By Alastair Reid
Whenever a story breaks, navigating rumours and false information are a natural part of the newsgathering process. Social media has the potential to give everyone with an internet connection a voice, so in the chaos of a big, developing story the work of journalists becomes ever more difficult and important.
This was true for two of the biggest stories of 2015, when terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January and multiple sites across the French capital one night in November.
“It was very difficult to gather news,” said Samuel Laurent, head of Le Monde’s data journalism and fact-checking site Les Decodeurs, “but also difficult to calm people down and say to the audience to be careful about the news they share, and the news they see.”
Speaking at the recent News Impact Summit in Milan, Laurent shared the lessons he and Les Decodeurs learned from covering the attacks.
With chaos in the streets of Paris and newsrooms under pressure to figure out the facts, audiences everywhere were looking for answers. Le Monde’s Les Decodeurs worked around the clock to guide their readers and provide as much information as they could.
Laurent said Les Decodeurs received nearly 70,000 questions and requests for information on various issues around the Charlie Hebdo attacks between Wednesday 7 January and Monday 12 January. They sought to answer as many as they could.
“It was a time when we came to see how much the conspiracy theories and hoaxes were powerful,” Laurent said.
Nearly 10,000 questions related to the attackers’ getaway car. In footage from the scene of the attack, the wing mirrors of their black hatchback appeared to be white but in later pictures, showing the same car abandoned after the attackers had made their escape, the mirrors were black. Had they switched cars? Why weren’t the media discussing the difference? What were they hiding?
“It was three days before we had an answer,” said Laurent, “but we found out the mirrors were chrome.”
Pour tous ceux qui croient au complot débile des rétroviseurs, ils sont gris métal, ca diffère selon la lumière… pic.twitter.com/EByFJuSMQx
— Raphaël ATLAN (@RaphaelAtlan) January 8, 2015
Rather than evidence of a coverup, the mirrors appeared different in the pictures because they reflected their surroundings.
The chrome mirrors were just one of many conspiracy theories and hoaxes circulating about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and, if anything, the amount of misinformation shared around the November attacks was worse.
With the experience from January still fresh in the memory of many, Les Decodeurs took the spread of hoaxes much more seriously in November, debunking in real-time and addressing some of the most serious rumours in a later post that received tens of thousands of shares.
“The old saying is ‘just don’t talk about hoaxes as you’re just going to promote it’,” Laurent said, There has long been a belief that if news organisations discuss a hoax they provide the oxygen of publicity that helps it spread further, “but I don’t think that’s true anymore,” he said.
Paris, Samedi 14 novembre 2015. pic.twitter.com/2IeAbyycOw
— Success Motivation (@motivtosuccess) November 14, 2015
News organisations don’t have the same power in sharing information as they once did, but they still have the power to stem the flow of false information if they address them directly.
Far from the concern that debunking rumours isn’t worth the effort in terms of traffic, both Les Decodeurs and France24’s Observers have seen large amounts of interest in addressing hoaxes, building their reputation as trusted sources of information in the process.
“It’s really important for media organisations to understand that they are just one voice in a big global conversation,” said Laurent. “People don’t believe you just because you are a media organisation. On Facebook, they see their friend or brother sharing things and they trust their friend or brother more than you.”
This is the struggle many news organisations face, but without addressing the problem directly readers are left none the wiser, he said, and have no reason to trust news organisations more.
Rumours of secondary attacks in other cities circulated widely on social media and via SMS after both incidents.
“People are always saying ‘I know someone who knows someone who is in the police, and they say there is going to be an attack’,” said Laurent. “It is obviously a hoax but we have dozens of readers sending us this kind of SMS saying is it true. They were afraid.”
Addressing these fears, concerns and questions directly was a valuable public service for Les Decodeurs readership and helped cement their reputation.
The recirculation of old images as relevant to a breaking story is one of the most common forms of misinformation on social media, and Laurent said he still saw journalists getting caught out by powerful images from old events.
Reverse image search is perhaps the quickest way to check if a picture has appeared online before, and a check as simple as looking at the publication date of a story or post can help stop the spread of false information.
— EaglesOfDeathMetal (@EODMofficial) November 11, 2015
Les Decodeurs published an article of tips to “help thwart rumours” the day after the November attacks which received thousands of shares.
Most of them may seem basic to journalists, said Laurent, but the majority of people don’t have the same training and ingrained skepticism. Rumours will continue to circulate online but news organisations can play a positive role in combating them and helping readers to be more aware of hoaxes.
“A really important journalistic mission, both now and for the future, is to validate the news and say ‘this is true and this is not’,” he said.