state of our information ecosystem. I’m not sure if they’re waste products — like leftover browser tabs from a wild Internet goose chase — or if they’re an interesting distillate, but I thought I’d share them. I’m wary of overlearning from one case. And yet this is what I saw.

What is it to experience a major and fast-moving news event primarily through the Internet? I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough anthropological research on this topic. We know what it is to sit in front of a network news or cable news or even the radio. (One of my most distinct memories of childhood is sitting in front of the TV watching the LA riots unfold, drawing fantastical guns in a sketchbook.) Without really knowing it, you learned how to discount or rely on information depending on where it was coming from. If you saw a shot of dozens of fires across Los Angeles taken from a helicopter, you could count on that being real. If anchors said on the air that there were snipers on the 405, you knew to weight that report appropriately.

The nominal authority of the media and the natural authority of their live, on-sceneness combined to create an experience you could pretty much believe. What you watched was certainly mediated and in no way unproduced. The reports media outlets produced could be biased or wrong or framed in an idiotic way or otherwise terrible, but during a breaking news event, they were rarely total and complete bullshit. (Caveat granted that this is not 100 percent true: see, for example, the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad.) But at the very least, some reporter had to stand on television and put his or her name on a story. In our mostly correct and psychologically satisfying desire to criticize the mainstream media’s flaws, we sometimes forget how many techniques and procedures they developed over the 20th century that were good. Not out of the goodness of their own hearts, but because the incentives of their industry aligned to encourage veracity and the culture stuck. Judith Miller and the New York Times at least had to answer for her inaccurate reports about Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Continue reading the rest of the story on The Atlantic