We compiled the best of the best tips and tricks from the NeedleStack podcast's fact-checking series, so you don't have to.
Recently, Authentic8’s own NeedleStack podcast hosted a series of episodes centered around the ins and outs of effective fact-checking. If there’s one overall thing we learned from these episodes, it is that fact-checking is as much about attitude as it is the tools of the trade. Below are the biggest takeaways and insights from NeedleStack’s group of esteemed fact-checking guests.
1. Curiosity is key
A common theme many of NeedleStack’s fact-checking guests kept coming back to was good old-fashioned curiosity. As OSINT investigator and journalist Brecht Castel implores in the episode Where Woodward meets Homes: OSINT and investigative journalism, the smartest thing you can do as a fact-checker is be both persistent and creative. Fact-checking will lead down many dead ends and can move slowly, but a good researcher doesn’t give up. Where one investigative thread ends, another begins. Look at content from multiple angles, dive into different details, use different tools and tap into other experts and the OSINT community for help. Castel also recommends looking at multiple sources to corroborate and verify information.
Additionally, according to Deutsche Welle journalist and social media trainer Rachel Baig in the episode, Verifying what you see in the media, the best way to diligently fact-check is to "go back to being a kid again and look at the details." If your “adult brain” is telling you there’s no leads to go on, use your “kid brain” to get curious, look at content with a fresh perspective and find new details to pivot from. Baig often turns fact-checking into a game with her team to find 20 differences or details in an image or video to find new outlooks and different discoveries.
2. How to fact-check images and the content that surrounds them
While images might not explicitly say anything, per se, they can be ripe with factual lapses. It's just as, if not more, important to fact-check images as it is to fact-check words, as images are often where most manipulation actually happens. Checking for signs of manipulation or inconsistencies with the context in which images/videos are being presented (e.g., the now infamous video of Russian paratroopers purportedly landing in Ukraine in February 2022 was actually a video from a 2014 military exercise within Russia) are fundamental to these types of fact-checks.
Some tools and tips for the trade:
- Find the oldest instance of the piece of media. This is an easy way to debunk content that poses as new but is merely repurposed to serve a certain narrative.
- Employ reverse image searches to find other instances where the media is used. Again, this can be an easy way to identify repurposing or corroborate findings.
- Look at the EXIF data of images. There are tons of details regarding the image’s capture stored in EXIF data, one of the most useful being GPS coordinates of where the image was taken. This can help verify or disprove where a video claims to be from.
It is important to note, however, that EXIF data can, too, be manipulated, thus it’s important to combine these techniques and others to complete your fact-check. Conduct a reverse image search of the image in question and perform another EXIF analysis on the same photo from multiple different sources. If the data is the same for them all, the EXIF data is accurate. If one EXIF analysis produces different takeaways than others, though, that means one of the images’ EXIF data was, unfortunately, manipulated.
See how to view image metadata in Authentic8’s secure, anonymous online research solution and quickly verify location data and perform reverse image searches. NeedleStack co-host Jeff Phillips digs into this utility in a mini-use case of investigating an image.
3. Assess your sources
Part of fact-checking investigations goes beyond the content itself and extends to the source. It is important to always inspect every source closely. Look into who wrote an article, blog, tweet, etc. who published it; and why they would want people to know about it. Identifying motivations and biases, looking into a source’s history of sharing reliable or false information — all can help inform if you can trust the validity of the content in question.
Also, be sure to keep an eye out on social media for trolls. Troll accounts have skyrocketed in both popularity and reach in recent years, and their spread of mis/disinformation can be incredibly well-hidden. Make sure that the accounts you are looking at for information are verified, reputable sources with a history of factual accuracy.
4. Resources to use
NeedleStack’s expert fact-checking guests listed a few awesome resources to use in your own fact-checking escapades and to learn best practices and new skills:
- AFP’s fact-checking training course: targeted at journalists, this is a free program on basic and advanced fact-checking techniques
- Bellingcat training courses and resources: a collection of live workshops and on-demand training courses and guides
- Week in OSINT newsletter: chock-full of tips and tricks for using OSINT in fact-checking
- Osintukraine.com: scrapes content from Russian and Ukrainian sources and compiles into one feed — great for the many fact-checks needed around the ongoing conflict
Using resources such as these will make your fact-checking journey all the easier and more accurate, so definitely keep them in your arsenal.
5. It's about more than just the facts
As RAND Corporation’s senior social scientist Chris Paul says in the episode Why Russian disinformation is so effective, "the truth doesn't have magical properties,” meaning just because something is true does not automatically mean that it will be believed. While the research that goes into fact-checking is fundamental, the tail-end of fact-checking is, in essence, a marketing campaign. Without proper marketing, your fact-check will likely be a flop and not reach the audiences you intend to inform.
“The truth doesn't have magical properties.”Chris Paul
6. How to stay safe and vigilant
Above all else, it is incredibly important to make sure that you as a fact-checker are safe and protected while you are fact-checking. There is a world of people who might not want you to find out the truth or backstory, so you need to tread lightly.
According to AFP Africa’s digital verification team lead Nina Lamparski, one of the best safety precautions possible is to conduct a Google search of your name to see what is out there about you. In her episode, Autopsy of a story: the art and science of fact-checking, she implores that you make sure you’re aware of any information about you online that a bad actor can exploit should they be intent on stopping you from finding the truth.
Ultimately, you need to understand that the same methods and technologies that you use for work can just as easily be used against you, so make sure that you take whatever precautions you can before conducting this research. Dr. Welton Chang of Pyrra Technologies explains in his episode, The AI tracking alt-social media:
To best protect yourself from potential bad actors, it is a good idea to employ managed attribution. How can you do that? Here’s a few of our own tips:
- Investigate using an isolated browsing environment: Using remote browser isolation eliminates persistent tracking and the accumulated profile of your historic web activity. This can make it more difficult for adversaries to understand who you are, who you work for and why you might be snooping around their site — it also protects against the risk of malware infection.
- Use a non-attributable network: SaaS solutions can give you access to a non-attributable network, guaranteeing that you will not be associated with the network of your organization. Unlike a VPN, these networks provide dedicated points of presence in actual physical locations around the world, allowing researchers to access sites from regionally appropriate IP addresses and in line with other access details common among site visitors.
- Manipulate your digital fingerprint: The uninformed researcher only cares about hiding their IP address; however, the vigilant researcher knows that their digital fingerprint consists of much more. You need to understand both how to change your digital fingerprint details and what to change them to in order to circumvent alerting bad actors.
- Secure workflow: Ensure that whatever data and information you collect follows tradecraft requirements, is analyzed methodically and shared securely.
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