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Is Twitter Wrong? Real, fake, and “guilty, guilty, guilty”

Monday, November 12, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Last month we wrote about countering misinformation without accidentally reinforcing it. Alexis Madrigal over at the Atlantic must be reading the same articles we are since he wrote a very nice piece on how to correct visual misinformation when we are bombarded with it–using the recent barrage of Hurricane Sandy photos as exemplars.

In any natural disaster, photos spread like wildfire courtesy of various social media outlets and the internet. For some reason, some people find it so important to send out early photos that they send faked images and pretend (aka “lie”) that they are photos of the current disaster. A good example is this faked New Jersey shark photo that went viral during the recent hurricane. The fakes are typically sent out early on in the disaster with later photos often as shocking as the fakes but sadly, all too real.

As we know, when you repeat a phrase (like “death panels”) you reinforce the phrase and therefore, the belief that there is fact behind the fiction. It’s a real dilemma. How can you counter the misinformation? Especially when the information is so powerful and transmitted visually. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. And how? Via subversion, according to The Atlantic.

They decided to search and painstakingly identify fake images and the real images floating around the web. But they knew they couldn’t simply publish fakes and say they were fakes. What people would remember was the photo–not the text. Instead, they figured out a way to use social media to disseminate the truth after it had been initially used to disseminate the lie! It’s genius!

“Given this current system and the tide of fake photos Sandy had brought, I decided to do the only thing that seemed likely to help, in some small way: create content that would A) counter the misinformation, B) have authority, and C) be as viral as the bad information. I began, with the help of my team, to try to verify each viral photo, collecting the results in one post. The results of our work reached nearly a million people.

The first decision we made was to focus on photographs. Those are relatively easy to debunk or confirm. And we could take advantage of the preference for visuals that I noted above.

Then, we realized that we needed a way to post the photos without adding to the problem. So, anytime we posted a fake photo, it had a prominent (digital) red sticker on it that said, “FAKE.” And I put, in text overlaid on the photos, how we knew it was fake with a shortened URL to that information. That way, even if people did cut and paste those images, the key information would remain attached to them. In fact, the branding practically encouraged people to take the images and post them to social media. (We tried to meet the problematic system on its own terms.)”

If you take a look at the post where they show real and fake photos with the prominent REAL or FAKE tags on them, it’s a memorable visual. The photos literally scream at you–REAL!!! or FAKE!!! It’s terrific. You can also see these at the site Is Twitter Wrong? (on Tumblr and not Twitter, naturally)!

It’s a terrific application of new research. Unfortunately, the concrete parallel doesn’t work so well in the courtroom.

“The Washington State Supreme Court has overturned four felony convictions of a Pierce County man, saying a deputy prosecutor violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial by superimposing the words, “guilty, guilty, guilty,” over the man’s photo during a PowerPoint presentation in closing arguments.”

The best we can tell you is to make your own applications of the work of Lewandowsky, et al. more abstract. Their recommendations are worth repeating.

Provide people with a narrative that replaces the gaps left by false information. Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than on the myths.

Make information takeaways simple and brief.

Consider your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold dear. Strengthen your message through strategic and measured repetition.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13 (3), 106-131 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612451018

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One Response to “Is Twitter Wrong? Real, fake, and “guilty, guilty, guilty””

  1. @sora9n says:

    when it comes to photo & breaking news, twitter is often wrong (also: how to mend it) http://t.co/DHp4woGs

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