How to separate fact and fiction online | Markham Nolan

Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast I’ve been a journalist now since I was about 17, and it’s an interesting industry to be in at the moment, because as you all know, there’s a huge amount of upheaval going on in media, and most of you probably know this from the business angle, which is that the business model is pretty screwed, and as my grandfather would say, the profits have all been gobbled up by Google. So it’s a really interesting time to be a journalist, but the upheaval that I’m interested in is not on the output side. It’s on the input side. It’s concern with how we get information and how we gather the news. And that’s changed, because we’ve had a huge shift in the balance of power from the news organizations to the audience. And the audience for such a long time was in a position where they didn’t have any way of affecting news or making any change. They couldn’t really connect. And that’s changed irrevocably. My first connection with the news media was in 1984, the BBC had a one-day strike. I wasn’t happy. I was angry. I couldn’t see my cartoons. So I wrote a letter. And it’s a very effective way of ending your hate mail: “Love Markham, Aged 4.” Still works. I’m not sure if I had any impact on the one-day strike, but what I do know is that it took them three weeks to get back to me. And that was the round journey. It took that long for anyone to have any impact and get some feedback. And that’s changed now because, as journalists, we interact in real time. We’re not in a position where the audience is reacting to news. We’re reacting to the audience, and we’re actually relying on them. They’re helping us find the news. They’re helping us figure out what is the best angle to take and what is the stuff that they want to hear. So it’s a real-time thing. It’s much quicker. It’s happening on a constant basis, and the journalist is always playing catch up. To give an example of how we rely on the audience, on the 5th of September in Costa Rica, an earthquake hit. It was a 7.6 magnitude. It was fairly big. And 60 seconds is the amount of time it took for it to travel 250 kilometers to Managua. So the ground shook in Managua 60 seconds after it hit the epicenter. Thirty seconds later, the first message went onto Twitter, and this was someone saying “temblor,” which means earthquake. So 60 seconds was how long it took for the physical earthquake to travel. Thirty seconds later news of that earthquake had traveled all around the world, instantly. Everyone in the world, hypothetically, had the potential to know that an earthquake was happening in Managua. And that happened because this one person had a documentary instinct, which was to post a status update, which is what we all do now, so if something happens, we put our status update, or we post a photo, we post a video, and it all goes up into the cloud in a constant stream. And what that means is just constant, huge volumes of data going up. It’s actually staggering. When you look at the numbers, every minute there are 72 more hours of video on YouTube. So that’s, every second, more than an hour of video gets uploaded. And in photos, Instagram, 58 photos are uploaded to Instagram a second. More than three and a half thousand photos go up onto Facebook. So by the time I’m finished talking here, there’ll be 864 more hours of video on Youtube than there were when I started, and two and a half million more photos on Facebook and Instagram than when I started. So it’s an interesting position to be in as a journalist, because we should have access to everything. Any event that happens anywhere in the world, I should be able to know about it pretty much instantaneously, as it happens, for free. And that goes for every single person in this room. The only problem is, when you have that much information, you have to find the good stuff, and that can be incredibly difficult when you’re dealing with those volumes. And nowhere was this brought home more than during Hurricane Sandy. So what you had in Hurricane Sandy was a superstorm, the likes of which we hadn’t seen for a long time, hitting the iPhone capital of the universe — (Laughter) — and you got volumes of media like we’d never seen before. And that meant that journalists had to deal with fakes, so we had to deal with old photos that were being reposted. We had to deal with composite images that were merging photos from previous storms. We had to deal with images from films like “The Day After Tomorrow.” (Laughter) And we had to deal with images that were so realistic it was nearly difficult to tell if they were real at all. (Laughter) But joking aside, there were images like this one from Instagram which was subjected to a grilling by journalists. They weren’t really sure. It was filtered in Instagram. The lighting was questioned. Everything was questioned about it. And it turned out to be true. It was from Avenue C in downtown Manhattan, which was flooded. And the reason that they could tell that it was real was because they could get to the source, and in this case, these guys were New York food bloggers. They were well respected. They were known. So this one wasn’t a debunk, it was actually something that they could prove. And that was the job of the journalist. It was filtering all this stuff. And you were, instead of going and finding the information and bringing it back to the reader, you were holding back the stuff that was potentially damaging. And finding the source becomes more and more important — finding the good source — and Twitter is where most journalists now go. It’s like the de facto real-time newswire, if you know how to use it, because there is so much on Twitter. And a good example of how useful it can be but also how difficult was the Egyptian revolution in 2011. As a non-Arabic speaker, as someone who was looking from the outside, from Dublin, Twitter lists, and lists of good sources, people we could establish were credible, were really important. And how do you build a list like that from scratch? Well, it can be quite difficult, but you have to know what to look for. This visualization was done by an Italian academic. He’s called André Pannison, and he basically took the Twitter conversation in Tahrir Square on the day that Hosni Mubarak would eventually resign, and the dots you can see are retweets, so when someone retweets a message, a connection is made between two dots, and the more times that message is retweeted by other people, the more you get to see these nodes, these connections being made. And it’s an amazing way of visualizing the conversation, but what you get is hints at who is more interesting and who is worth investigating. And as the conversation grew and grew, it became more and more lively, and eventually you were left with this huge, big, rhythmic pointer of this conversation. You could find the nodes, though, and then you went, and you go, “Right, I’ve got to investigate these people. These are the ones that are obviously making sense. Let’s see who they are.” Now in the deluge of information, this is where the real-time web gets really interesting for a journalist like myself, because we have more tools than ever to do that kind of investigation. And when you start digging into the sources, you can go further and further than you ever could before. Sometimes you come across a piece of content that is so compelling, you want to use it, you’re dying to use it, but you’re not 100 percent sure if you can because you don’t know if the source is credible. You don’t know if it’s a scrape. You don’t know if it’s a re-upload. And you have to do that investigative work. And this video, which I’m going to let run through, was one we discovered a couple of weeks ago. Video: Getting real windy in just a second. (Rain and wind sounds) (Explosion) Oh, shit! Markham Nolan: Okay, so now if you’re a news producer, this is something you’d love to run with, because obviously, this is gold. You know? This is a fantastic reaction from someone, very genuine video that they’ve shot in their back garden. But how do you find if this person, if it’s true, if it’s faked, or if it’s something that’s old and that’s been reposted? So we set about going to work on this video, and the only thing that we had to go on was the username on the YouTube account. There was only one video posted to that account, and the username was Rita Krill. And we didn’t know if Rita existed or if it was a fake name. But we started looking, and we used free Internet tools to do so. The first one was called Spokeo, which allowed us to look for Rita Krills. So we looked all over the U.S. We found them in New York, we found them in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Florida. So we went and we looked for a second free Internet tool called Wolfram Alpha, and we checked the weather reports for the day in which this video had been uploaded, and when we went through all those various cities, we found that in Florida, there were thunderstorms and rain on the day. So we went to the white pages, and we found, we looked through the Rita Krills in the phonebook, and we looked through a couple of different addresses, and that took us to Google Maps, where we found a house. And we found a house with a swimming pool that looked remarkably like Rita’s. So we went back to the video, and we had to look for clues that we could cross-reference. So if you look in the video, there’s the big umbrella, there’s a white lilo in the pool, there are some unusually rounded edges in the swimming pool, and there’s two trees in the background. And we went back to Google Maps, and we looked a little bit closer, and sure enough, there’s the white lilo, there are the two trees, there’s the umbrella. It’s actually folded in this photo. Little bit of trickery. And there are the rounded edges on the swimming pool. So we were able to call Rita, clear the video, make sure that it had been shot, and then our clients were delighted because they were able to run it without being worried. Sometimes the search for truth, though, is a little bit less flippant, and it has much greater consequences. Syria has been really interesting for us, because obviously a lot of the time you’re trying to debunk stuff that can be potentially war crime evidence, so this is where YouTube actually becomes the most important repository of information about what’s going on in the world. So this video, I’m not going to show you the whole thing, because it’s quite gruesome, but you’ll hear some of the sounds. This is from Hama. Video: (Shouting) And what this video shows, when you watch the whole thing through, is bloody bodies being taken out of a pickup truck and thrown off a bridge. The allegations were that these guys were Muslim Brotherhood and they were throwing Syrian Army officers’ bodies off the bridge, and they were cursing and using blasphemous language, and there were lots of counterclaims about who they were, and whether or not they were what the video said it was. So we talked to some sources in Hama who we had been back and forth with on Twitter, and we asked them about this, and the bridge was interesting to us because it was something we could identify. Three different sources said three different things about the bridge. They said, one, the bridge doesn’t exist. Another one said the bridge does exist, but it’s not in Hama. It’s somewhere else. And the third one said, “I think the bridge does exist, but the dam upstream of the bridge was closed, so the river should actually have been dry, so this doesn’t make sense.” So that was the only one that gave us a clue. We looked through the video for other clues. We saw the distinctive railings, which we could use. We looked at the curbs. The curbs were throwing shadows south, so we could tell the bridge was running east-west across the river. It had black-and-white curbs. As we looked at the river itself, you could see there’s a concrete stone on the west side. There’s a cloud of blood. That’s blood in the river. So the river is flowing south to north. That’s what that tells me. And also, as you look away from the bridge, there’s a divot on the left-hand side of the bank, and the river narrows. So onto Google Maps we go, and we start looking through literally every single bridge. We go to the dam that we talked about, we start just literally going through every time that road crosses the river, crossing off the bridges that don’t match. We’re looking for one that crosses east-west. And we get to Hama. We get all the way from the dam to Hama and there’s no bridge. So we go a bit further. We switch to the satellite view, and we find another bridge, and everything starts to line up. The bridge looks like it’s crossing the river east to west. So this could be our bridge. And we zoom right in. We start to see that it’s got a median, so it’s a two-lane bridge. And it’s got the black-and-white curbs that we saw in the video, and as we click through it, you can see someone’s uploaded photos to go with the map, which is very handy, so we click into the photos. And the photos start showing us more detail that we can cross-reference with the video. The first thing that we see is we see black-and-white curbing, which is handy because we’ve seen that before. We see the distinctive railing that we saw the guys throwing the bodies over. And we keep going through it until we’re certain that this is our bridge. So what does that tell me? I’ve got to go back now to my three sources and look at what they told me: the one who said the bridge didn’t exist, the one who said the bridge wasn’t in Hama, and the one guy who said, “Yes, the bridge does exist, but I’m not sure about the water levels.” Number three is looking like the most truthful all of a sudden, and we’ve been able to find that out using some free Internet tools sitting in a cubicle in an office in Dublin in the space of 20 minutes. And that’s part of the joy of this. Although the web is running like a torrent, there’s so much information there that it’s incredibly hard to sift and getting harder every day, if you use them intelligently, you can find out incredible information. Given a couple of clues, I could probably find out a lot of things about most of you in the audience that you might not like me finding out. But what it tells me is that, at a time when there’s more — there’s a greater abundance of information than there ever has been, it’s harder to filter, we have greater tools. We have free Internet tools that allow us, help us do this kind of investigation. We have algorithms that are smarter than ever before, and computers that are quicker than ever before. But here’s the thing. Algorithms are rules. They’re binary. They’re yes or no, they’re black or white. Truth is never binary. Truth is a value. Truth is emotional, it’s fluid, and above all, it’s human. No matter how quick we get with computers, no matter how much information we have, you’ll never be able to remove the human from the truth-seeking exercise, because in the end, it is a uniquely human trait. Thanks very much. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “How to separate fact and fiction online | Markham Nolan

  1. Could you perhaps think of a better one?
    I believe it is very possible for a machine to determine if "i used to be a medical doctor" is true. By checking certain facts that must be met, assigning values to those facts depending on if they were met, and then weighing the odds of "i used to be a medical doctor" being true based on those values. I'm sorry but, you make a lousy case.
    I'll go even farther, and say that I think it's wrong to allow emotions to influence what you believe to be true.

  2. You clearly do not get the point, although I know there are people similar to you who also say things like love doesn't actually exist when it is scientifically provable. A machine BY ITSELF doesn't have a way of determining if you're telling the truth. It can't know where to research based on what you told it and it doesn't know how to ask for further details. Aside from research, machines still fail. Methods for detecting lies such as gestures, sweat, and blood pressure are unreliable.

  3. While I agree that its wrong to let emotions influence what you believe is true, emotions are exactly the reason why something may be false. Why do you think pscyhology is such a broken and poorly understood science? Its people like you who think there must be a by-the-book way of doing things, but humans involve so many variables that while there might actually be a literal prediction to human actions, those actions are nearly impossible (or simply unrealistic) to determine.

  4. The levels for the intro are done professionally very close to the "red line" while the audio from the talk is captured live. I think they have video professionals and no audio engineers to spot things like that.

  5. And people believe any shit they read because it follows what they already believe. Like saying that the media is ~deliberately~ lying to people without providing evidence or examples.

  6. The break-down of the investigation they did for the lightning video is fascinating.

    Is all I thought about within the duration of said video.

  8. Sherlock Holmes would be using this stuff if he lived in our time period. Oh and was a real person.

  9. it is 12 min passed 12 right now on 12/12/12 just to let you know, I needed to record that somewhere and since I am watching this video I decided to record it here in the comments, hope it is relevant.

  10. Why are you talking about emotions being real? When did I give the impression that I think they aren't? I'm sorry, but I don't think that.
    "A machine BY ITSELF doesn't have a way of determining if you're telling the truth"
    This isn't about determining truth by way of accepting or reject a claim. Once the machine finds that reality confirm "i used to be a medical doctor", then it can determine truth telling. Also, your words on machines gives me cause to not believe what you said about computers.

  11. "emotions are exactly the reason why something may be false"
    I think that you and I have very different understandings of true and false.
    It's almost as if you're talking about what somebody believes to be true/false.

  12. Please take no disrespect from this but I'm actually getting quite annoyed with all the comments about a beautiful intro that lasts for only a few seconds instead of having a proper discussion about the sorts of talks given at TED which are, in my humble opinion, priceless. I got my BA with multiple honors (graduated top 10% of my class) but I didn't learn nearly as much in my 4yrs in college as I have in just a couple of years of browsing the web for precious nuggets of valuable information.

  13. The story about the woman with the pool actually made me think more about how easy it is to stalk people these days than about the use of internet in/to journalism.

    Having said that, I do think this offers an interesting perspective on the developments in journalism.

  14. I disagree: if anything, the internet provides for yet more self-insulation, making it easier for media to lie while cultivating "fanbases". Worldviews become subscription based; totalitarian states like Russia and Iran can easily dessiminate agit-prop through their respective outlets, RT and Press TV.

    The internet has totality destroyed the conception of a public sphere; now all we have are thousands if not millions of cult-like private spheres which we can chose at will to be sucked into.

  15. Very wild indeed. How many others are there out there 😉 Perhaps you might ask a expert.

  16. Exactly, the internet will either by edited by you to suit your prejudices or by automatic advertising/recommendation-bot forces beyond your control. Corporations and authoritarian regimes know this; we know about corporate manipulation, but its disturbing how much Birchers are becoming more and more belivable *after* the end of the Cold War. Look up a book called The Foundations of Geopolitics by Alexander Dugin, popular with the Russian elites, then look at Russia Today's general agenda.

  17. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but to quote the Russian Marxist theorist Boris Kargarlitsky, RT is "very much a continuation of the old Soviet propaganda services", and it knows how to exploit the image of so-called "independent" "alternative" "new" media. Same for Press TV, and others; World Net Daily and Counterpunch have become respectively become their ideological counterweights on the Right and the Left, feeding into a culture of willful, submissive disinformation.

  18. this is a nice idea for movie or TV series where every episode the hero must find truth about a tweet or clip from YouTube

  19. Um… Absolutely fantastic, until the last few points. I'm pretty sure that computers will become intelligent, in just about every sense of the word.

  20. You wouldn't verify it, because the term is being used unscientifically / uncritically. It's like saying "you're ugly and that's a fact". Well.. no it's not a fact, it's an opinion.

    So, saying "I'm better than you and it's the truth"… well no, It's not "the truth". It's your subjective an unverifiable claim.

  21. I was totally on board with this whole discussion, but for that one closing statement.

    nolan pls

  22. 3:45 he gets to the goddamn point
    Otherwise, quite good.
    …except the "truth isn't binary" bit. Truth IS binary: if you unpack a statement enough, you can determine for certain which parts are completely true and which parts are completely false. There's no in-between.

  23. I think his conclusion does not reflect the exposition he made… I truly believe that our view of the world and things is subjective, but he didn’t talk about that…

  24. i disagree. what if it's an identical bridge somewhere else? what if the location is authentic but the color has been adjusted? is that authentic? it boils down to something very subjective, which is what [i believe] the speaker meant by "human".

  25. This was a great talk, some pretty cool detective work there! I think it's important we all learn to use at least some basic fact-checking before we jump to conclusions on stuff online.

  26. yes, the connection was lost, still quite interesting to learn how facts can be found

  27. This is because, while you can find truth out there, it doesn't mean that is the same truth for everyone. What that truth represents to each and everyone of us is quite different to a very individual perspective.

    He also meant to say that while there is information, there isn't a "truth machine", but tools to find it in our own, as humans.

    Or at least that's what I think. =P

  28. I think that perhaps, to him, when something goes from a fact to a truth it changes for him, into something more representative of a belief rather than reality. He wants to make truth personal and subjective. I strongly disagree with this mentality.

  29. Exactly my thoughts. I was very annoyed to hear him talk logically and then throw logic away at the end.

  30. Not every truth is binary. Especially truths based on human concepts like guilt/innocence.

  31. No, he calculated "fact" (or, if you prefer, trivial truth). He can take that distilled fact, along with other similar and related facts, and then try to determine truth from it (whether some of the sources are ignorant, passing on hearsay with all of the fidelity of the classic children's game, revealing previously unknown biases or outright lying), along with truths at other levels. Facts are merely clues; some are red herrings, and some are dogs that failed to bark in the night.

  32. I do understand what you mean. But, for example, in social sciences, you can fully apreciate how a truth isn't always the same truth for everyone, even if it is "similar. For example, europeans have as bad economy, is great economy in most other places in the world; just as you could have got an increase of 5% in taxes in europe, nobody likes that, but truth is (see what I did there?), some other places, with different "truths" find a 2% way too much to afford a living, a 5% would be nonesense.

  33. Yet, it is completely untrue in natural sciences. When you have gravity dictating that objects fal at 9.8m/s^2, it changes for no one and nothing, and if it changes, it changes for everyone. But I hardly doubt he was referring to such truths and facts, as journalism is mostly another social science and/or a derivative of such (i.e. communicology). Y'know?

  34. Nice talk, but i don't agree, at the end, when he says that algorithms are "binary, yes or no, black or white".

    Many algorithms work by assessing a certain level of certainty, and not by giving a "black or white" answers.

  35. And this is why stalking victims have such a hard time escaping their stalkers. Ugh.

  36. Both investigations he described can be automated and performed by computer programs. It may take a few years before such programs take over human verification but it's going to happen. While these investigations are satisfying when they work out I am quite sure a lot of time gets wasted going nowhere and revealing nothing. There is also a great level of information asymmetry that amplify urban news and are blind to rural news. In India for example less than 1% of its population is online.

  37. Excellent talk about how to filter 'fact' from 'fiction' in the ocean of online contents. A must see one for the aspiring journalists and everybody should see this talk. Highly recommended.

  38. You're doing the same thing he is doing. I talk of that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality. You're talking of justification, which is inherently subjective. You make it subjective by asking if it was justified.

  39. Thanks for all the comments on the talk, folks. Interesting that the majority are focused on the closing statement about truth, and whether or not it is in fact binary or subjective. Happy to answer any specific questions arising from the talk here, so do drop me a line.

  40. This is prettymuch what i do when i'm trying to add outdoor webcams into the layer in Google Earth (i'm mostly doing traffic cams). I've found that some of the most useful landmarks are street-poles, as they cast long "here i am!" shadows which also indicate the time of day by their angle, they can also be easily seen in Google Streetview for a cross-reference. I can generally find the camera location to within a few centimeters 🙂

  41. Of course, now poor Rita is being searched by hundreds of people with nothing better to do.

  42. It dependes on whether you differentiate between truth as a state and truth as a noun. A singular 'truth', is an empirical fact, but 'the truth' is something else, and is often a triangulation of subjective views, each of which may be true to the beholder.

  43. With due respect for a generally good talk, saying that truth is "fluid" and "Human" is NOT a skeptical, scientific stance, and is conducive to the mystic bullshit that permeates YT and the legion religious nutters who think that believing something makes it true. Reality is truth, and reality is independant of human perception. Societal progress depnds on less hoo-hoo sound bites and more honest realism.

  44. Such as the truth of the stories in the Bible, creationists, and intelligent design or the truth of fossil records, carbon dating, and the scientific method. There is no one fact that makes either perspective "the truth," but both sides will explain their view as "the truth" and not an opinion. And that, is the truth.

  45. 1:45 From a journalistic perspective people should hear the truth, not what we want to hear. The fact that journalists are reacting to the audience instead of providing good journalism is why people are NOT watching mainstream media anymore. Almost all mainstream journalism today is pathetic since they don't do any amount of significant research. Popular heavily tweeted information is usually uninformed BS.

  46. There is only one truth; never try to confuse delusion, ignorance, or misunderstanding with truth, lest you be the morons at Fox news.

  47. On Twitter, people won't even know what you are talking about anymore by the time you did even basic fact-checking.

  48. It's the high frequencies that really get me, more so than the actual volume. It's also much worse on laptops than with proper speakers.

    It's great to see that many other people think so, too.

  49. Twitter is the worst news source ever. It's not so hard to establish your credibility which makes it very easy to manipulate.

  50. Agreed the worst example of this is people not getting their children inoculated because of the fear that it's a cause of autism. Where do they get most of the disinformation? — The internet.

  51. I liked the way he ended his presentation.It's true we have great tools on the net but we must exercise caution and intelligence to find the truth.

  52. The intro/outro, is a small price to pay for such great information, not to mention it's free!

  53. unfortunately YouTube censors a massive amount of video content under "may contain" flagging. In fact it is a machine doing the flagging, and one may wonder who programs it, to delete so much content. Question is how much content is deleted while he is talking?

  54. Can you please provide the credible sources that allowed you to come to this decision?

    I'm not going to believe something I read online just because it sounds good.

  55. Some great information from a fascinating TED Talk.

    But, I have to ask, was anyone else reminded of the protagonist from Burn Notice?

  56. "Truth is never binary"
    LOL!? NEVER binary you say?
    4<3 True/ False?

    Yeah, jingoistic phrase that makes sense in the context he's speaking of but not exactly true. I think…

    I think the saying should be "Truth is never binary, except when it actually is…"

  57. That's good journalist work, but the flip side is that it's scary to see how much info you can get, on the internet, based on limited chunks of information.

  58. no need to remove it. branding is imprtant. tho they could lower the volume 😛

  59. I'm going to discover ways to get laid. My friend has begun dating a ten mainly because 60 days ago he signed up to an internet site named Master Attraction (Google it if you wish to know more.) I'm green with envy since I would like to fall madly in love as well. How come it's so hard? I'm going to have a look at this Jake Ayres guy's information. Odd point is, my friend previously had no joy with girls. How do you improve that rapidly? His lady's like a model!

  60. here's an idea.. have a rating system similar to ebay,, everyone posting gets a rating , if your always posting FAKE NEWS , then it would reflect that in your rating,

  61. Fascinating! I really enjoyed this TED Talk. It's scary how much people use the media. I wonder how many videos are being posted on YouTube right now.

  62. ya markham things he knows everything, just look in a damn encylopedia instead of your stupid free internt tools you STewrgi
    i am better than you

  63. You can tell YouTube is pretty desperate for funding as they're slipping in two commercials in now before the clip starts instead of just one.

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