The Backstory: There is never a more critical time for truth than when lives are at stake
I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is the Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get the Backstory in your inbox every Friday, sign up here.
After Iran’s strike on U.S. bases in Iraq, photos filled social media. Streaking missiles. A massive fireball. Problem is, they weren’t from the attack.
Those posting and sharing the photos on social media said they were taken Tuesday night. But the photos were from previous incidents.
Thankfully, there were no casualties in the attack. But some social media posts confidently reported there had been “20+ deaths.”
Also this week, false rumors circulated on social media that the draft had been activated. In reality, reinstating the draft would take an act of Congress and would have to be signed into law by the president.
In an era of mass misinformation, the speed and scale of false and misleading news this week was nonetheless disheartening – and dangerous.
There is never a more critical time for truth than when lives are at stake. And there is never a more important time for journalists to lead the way.
USA TODAY Pentagon reporter Tom Vanden Brook has been a journalist for 30 years. He’s reported from Iraq and Afghanistan eight times, including during the Iraq War and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
“When this stuff breaks, we learn about it through Twitter, but that’s just a starting point,” he says. “You have to verify it. You can only trust sources that have access to real information.”
Vanden Brook’s sources Wednesday told him the U.S. had advance warning of the attack.
They trust Vanden Brook, in part, because of his time in war zones. “They know you have been there,” he says. Not to the same degree, of course, but “you have seen and experienced what they have.”
He’s also not afraid to call them out when they provide misleading information. “You have to marshal the facts you have and go to them and say, “look, this isn’t right.'”
And for those who say questioning American leadership during wartime is unpatriotic? “It’s never more important than now,” Vanden Brook says. “Blood and treasure are involved. You absolutely have to ask those questions.”
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USA TODAY international correspondent Kim Hjelmgaard, based in London, asks those tough questions of Iranian leadership. He has spent time in Iran, reporting on the culture and the politics.
He keeps tabs on the six to nine state-run media outlets, triangulating what they are saying, looking for consistencies and departures. But mostly, he looks to them for statements from leadership, not for news on actions.
For example, Iranian media reported Wednesday that 80 Americans had been killed in the attacks. “When I saw that number, I knew it was false,” he said.
Hjelmgaard also monitors tweets coming from those with VPN access in Iran. He contacts Iranian officials to verify information. He calls Iranian media editors and asks, “How do you know this?”
Iran runs its own statistics agencies. There are no think tanks or research institutions for independent verification. There are no Freedom of Information requests.
He fights for the truth despite the obstacles.
“Iranian officials are shrewd, closed books who can be extremely personable yet exceptionally hard to read,” Hjelmgaard says. “They will insist something needs to be off the record, then suddenly make it on, and vice-versa. You never know what you are going to get.”
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Wherever the misinformation starts, why do we believe it? Why do we spread it? Why is it so pervasive?
USA TODAY business reporter Nathan Bomey has a theory, actually a book (After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump), on the topic.
“In the pre-social media age, journalists, who are trained on source validation and fact authentication, largely controlled the information that people encountered,” he reported this week. “But today, social media algorithms have become the new gatekeepers for many people. The algorithms filter information for us.”
Algorithms favor friends. And, when you look at the science of memory and cultural cognition, he says, we are wired to want to believe things our friends are saying. “To approach news and information with a skeptical mindset is not natural at all.”
Much of this is the “grouping effect,” he says. “We have a group of family and friends we associate with and often as humans we fear the consequences of taking a position that goes against the group’s position. We’d rather have friends than be right.”
It’s not always political, he says. And, “It’s not exclusive to one side or the other. We can all fall prey to it.”
Bomey says we have to fend for ourselves online – and has some tips on how to do so.
Visit primary sources. Cross-reference information. Don’t reflexively trust authority. Be wary of photos, video and audio, not just stories.
But most of all, Bomey says, our best bet at curtailing the spread of misinformation starts with education. Kids must be taught to be critical readers and thinkers.
“Source authentication. Lateral reading. Checking different sources. It’s what we do as journalists on a daily basis.”
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Benjamin C. Bradlee “Editor of the Year” and proud mom of three. Comments? Questions? Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here.
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