False tweet sinks stock market. Is anyone checking this stuff?

Stock markets tanked briefly (and then recovered) after the AP Twitter account was hacked and falsely announced a White House bombing. An array of new firms verify social media information to make sure clients aren't fooled.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
The White House was not bombed Tuesday, despite a fake tweet from AP to the contrary. These police were part of stepped up security Sunday in the wake of the Boston bombings.

Within 60 seconds of the Associated Press tweeting that the White House had been bombed – a tweet that sent stock markets into a tailspin – subscribers to Storyful knew it was a hoax.

The AP Twitter feed, it turns out, had been hacked, and stock markets quickly recovered. But the incident highlighted why Storyful exists. In a social media world gone mad, it is one of a handful of new companies trying to fill the growing need for some form of social media information verification.

That need has been abundantly apparent during the past week. While law enforcement in the Boston bombing case called for the community to send photos, videos, and ideas, the response on social media included reams of raw information – much of it false – and half-baked theories. The family of a missing Brown University student had to refute false claims that he was involved.

At times, the news media were drawn into the spiral of social media of misinformation, and that is what Storyful hopes to remedy. Billed as the first news agency for the social media age, this global enterprise of some 35 professionals – many refugees from media such as CNN – scans social media to alert clients about news before even local wires, TV, or radio have picked it up. It then cross-checks the information to verify sources.

As social media becomes a greater part of the news media landscape, Storyful is just the sort of venture that could help each improve the other.

“We need both social and traditional journalism in our current age – not one versus the other, not one or the other, but both,” says Paul Levinson, a professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York and author of “New New Media,” via e-mail. “Storyful looks like a significant step forward in bridging this gap.”

Storyful may be the most full-service provider in this growing space, providing not just verification but alerts and help with managing rights and usage. Based in Dublin, Ireland, but with staff in Asia, Europe, and the US, Storyful now boasts a roster of major news outlets from Bloomberg News to The New York Times.

But others are rushing to get in on the real-time verification business, including iWitness and Geofeedia, which uses GPS technology to pinpoint the location of people tweeting or texting.

“As every news event happens, the amount of user-generated content is only going to increase,” says Storyful co-founder David Clinch, who spent 20 years at CNN before launching the company three years ago. “This is not something that is going to change, and that is a real problem for legacy media.”

But there are dangers in the curation or mediation of raw content, say others.

“Some of these so-called watchdog, fact-checking websites have an agenda of their own ... to knock down stories that may, in fact, be true,” says Mark Tatge, CEO and founder of Deadline Reporter, a digital and new media consulting group, via e-mail. “It is sometimes very difficult in today's Web world to sort truth from propaganda.”

Mr. Clinch says Storyful is not making an editorial decision, but providing as much information as possible for clients to make those calls.

Now the media just need to be more careful about making those calls. After all, most tweeters and texters do not consider themselves journalists, but rather part of a community of people sharing important news. So the news media need to remind itself "to be more careful, and that being right is more important than being first,” says Janet Johnson, assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas.

New media has raised new questions, she says via e-mail: “How can social media and legacy media work together to create a more factual story for the general public? How can police use social media as a tool to help identify criminals quickly? How can we educate the public on social media literacy in times of tragedy?”

While the tools are new and the methods viral, these questions are merely fresh incarnations of challenges that have existed for years. Richard Jewell was falsely accused of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996, and former Labor Secretary was acquitted in a fraud case in 1987.

“After being exonerated, Donovan rhetorically asked reporters, 'Where do I go to get my reputation back?' " says Len Shyles, a professor of communication at Villanova University in Philadelphia, in an e-mail. "Churchill said it well: A lie travels around the globe before the truth gets its pants on.”

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