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RACHEL BAIG

I mean, one aspect that I have to mention which is really important to us as a fact checking team at DW, is not only to produce fact checks where we say: this is a story, this is what we found out, and this is, you know, the conclusion we've come to. But also to give media literacy to our audience. To tell them and show them how we've done it so that in future they are also capable of doing it themselves.

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JEFF PHILLIPS

Welcome to NeedleStack, the podcast for professional online research. I'm Jeff Phillips, tech industry veteran and curious to a fault.

SHANNON RAGAN

And I'm Shannon Ragan, the worst deep fake of Matt Ashburn you'll ever see.\

JEFF PHILLIPS

You might notice Matt's away this week, so I'm joined by Shannon, one of our producers here at NeedleStack as we continue our focus on fact checking and debunking. To do that, we have a very special guest on our show today. We have Rachel Baig, and she's a social media journalist and trainer at Deutsche Welle, or DW for short. So my understanding, Rachel, is you're responsible for researching and verifying user generated content and eyewitness reports and then training others in those practices. So welcome to the show.

RACHEL BAIG

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

JEFF PHILLIPS

Maybe we start right there, Rachel, that you wear a couple of different hats at DW. Could you tell us a little bit how your role as a journalist and a social media trainer intersect?

RACHEL BAIG

Yeah, so basically we experienced in our field of journalism, especially when it came to news, that most of the content that we found when breaking news was happening, when there were terrorist attacks, but also natural disasters which were happening be it a flood or an earthquake, that the first images that we would find would be on social media. But of course, what we also found with time was that if you find something on social media, it's not always true. And so, we found really quickly, we found out that once we have to look for those images and those videos online on social media, we also need to be equipped on how to find out if they're right or not. So if they're faked, for example, if they're manipulated. And so that's where we started training ourselves and we said, okay, we need to focus more on that field of verifying content that we find online. And what we found was that we were like one of the early ones to jump on that trend of fact checking and verification, but soon we also got requests from other news outlets, from media companies not only in Germany, but also in different continents requesting us to give trainings, and as DW is not only there to produce media content, but also has an academy which is there to train journalists around the world, I was very quickly engaged in both jobs to (a) be a journalist who does verification work, but also to be a media trainer who teaches other journalists how to verify content that they find online.

SHANNON RAGAN

Yeah, I love that. I feel like that is really growing in popularity. That is sort of an outsourcing and expansion of the fact checking practice, which is great to see from news organizations. One of your fact checking articles that I saw from earlier this year, I think it was in July, that was actually DW sort of investigating itself. For our listeners, this story was around a purported news article using DW branding about Ukrainian migrants committing rather heinous crimes in Germany. But per your investigation you proved that this was false and essentially entirely made up. Some other media spoofs are less serious and more outrageous. Could you explain briefly what media spoofing is and sort of the purpose it serves in disinformation and information wars?

RACHEL BAIG

Yes, so we majorly became aware of media spoofing. I mean, of course we were aware that this was happening from time to time, but it really hit home when it was us who were attacked. So it was the DW, or purported DW production, which was out there and the story was really bizarre. There was no real heads and tails to it and it didn't make any sense. And we thought, like, why would somebody create a complete story which is so bizarre and then also brand it with DW? Like, what's the sense behind it? And so what we then found out that we were (a) not alone and this was happening a lot now in the Ukrainian-Russian war. And what we found out was that it was actually not being done to discredit us. But to use our good name and to spread disinformation so that people who were following news outlets which they thought were trustworthy, those were spreading then information which was in the context of Russian propaganda to say like, you know, if BBC is saying this or if the CNN is saying this or if Deutsche Welle is saying this, then it must be true because it's not just our local channels which are reporting this but also people who are outside of Russia who are saying that yes, it's the Russians who are being attacked. It's not the Russians who are killing Ukrainians. It's they themselves who are doing this. So that kind of disinformation or media spoofing have been around for some time, but we've seen a major increase now in the Russia-Ukraine war and we've seen big, major players being attacked with, you know, people copying their templates, copying their corporate designs and then just putting bizarre stories out there like the ones which we had, which attacked DW basically, but also really also stories which are really influencing the mindset of people. Like the one with BBC where it was said that in Karma Tarskit was not the Russians who attacked the Ukrainians, but the Ukrainians bombed their own people. And so there we see that it's not only playing with the minds of people living abroad, but also people living there locally. Who are going to be affected by these kinds of news.

SHANNON RAGAN

Yeah, the length to which they would go, like in the kind of commitment to the brand. Like, some of them were talking about entirely fake broadcast studios. And it's not just a fake website or something like that or a screenshot even. Like there are fake news programs and new studios out there. It's just crazy.

JEFF PHILLIPS

Rachel that was the really interesting example because you talked about a scenario, scenarios ranging from truly spoofs to misinformation, where an event actually did happen, but the facts were reversed. So what are some of the tactics you use to investigate that? That was a spoof and, oh, this was a fake story, or here, this has really happened and the facts were reversed.

RACHEL BAIG

So basically, with any story that we see online, any story that happens where we're fact checking or verifying is what we do is we go try to go back to the original sources. We try to trace down where is the information coming from, what kind of information do we have, who are the sources behind it? So are they sources which can be trusted? Do they belong to a certain party or not? So are they more interested in spreading Russian propaganda or are they maybe even interested in spreading Ukrainian propaganda in this case? So we go back and, for example, the BBC story on Chromataurs, the bombing, every international media outlet was covering it. We also had journalists on the ground ourselves who went to report on it. So there we try to find sources which are not belonging to either party, but also looking at the evidence ourselves. So, for example, the rocket which was found there, what kind of a rocket model is it? Is it something which is used by Ukrainian army, or is it something that's used by the Russian army? When did the attack happen? From which side did the rockets come, for example? All of that information is something that we piece together. So it's like detective work. You have all these different things that you need to look into, and then you piece it together and you are the one who then says, okay, this makes sense, or this does not make sense. So if it's side A or if it's site B, just putting all the things into context, so that's where we come in. We take all the evidence we can find and we try to put it together and then give our resume and say, like, okay, most probably, or 100%, we can say this happened or that happened, just looking at the evidence and looking at the facts. But there it's like I said, it's really important to just come to look at the sources and to find credible sources. And if that's not possible, that's where we also sometimes have to say we cannot verify the story.

SHANNON RAGAN

Yeah, it seems like fact checking is very much Journalism 101 and that you can't take one source as true and that it needs to go off of the platform, you investigate the source itself. But is this story also - are there search results for it? Are there actual web pages for it? Are there police reports about these incidents? It's interesting to think about the universe that this has to fit into. It feels like too that the kind of nature of fact checking, the nature of disinformation as well is very like regionally specific. And the training program that you mentioned has kind of regional response that you train essentially journalists all over the world. Can you talk a little bit about how you kind of pick where you do these training programs or what you're responding to in those situations?

RACHEL BAIG

So basically what we do like DW split into two parts. Basically there's a news organization which is there to create news reports, videos and so on and so forth and where journalists work. But then we also have the part which is called the academy where we're responsible for giving trainings to journalists in different parts of the world. And of course, mostly that's going to be regions where there's no independent media or where media isn't as free as we experience it in the western world. So countries like Myanmar which have experienced approach or for example where authoritarian regimes are there, where media is not as free to report, but also journalists do not get as much training as you would get it here in wester countries. So that's mostly the part of the academy itself that it chooses different regions it wants to focus on. Also regions have for example, improved a lot when it comes to ranking of journalism, how free journalism is in that area. They also might decide to not focus on that anymore in the future or go back to a certain region if it's gotten worse again. So then as journalists working at DW, we also get the chance to go out as trainers. Also we get trainers from outside of DW. It's not just DW staff that is going and training people, but mostly we're there to spread the newest techniques that we've learned to give that as a toolkit to journalists who are on the ground, but also to enable them to train other journalists in their country. So we don't just give them a training so that they improve their work, but also enable them to become trainers in their own country and to spread this information further and train other colleagues in their branches.

JEFF PHILLIPS

That's awesome that DW does that. I can't imagine in some of these countries with the governments and how they disrupt things, how you can figure out what's real. I guess what I'm saying Rachel, is it's hard enough for me as an individual at this point. I'm questioning everything I read from day to day basis and I love that you as a journalist that you all are taking this so serious and training people around the world to help us just get to the facts. SoC that's amazing. As we start to close up shop here with this episode, we do have a lot of different people that listen to the show and have different levels of experience and you're in the day to day trenches here. Could you share some of your tips and tricks or how you prioritize things for fact checking on social media?

RACHEL BAIG

So I think there are three things that I always recommend to people if they ask me. Like three things that you can tell us what we should always keep in mind when we are seeing something. Number one, I always say, like, most of the manipulation happens actually with images. So if you get information, people always share an image with it just as a proof that this actually happens. So I don't know if you hear that the Notre Dame is on fire, you want to see it with your own eyes to believe it. So that's where picture comes in as evidence. And that's why it's really interesting for people to manipulate images and to send them along with that. And so my first tip is always take that image and put it into any reverse image search tool that you know. So be it Google Image Search or be it Tiny or Yandex, put it in there and find out if it was used before. And if you find out it was actually used before, find out what context. So is the Amazon on fire picture you're seeing actually from the Amazon? Or is it rainforest in some other country? Or is it, for example, if the koala you're seeing that lying on the street, is that actually in Australia or is it a manipulated image where no koala was actually there on the street? So all those things which you see sometimes when you see an image and you're like, this is too good to be true, mostly it is. So trust your gut feeling on that one and check with the reverse image tool. So images, I think it's my top priority, I would say yeah, my tip number two would be to look at the source more closely. So if somebody's sending you something, find out who's behind this and why are they interested in you wanting to know this information. So COVID vaccines, if people are sending information, disinformation about that, that the COVID vaccines might be deadly, they might make you infertile or they might attack the immune system of your kids. Find out who is behind this. Why would they send this kind of information? Are they actually scientists or doctors? Or are these people who are just there to spread this information, who are generally against the pharma industry, for example? So always look at the source, who's behind it? Where is this coming from? And especially ahead of elections, we found out that there are a lot of bots and a lot of trolls are out there, especially like three to six months, right before elections. These accounts come out of nowhere and they're mushrooming and all social media platforms just to spread this information. So always trust your gut feeling if you see an account which is relatively new and it's spreading a lot of information in a short time period, probably it's not spreading good information because it takes time to verify and put information out there. So that's tip number two. And the last tip I would say is go back to being a kid again and look at the details. So sometimes you say, like, if you want to find out where a certain image was taken or where a certain video was recorded, then go back and look at those details and become a child again. So what we do is, for example, in our team, we say find 20 details to a picture which can tell you something about that picture. So even if you think there's nothing in it, once you turn it into a game, everyone will start looking for 20 details just to complete that list. And that's where you then have your points, which you can go into and check all of those 20 points and be it small things like that grain of sand looks like a different color, or that shadow looks as if it's incomplete. So the small things going through those details and check them, but turning it into game and being a kid again, that's what really gets you motivated when you think like, I've come to a dead end, I don't know any further. So that's my three tips to always check when you see something online or on social media.

SHANNON RAGAN

Yeah, I love that last point. I think one of our previous guests, Brecht Castel, had similar advice that, you know, there's not really any trick to it. Like it's persistence and creativity, it's curiosity, it's turning on your kid brain. So I think that's wonderful advice.

JEFF PHILLIPS

And to your point, those are great tips. And it's maybe as an individual consumer of news, I'm not going to reverse image search everything, but those are great tips. Just as we have to be more sophisticated consumers of news, I guess the journalists need to do that in fact checkers, but as we digested and read things, we should be more curious and look at the sources such ourselves.

RACHEL BAIG

Yeah, definitely. I mean, one aspect that I have to mention which is really important to us as a fact checking team at DW, is not only to produce fact checks where we say: this is a story, this is what we found out, and this is, you know, the conclusion we've come to. But also to give media literacy to our audience. To tell them and show them how we've done it so that in future they are also capable of doing it themselves. So, you know, to enable them to be fact checkers themselves, even if it's on small steps, but to show that this is the tool we use here and this is the tool we use here. So you can do all of this basically yourself and check what we've done, but also we're enabling you to do this on yourself in the future as well. So that media literacy aspect is also something that's really important to us, that we always try to incorporate it in our fact checks, that we try to enable the users to do this on their own as well, be it young people or old people, we try to explain it in really simple terms so that everyone can follow.

JEFF PHILLIPS

That's really great to hear. And we have an election coming up soon, as you mentioned, that's often when some of this stuff starts to get created. So perfect timing. Again, thank you for your work individually and passion in this space, as well as to your organization, what they're doing around the world. And on behalf of all of our listeners, I want to thank Rachel Baig. If you liked what you heard, you can subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts, watch episodes on YouTube and view transcripts and other episode info on our website, authentic8.com/needlestack. That's authentic with the number eight dot com slash needlestack. And be sure to follow us on @needlestackpod on Twitter. We'll be back next week. More on fact checking and debunking. We'll see you then.

Social media and traditional media overlap now more than ever, with social media providing an opportunity to reach and resonate with new audiences – for better or worse. Rachel Baig knows this intersection well. As a social media journalist and trainer for Deutsche Welle, she knows the ins and outs of not only using social to identify a great story but also how to spot a fake one. In this episode, Rachel breaks down important lessons from her training to understand media spoofs, verify images and videos, spot tell-tale signs of bots and more.

About Rachel

Rachel Baig is a multimedia journalist and media trainer with Deutsche Welle for the past 11 years. She started her multilingual and multimedia traineeship at DW after finishing her Masters Degree in postcolonial studies and media studies. At DW her main field of work has been at the News Desk and in the fact-checking team. There she also responsible for the team’s main video product: A fact-check format for Youtube. She also helps work on social media format development and strategies within DW.

As a media trainer her skills and workshops include verification of social media content and MIL, research in and with social networks, social media storytelling, content creation for social networks (e.g. stories, videos, posts), and format development for social media platforms. She also set up and worked on journalists’ fact-checking groups in Pakistan, Namibia, Ethiopia and Mongolia.

Where to find Rachel

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