Within a couple of hours of news breaking of Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, video emerged on YouTube that was claimed to be from CCTV showing an explosion at the city’s Zaventem airport.
The footage rapidly spread across social media, and was reported by at least one major national news site. It was followed by further footage supposedly showing an explosion at the Maelbeek metro station near the European Parliament, and another video claiming to be from the airport.
However, none of the footage was what it was claimed to be. They were all recordings from 2011, two from an attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, one from a bombing of a metro station in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
The grainy CCTV clips were turned from colour to black and white, flipped horizontally, relabelled and posted as if they had emerged fresh from the day’s events. Even though the YouTube account first sharing the pictures under false pretences was taken down quickly, others reproduced them with the same claims they were from Brussels.
The misleading videos are examples of a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common during almost every major news story featuring violent, fast-moving events. False or misleading reports spread rapidly across social media and are picked up by reputable news organisations, further obscuring an already incredibly confusing picture.
Another example occurred only days earlier in reports of the suicide bombing in Istanbul, when numerous outlets published a photo circulating on Twitter said to be suspect Mehmet Ozturk, when in fact no photo had been released. Some outlets even included a picture of an ID card alongside the photo, which accurately identified the person pictured in the tweet below as Mohammed Zana, a suspected Isis militant.
During the Paris attacks last November pictures circulated claiming to be from the scene which were in fact from the Charlie Hebdo shootings the previous January. Images from two days earlier at a show in Dublin by the Eagles of Death Metal, who were playing when militants attacked the Bataclan Theatre where 89 people were killed, were shared claiming to be from that night’s gig.
The spreading and reporting of false information is not new, but the internet has made it easier to plant fake or misleading stories and evidence, which will be shared widely across Twitter and Facebook.
Alastair Reid, managing editor of First Draft, a coalition of organisations specialising in verifying information on social media that is backed by Google, said part of the problem is that anyone publishing on platforms such as Facebook has the ability to reach as large an audience as a news organisation.
“It can be someone intentionally trying to misdirect the news agenda for political reasons, or a lot of the time it’s just people who want the numbers, the clicks, the shares, because they want to be part of the conversation or validation,” he said. “They don’t have any of the kind of standards, but they have the same kind of distribution.”
Meanwhile, the fast pace of online news and competition with social media has also raised the pressure on news organisations to be the first to report each development, while also removing some of the disincentives for getting things wrong.
Not only can a web page be updated to remove all trace of a false post, but when many people barely register which website they are reading a report on, the threat to reputation is significantly less than in print. In many cases a piece of information, photograph or video is simply too good to check.
Reid said: “Now maybe there is more pressure at some organisations to get it up quick, get the clicks, get it up first … There’s definitely a commercial pressure to have that fantastic video, have that fantastic picture, to make it more newsworthy, more shareable, and that can override the desire to be right.”
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