Storyful Blog

TED talk: The truth in the real-time web


When asked to discuss ‘the truth in the real-time web’ for a TED talk last Wednesday, I really had to look into what that phrase really meant. How, if at all, have the developments of the real-time web changed how we seek out the truth?

Journalists continue to strive for truth, but the real-time web has meant two major changes in how we work to that end. The first is a sudden shift in the power balance in favour of the audience. For decades the audience were pretty much passive consumers, with little means to effect timely change. My first interaction with the media as a consumer came in 1984 (aged four). The BBC went on strike for a day as a result of which I couldn’t see my cartoons, so I wrote an angry letter. It took three weeks to receive a response to my complaint about a one-day strike. Now, if a journalist doesn’t respond to a Twitter message or email challenge within half an hour, their credibility can be called into question.

The audience is more directly connected to journalists than ever before, with the result that we who work in the media are at the beck and call of those who consume what we produce. Because the journalists are now expected to react to audience actions, everything must happen faster. Journalists now work – and must produce content for that audience – in real time.

The second major shift is the volume and pace of the movement of information. Rather than traditional model of unbidden seeking-and-retrieving FOR the reader, the journalist is now often working to hold back excess information FROM the reader. We’re speed-filtering the torrent, and trying to ensure only accurate and relevant stuff gets to them. To examine that further, you have to go into the stats of how fast the news travels and how much there is.

On September 5, 2012, at 2.42pm, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake rattled Nicaragua. Travelling at about 4.8 kilometres per second it hit Managua, 247 kilometres away from the epicentre, in about 60 seconds. Ninety seconds after the quake happened, the first Twitter message popped up. What that meant, in effect, was that an earthquake which had taken 60 seconds to travel the first 250 kilometres, in physical terms, accelerated in news terms to travel everywhere on the planet within 90 seconds.

What this shows is that news and information travels so fast now, that no matter what the event, no matter where it takes place, we should all be able to find out about it online, for free, straight from the source, the minute it happens. We are the most documented generation in history.

With ever-improving means at our disposal, we now document everything in photos and status updates and video clips and put it online, there and then. Vast quantities of data float up into the cloud all day long, chronicling life on planet earth as it happens, in real time and high definition.

This is what 24 hours of YouTube uploads would look like if recorded onto 2-hour VHS tapes & stacked on pallettes.

24hrs of YouTube on VHS tapes

As a result, YouTube is becoming the most important repository of documentary evidence about humankind in the world. Every minute, another 72 hours of video footage from around the world is added to YouTube servers – that’s more than an hour of video every second. In a single second, 58 photos are uploaded to Instagram, 3,333 images added to Facebook. In the time it took to do my TED talk, people added 864 hours of video to YouTube and 2.4 million more photos to Facebook and Instagram. That’s a lot of information about the world as it’s happening. This should be great. This should be the best thing in the world – so much information that we can’t miss a thing.

Except there’s too much information, and lots of it is misleading or just plain useless, because not all humans are concerned with objectivity and quality reporting. The truth is in there, there’s no doubt. But there’s just so much dross – so many scraped copies, so many falsified rumours – that as journalists, our job is now to hold back all the useless stuff, and root out the good material.

Hurricane Sandy brought this home in a big way. So much was going on at the one time that journalists were scrambling to sort the fakes from the real stuff. This photo turned out to be real, but was subjected to an online grilling from a range of really high-powered journalists. The pic could be verified because the guys who took it turned out to be well-known New York bloggers.

But it’s not always that easy to distinguish the good sources, which is where Storyful often comes in. For a closer look at our own verification process, check out how we found the people behind viral videos like the one showing a lightning bolt strike a garden in Florida, or how we use the Internet to investigate videos coming from Syria.

What the real-time web has enabled us to do, in the Syrian cases in particular, is to establish a large proportion of the facts from a distance. In the past, as an editor, I would have had to fly someone to Syria to establish contact with people on the ground and gain their trust before even beginning to investigate. This would have been accomplished at great cost, and under threat of constant danger. Instead, using some online tools in an intelligent way, I’ve been able to do this sleuthing from an office in Dublin, with the assistance in real time of local sources in Syria.

Developments in technology and connectivity bring the raw materials of news to us in a broader and faster torrent than ever before. Some of the tools we use every day at Storyful are starting to help us filter out the truth from the rest with greater and greater efficiency. But what hasn’t changed, since the pencil-licking days of old, is the human element in the search for truth. Computers will get faster, more intelligent and easier to use, but they obey complex webs of what are, essentially, binary rules. Yes or no, black or white. Truth is rarely yes or no, black or white. It is anything but binary. Truth is a value. It is subjective, emotional and fluid. Truth is given value by humans, and is only valuable to humans. It is uniquely identifiable by humans. No matter how fast the web moves, no matter how freely online information flows in the real-time web, truth will remain a uniquely human concept.


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This entry was posted on November 12, 2012 by in Social Journalism, verification.
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