The Pope, the dictator, the fake photo: it pays to fact-check social media
Henk van Ess
teaches internet research, social media and multimedia. Current projects include ‘fact-checking the web’ and data journalism. Twitter: @henkvaness
Stories were circulating that Pope Francis played a role in the so-called Dirty War in Argentina. Reporters claimed they could substantiate this allegation and published photos of dictator Jorge Videla with a cardinal, allegedly Jorge Bergoglio, the recently elected Pope Francis.
But something was wrong with the findings, like those tweeted here: “Great find, Brad: pope's connivance with dictatorship RT Hugh O'Shaughnessy: Sins of the Argentine church http://bit.ly/XuR7k0.”
The buzz started just two hours after the wait for the white smoke was over. Hundreds of people, including reporters, tweeted a link to a 2011 story in The Guardian headlined “The Sins of the Argentinian Church”.
Blogs came up with similar stories. Documentary maker Michael Moore forwarded a link to a photo of Videla with a cardinal - allegedly the new Pope. For some newspapers, like the Dutch daily Volkskrant, these tweets were sufficient to break the story. "Pope sparks controversy," the newspaper wrote, alongside this photograph (above right).
In the end everybody had to correct their stories. Moore withdrew his tweet, The Guardian corrected the two-year-old article in which Bergoglio was mentioned, and Volkskrant apologised for using the wrong photos.
With the help of basic internet research skills this would have never happened. Let's try to debunk all four clues:
1. The Guardian article came from the ‘Comment is free’ section, the opinion corner of the newspaper. It wasn't a factual story that was tweeted but an opinion.
2. Enough people retweeted it. The number of retweets by itself does not tell much about the credibility of a story. Take, for example, a look at this fake amber alert (right) that was retweeted thousands of times.
But fact-checking social media does start with numbers. How many people retweeted something? From which countries? How many clicked on the link? To make an educated guess you need tools.
Type in the link to the story you want to investigate in Backtweets. You could type in: ‘www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/jan/04/argentina-videla-bergoglio-repentance’. You’ll see it is quoted more than 20 times, but those are the latest results. Search for ‘13 March, 2013’ and ‘14 March, 2013’. If you click on ‘More Tweets’ you can access an archive of more than 5,000 tweets.
Keep in mind that you will miss tweets that use a shortened link service like Bitly. You have to investigate each possible link separately in Backtweets - that's boring work but somebody has to do it. Only then will you see reporters who retweeted the link, like this Italian reporter (right).
Then there’s the trick with ‘to’. If you search in Twitter for ‘to (name of source)’ several concerns come up. Usually, followers are the first to correct false tweets. Therefore it makes sense to use ‘to:@mattseaton or_to@MMflint’ (Michael Moore) to find out if somebody warned the source of the story. Here you see the same Italian reporter had some doubts after she’d posted and removed the link to the Guardian article (below).
3. Blogs broke the news, like Consortium News. Who is behind that source? I use this little Google trick to find sources who talk about the blog but are not affiliated with it. Here's how you do that, by searching for “consortium news” -site:consortiumnews.com”:
The blog writer is Robert Parry, who has a serious problem "with millions of Americans brainwashed by the waves of disinformation”. His site wants to fight distortions of Fox News and "the hordes of other right-wing media outlets”. The blog constitutes mostly activism rather than journalism.
4. The pictures: Michael Moore corrected his tweet several hours after he had posted the original. Without his correction, however, validation would have been possible too. You can upload the specific photo - in this case the alleged photo of the Pope and Videla - to Google Images and try to find the original source.
Google presents a list of most popular search words in conjunction with the image. When I tried this on the exact day the Pope was elected the words were different: "corruption", "Argentina" and "church”. This indicated the person who found the image probably typed these words in Google to find the particular image that later sparked so much controversy.
To find the first date the photo was published, or that Google indexed the photo, you can go back in time. You can order Google to show you only photos older than, say, 2004.
Now you get to the original source, Getty Images. In the caption it says that Videla visited a church in Buenos Aires in 1990. The new Pope isn't even mentioned.
Compare this with Pope Francis’s biography from the Vatican. It says he was a spiritual director in Córdoba, 400 miles away from Buenos Aires. Sure, they have buses and trains and planes in Argentina, but still.
Another tip: always think ‘video’ when you see a picture. Just type some words from the event into Google's search engine. This will lead to a YouTube video of the same event captured on the Getty photo.
Now you see both people from the Getty image moving. But here the dates don’t make sense. Pope Francis was born 17 December 1936 and Videla was born 2 August 1925, which makes him more than 10 years older. In the YouTube video the ages don't seem to match.
We have uncovered enough reason to doubt the original claim about Pope Francis, so now it's time to go for the final check. Other people have probably discovered what you have just found out. So, order Google to search for fake photos: "false" OR "falsely" OR "fake photo" "jorge videla" "jorge bergoglio".
Don't search in English - go for Spanish and French. You can type the words in English and Google translates the keywords and the hits are translated back into English.
The first hit leads to sources which claim that the Michael Moore photo is false. Other keywords can be "not true”, "hoax" or "blunder”. It's also a good idea to send a tweet to Storyful - it even has a dedicated bebunking hashtag, #dailydebunk (right).
There you have it. The Guardian amended its story from 2011 on 14 March 2013. Nevertheless, some newspapers broke the story afterwards, as the Dutch daily Volkskrant did on 15 March. It apologised the next day.
By doing some background research this could have all been avoided. Had proper fact-checking taken place this story should not have been written in the first place.
This is an edited version of an article published on the PBS website.
Advanced Internet Research Consultancy (internal link to course for BBC staff only)