Preparing for the worst: How to stay ready for the next big viral hoax

After every breaking news event, misinformation is inevitable.

During hurricanes, bogus weather projections circulate on social media. Following mass shootings, hoaxes about the person or people responsible are common. And over the course of elections, there’s no shortage of viral attack memes and conspiracy theories.

But while each big news story has its own set of fake news, it often lacks originality.

That’s because misinformation often gets recycled online during breaking news. Some of the misidentifications of the Parkland, Florida, shooting were identical to those passed around after nearly every other shooting, and the same bogus shark picture makes the rounds during every hurricane. But they still get massive engagement — and most newsrooms are unprepared to tackle them.

In that spirit, here is a list of tips for newsrooms that want to prepare themselves for the next onslaught of breaking news-related misinformation.

1. Learn how to navigate Reddit and 4chan. Identify channels that frequently post conspiracy theories, such as /r/TheDonald, and check them during breaking news. Most hoaxes start on these platforms and monitoring them is the best way to catch fakery before accidentally sharing it.

2. Install browser extensions that will help you debunk false content faster. InVid is useful for verifying videos and images, while TinEye is good for searching the web for images.

3. When debunking online hoaxes, save social media profiles and other material so that you don’t lose it. Oftentimes those elements get taken down pretty quickly after something is posted.

4. Get access to Facebook’s Signal and CrowdTangle tools in advance; they’re free, but you have to ask permission. Then assign someone to monitor them for trending content — being prepared is key.

“Hoaxes take a lot less time to debunk than real information takes to verify. So in terms of efficiency, if you do see something that’s going around, if you do learn how to use those tools and how to debunk ahead of time, that’s something you can jump on right away.”

Jane Lytvynenko, BuzzFeed News reporter
5. Conduct newsroom training for advanced search functions on social media platforms and how to look up website administration data using tools like Whois. Doing those things isn’t complicated, but staying fresh will help your team fact-check quickly in the moment.

6. If you can, designate one person in your newsroom whose job it will be to look for hoaxes during breaking news scenarios. They could be a person on your social media team, which probably already has the tools it needs, or just a Slack channel or group chat. Here’s a report with tips on how to do that.

7. Identify which social media channels and other online resources you can use to cross-reference information that’s posted in real time. Don’t create best practices that encourage publication over everything else — always verify first.

8. Figure out a newsroom strategy for online harassment. Oftentimes reporters covering big news events will receive a steady stream of insults and attacks via social media and email, making it harder for them to do their jobs. From Lytvynenko:

“Have a backup strategy if one person is getting harassment on your team. We don’t necessarily have the bandwidth timewise or mental health-wise to deal with with that stuff in the middle of a breaking news situation.”

9. Consider running a team drill. Make up a breaking news scenario and see how well your debunking plan works in real time, then use those lessons to further refine it. “You never want to learn how to counter a hoax in the moment,” Lytvynenko said.

10. Look out for misinformation that comes from politicians and other public officials. Sometimes they will amplify rumors or conspiracies they found on social media before receiving confirmed information.

Have a tip that didn’t make the list? Send it to us at factchecknet@poynter.org.