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6: Putting the Human Crowd to Work

Mathew Ingram is an award-winning journalist and media consultant who has spent the past two decades writing about business, technology and new media as well as advising companies on their social-media strategy. He is currently a senior writer with the San Francisco-based blog network GigaOM, where he writes about the evolution of media and web culture. Before that, he was the first-ever communities editor - specializing in social-media development and strategy - for the Globe and Mail, where he developed the newspaper's approach to online comments, pioneered its Facebook page and launched dozens of writers and editors on Twitter. He tweets at @mathewi.

The idea of crowdsourcing verification of news events and emergencies isn't really that all new - the crowd, broadly speaking, has always been a crucial part of how the news is formed and understood. It's just that social technologies like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others allow us to engage in this kind of shared decision-making process on a much larger and broader scale, and they allow us to do it faster as well. That's not to say there aren't flaws in this process, because there are - but on balance, we are probably better off than we were before.

Just think about how facts and news events were established in the not-so-distant past: When a war broke out, a hurricane struck or a bomb exploded somewhere, there were often few journalists around, unless they just happened to be there. Sources on the ground would relay the information to a news outlet and then the painstaking process of verifying those events would begin, based on interviews with witnesses, phone calls and so on.

Now, we are just as likely to find out about news - particularly sudden, unpredictable events like earthquakes or mass shootings - on Twitter, within minutes or even seconds of their happening. And instead of just one or two observations from bystanders and witnesses, we can get hundreds or even thousands of them. Some of them are likely to be erroneous, as we saw with the bombings in Boston and other similar emergency situations, but overall a fairly accurate picture can be gradually assembled of what occurred and how - and it happens faster than ever.

Here's a look at some of the best practices for the emerging practice of crowdsourced verification, as practiced by innovators like Andy Carvin, a former senior strategist at NPR, and others.

Identify, verify and connect with sources

In most cases, the starting point is to identify sources that are reliable and then curate, aggregate and verify the information that comes from them. Andy Carvin of NPR built what he called a "Twitter newsroom" of sources in the Middle East during the Arab Spring by starting with people he knew personally and using them as a means to discover other sources.

"What I find really important is paying attention to who these folks on Twitter, and occasionally on Facebook, are talking to," Carvin told Craig Silverman in a 2011 interview. "For both Tunisia and Egypt I already had about half a dozen sources in each country that I had known."

Carvin also asked people he knew to recommend or verify other sources he was finding through Twitter searches and by following specific hashtags. Over time, he generated lists of hundreds of valuable sources.

Those lists in turn became the engine that allowed Carvin to effectively live-tweet a series of wars - receiving information, republishing it, asking his followers and sources for help verifying it, then posting the results. In many ways it was a chaotic process, but ultimately successful.

To manage these many contacts, he built Twitter Lists to organize them into logical groups based on topics or geographical location. Today, this kind of thing could also be accomplished with Facebook Interest Lists, Google Plus circles and other tools, or by subscribing to YouTube accounts and building playlists, among other options.

Carvin also took another critical step, which was to contact many of his sources directly or meet them in person to develop a relationship. Many people saw only what he was doing with his Twitter account, but he also spent a lot of time communicating with people via Skype, email and other means to confirm their identities.

As detailed in previous chapters, these kinds of sources and the information they provide must be verified. After using Twitter advanced search, YouTube search and other means to find people and organizations on the ground or with access to relevant information, you need to work to contact them and verify where their information is coming from.

The more you interact with your sources, and learn about them, the more you'll see their strengths, weaknesses, biases and other factors that need to be weighed when considering the information they share. As your list of sources grows, you also begin to see patterns in what they see and share and report, and this provides the raw material needed to triangulate and determine exactly what is and isn't happening.

"Some of these folks are working to actively overthrow their local regimes," Carvin said of the sources he connected with during the Arab Spring [1]. "I just have to be aware of that at all times. Perhaps the answer is transparency, so a certain person might be giving me good information but I should never forget that they are part of the opposition."

Engaging your sources

At one point during the violence in Libya in 2011, Carvin was contacted by someone on Twitter who asked him - and by extension his Twitter newsroom - to help verify if Israeli weapons were being used in Libya. He detailed how it played out in a Storify [2]:

From that tip, Carvin enlisted his followers by asking them to help confirm whether the mortar in question was Israeli. They responded with a mix of useful tips and views, along with some dead ends. He eventually received specific information that helped answer the question:

In the end, the weapon wasn't Israeli; it was Indian. And it wasn't a mortar at all. Carvin said one way he knew he was onto the correct information was that he heard it from multiple sources whom he knew were unconnected to each other.

"In the case of what we did for the so-called Israeli weapons, I had a lot of people that were giving me essentially the same information and they didn't really know each other so I captured some of that in my Storify," he said.

It's important to remember that one thing that helped Andy Carvin do what he did was his reaching out to others for help in a very human and approachable way. He also treated those he came into contact with as colleagues, rather than as just sources he could command to do his bidding. Journalists and others who simply hand out orders get very little in response, but treating people like human beings makes all the difference.

New York Times war reporter C.J. Chivers has taken advantage of a similar approach as Carvin's to verify bombs used in various conflicts, and says [3] the process arrives at the truth far quicker than would have been possible in the past.

With any given piece of information, there are likely to be knowledgeable people in your social circle (or in their broader web of connections) who know the truth about that incident or event. You just have to find them.

Said Chivers: "The proof in this case was made possible with the help of the standard tools of covering war from the field: the willingness to work in the field, a digital camera, a satellite Internet connection, a laptop, an e-mail account and a body of sources with specialized knowledge. But there was a twist that is a reflection of new ways that war can be examined in real time - by using social media tools to form brief crowds of experts on a social media site."

Chivers has also celebrated the achievements of a British "citizen journalist" [4] by the name of Brown Moses. He's a blogger whose real name is Eliot Higgins, and who has developed an expertise in chemical weapons by watching and verifying thousands of YouTube videos of the conflict in Syria.

Higgins had no training in either journalism or military hardware, but has become a key link in the chain of verification, to the point where professional journalists like Chivers and even aid agencies have come to rely on him. New, critical sources like Moses can emerge in certain situations, either because they work at an issue over time or because they are in the right (or wrong) place at the right time.

Responsible crowdsourcing

One thing that anyone, journalist or not, trying to collect and verify information during a crisis has to remember is that you are also a source of information for others, when using social media like Twitter or Facebook or Google Plus. That means any unsubstantiated information you post while you are doing your verification work could contribute to the confusion around the event.

Keep that in mind while tweeting or posting details and looking for corroboration. The best approach is to be as open as possible about what is happening, and to repeatedly remind your followers or social connections that you are looking for help, not just circulating unconfirmed information.

In order to prevent confusion, be as clear as possible about what you know and what you don't know, and which pieces of information you need help confirming. With some kinds of sensitive or inflammatory details, you are better off trying to confirm through offline methods first before taking to social media or online methods. You may be careful to flag the information as "unconfirmed" or a rumor, but these flags can often disappear once they start to spread. We all have a responsibility to consider that reality, and to not add to confusion or misinformation in a crisis situation.

The power of the crowd

Algorithms and automated searches can generate a huge amount of content when it comes to breaking news events, as detailed in the next chapter. But arguably only human beings can sift through and make sense of that amount of content in an efficient way, in real time. As examples like Andy Carvin and Brown Moses have shown, by far the best tool for doing this is a network of trusted sources who are focused either on a specific topic area, or in a specific physical location - a network that you can use as your own crowdsourced newsroom.

Entering into this kind of relationship with sources shouldn't be taken lightly, however. It's not just a tool or a process that allows you to do your job or complete a task faster and more efficiently - it's a collaborative effort, and you should be prepared to give as much as you receive.



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