There were a lot of lies told about what was happening in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Some of those lies were reported by otherwise trustworthy news organizations. Some of those lies were told by public officials in New Orleans that news organizations should have been able to trust as reliable sources of information. But most of the lies that spread were spread because people were talking about things they’d heard about as if they’d actually seen them. And some reporters didn’t think to ask: Wait, did you actually see that thing you’re talking about happen?
At the time of Hurricane Katrina, Facebook was less than two years old. Twitter had not been invented. Neither had the smart phone. There was news being shared on the Internet, of course, but it wasn’t being customized for optimal transmission on hand-held devices. Things are different now, though. According to a May 2016 report from the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans get news on a social networking site and 18 percent get it from those sites often. In consumers of news are on the social networking sites, then those who report the news are going to be there, too.
But there’s a higher risk of sharing false information from social media sites than there was in the post-Katrina chaos of New Orleans. It can be hard to ascertain who the original source of a claim was before hundred – if not thousands – of people retweeted and aggregated it.
The Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship Monday (June 12). The next day there was a headline that the team had voted unanimously not to go to the White House – as the champions of our professional sports leagues routinely do. White House visits by championship teams are not the who-cares affairs that they used to be. Today, going or not going is a way an athlete can signal to the public what his or her politics are. And, so, the announcement that the Warriors had unanimously decided not to go to the White House was an announcement that the Warriors, to a man, hate President Donald Trump.
They all might hate him – or hate the things he’s said, done or promised to do. But it appears that the report that the team voted to snub Trump has no basis in fact. Even so websites for NBC Sports, the Kansas City Star, the Atlanta Journal Constitution all reported it.
It’s still unclear how exactly the rumor started. CNBC contributor Josh Brown – somebody who advises the public on what stocks to buy but isn’t actually employed by CNBC or any news organization – tweeted, “NBA champion Warriors skipping the White House visit, as a unanimous team decision per reports,” but when a radio sports host asked him on Twitter where he got that info, he wrote, “just repeated a few other verified users on twitter who had said it early this morning. I have no idea if its true, hence ‘per reports.'” Brown used a screenshot that captured somebody else tweeting the same claim, but as the Columbia Journalism Review points out, that person’s tweet came almost an hour after Brown’s, so that person probably wasn’t the source.
Though the source of the rumor remains a mystery, it’s no mystery why it spread as quickly and as wide as it did. Other people on Twitter – including those whose job it is to report the news – assumed that if other news outlets were running with it, then it must be true. Also, it confirmed what people already believed about the Warriors’ political beliefs. And people who shared those beliefs – or even people who disagree with those beliefs – may have found themselves eager to share it.
When he was questioned Brown said he trusted the information because the tweets came from “verified users,” but as CJR notes, verified only means that Twitter believes that the person tweeting is being honest about his or her identity. It doesn’t mean that the person’s tweets are truthful or well sourced.
From the CJR: “The fact that Brown isn’t a journalist and had never covered the Golden State Warriors or posted any breaking news on the team before should have been a red flag to the journalists aggregating this story.” The Poynter’s Institute Al Tompkins told the CJR, that “per reports” is a red flag: “The problem is, it’s not sourced on anything you can name. If you don’t know who to pin this to, you don’t know how credible it is.”
Over the last year, most of the warnings to be wary of fake news have been issued by people at news organizations. But we are all susceptible to passing on rumors. And people who work in the news have a greater responsibility to always be sure of the source and not equate the popularity of a rumor with its veracity.