On February 1, 2005, an Islamist website released a photo of an expressionless US soldier sitting on the floor at gunpoint. His name was John Adam, and a group called the Mujahedeen Brigades was threatening to behead him if Iraqi prisoners were not released from US-run jails within 72 hours. The next day, toy company Dragon Models USA came to the rescue by announcing that John Adam looked suspiciously similar, right down to the accessories and uniform, to its Special Ops Cody doll.
“The Internet has made news hoaxes easier,” says Italian schoolteacher Tommaso De Benedetti. “Journalists only care about being the first to break the news, no matter if the source is unverified.” After having been caught publishing fake interviews in several Italian newspapers, De Benedetti moved on to Twitter, which he describes as “the most powerful and least verifiable wire agency in the world.” On August 6, 2012, De Benedetti, whose accomplishments include tweeting the deaths of J.K. Rowling and Pope Benedict, tweeted as the Russian Minister of Internal Affairs to announce that the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, had been killed. Within two hours, the Egypt-based Middle East News Agency released it as a probable story. Crude-oil prices rose by US$1.17 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
According to the Online News Association, a digital- journalism NGO, the best way to report on a Twitter story is to go old school. Pick up the phone. Speak to the source. And always ask the question: “How do you know that?”
From the pages of COLORS #86 - Making the News.