The Noble Futility of the Twitter Fact-checker

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Twitter has a lot of claims on it. Many (most? all?) of those claims are false, out of context, or not properly attributed. How do you handle such a firehouse of false information? At Columbia Journalism Review, Anna Clark has an interesting feature about Pulo Ordoveza, a.k.a. @PicPedant, a “rogue fact-checker” who spends a lot of time publicly calling out “mislabeled, fraudulent, and PhotoShopped images that go viral,” many of them tweeted by history science accounts with gobs of followers.

Here’s an example:

.@oldpicsarchive Wrong. That’s a still from the 1929 movie “The Wild Party.”

— PicPedant (@PicPedant) July 17, 2015

Whoops!

As Clark and Ordoveza himself point out, it’s a lonely, uphill battle. The structure of Twitter makes it easy to see why: The second the “tweet” button is hit, a given piece of information is instantly blasted to, in some cases, millions of people, many of whom will themselves retweet the misinformation to large audiences, and so on.

So once a fact-checker sees that a tweet from a big account is false or misatrributed, he or she is already a hundred laps behind. What percentage of viewers of the original tweet will ever see the correction? @PicPedant has about 19,000 followers, which is an impressive number in a vacuum, but one dwarfed by the big, virality-thirsty accounts he likes to target. So overall, this sort of work is a modern version of the proud newspaper tradition of running an A1 story that turns out to be false, and then printing a correction the next day somewhere back by the movie listings.

Here’s how Ordoveza describes his hobby and, really, internet fact-checking in general:

I’ve learned that social image verification is a futile and hopeless endeavor akin to banging one’s head against a brick wall, and each brick in said wall is printed with an obviously fake picture. Also, the fake picture bricks repeat at irregular intervals. And some of the bricks hate you.

I have fact-checked this claim, and it checks out.