How can social video prove the innocence of a wrongfully arrested activist? How do you verify the authenticity of images or videos from social media before using them in your stories? How can you navigating multiple languages (and spellings) to search for companies or subjects? Journalists today are increasingly making use of social media, open data, user-generated content and other online sources to produce important investigations and stories covering critical and contentious issues such as conflict zones, human rights abuse cases and international corruption. But how do you know what information to trust, and how do you separate the #fake from the merely ‘unbelievable’?

Two recent guides: The Verification Handbook on Investigative reporting and the Journalist’s Guide to Working with Social Sources offer practical advice (and revealing case-studies) on establishing the veracity of online content and information. At the end of this article we also give you some links to lists of tools that can help.


The gist of it

There is an abundance of information available online on social media and in databases, meaning that just about any investigation today should incorporate the search, gathering and verification of online information. This has become inseparable from the traditional journalistic work of cultivating sources, securing confidential information, and other investigative tactics that rely on hidden or less-public information.

The Verification Handbook has curated expertise from some of the world’s leading media, research and civil society organisations, including BBC, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting, the Arab Reporters for Investigative Reporting, Amnesty International, WITNESS, The SecDev Foundation and SAM.

This is collated into ten chapters (and three case studies) of succinct, readable guidance for journalists.

The Journalists Guide, written by Claire Wardle, research director at Tow Centre for Digital Journalism and an expert on using social media in newsrooms, offers advice on how to use social media content in your stories, ethical considerations and rights issues.

Together, these guides offer excellent suggestions on how to verify and use social media and other online sources.

Why should you care?

Using social media sources is a risky business. Fake news abounds. Learning to verify online sources is now an essential requirement in journalism. In 2016, The Star newspaper in Johannesburg had a front page story on the “gruesome death” of Kamo which was based on a series of tweets by @JustKhuthi, detailing her “last day alive”. The story was later exposed as fake. If the Star journalists and editors had taken the advice in these guides they might have avoided this error.


Report summary

The Verification Handbook focuses on how journalists can use online resources for their investigations. It highlights detailed guidance and illustrative case studies — from Brazil, Canada and Lebanon to help journalists, human rights workers and others to verify and use open source information and user-generated content (UGC) in service of investigative projects. Some of the topics covered include:

· Advice and tools for digitizing three of the biggest questions in journalism: who, where and when?

· A few tricks to extract what you need in search engines.

· Using databases, domain records and other publicly available material to investigate companies and verifying the quality of the data.

· Verifying the source for user generated.

· Applying ethical principles to digital age investigation.


Case studies

One case study in the Handbook details the work of a 37-year-old activist named Jair Seixas who was arrested during a protest supporting striking teachers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in October 2015. Seixas had been marching peacefully with eight human rights lawyers when police officers approached and accused him of setting fire to a police vehicle and minibus.

Seixas was held in prison for 60 days and later released. He continues to fight the charges brought against him. When his lawyers began to plan their defense strategy, they looked for videos that might help prove Seixas’ innocence. Their search involved looking on social networks, asking those who were at the event, and obtaining footage from the prosecution and courts.

The reporters at WITNESS helped the Seixas lawyers to identify and prepare evidence, both by assembling screenshots of these videos into a storyboard as well as by editing a 10-minute evidentiary submission of video that was delivered to the judge, along with the accompanying documentation. They used the video to prove that the vehicle he was accused of burning was in fact the same vehicle he was driven away in after his arrest.

This story has clear relevance to protest action and unlawful detention that has taken place in South Africa, as well as in other African countries. Students and activists involved in the recent #FeesMustFall movement have accused police of targeting and wrongfully arresting specific protesters.

For more details, you can access the Verification Handbook on Investigative reporting here.

The Journalists Guide to working with Social Sources goes beyond verification to help journalists treat online sources ethically. Based on her work with the BBC and other news organisations, she identifies a number of challenges with social sources including the dangers of putting them at physical risk (by using social media to ask for pictures of a fire or disaster for example), publishing information from social media that the source thinks of as private (even though they have shared it publicly), and getting permissions to use photos or videos.

The guide is full of examples of how journalists are addressing these issues and offers advice on how to:

  • Request information without putting sources at risk
  • Get permission from a source online and when to credit
  • What to do if content is subsequently removed by a source
  • How best to embed content from a source’s social media account

For more details, you can access the Guide to working with Social Sources here.

Tools to help

Some journalists have been curating very useful resources online that can help you find tools to help with verification of data.

Africa Check is the only independent fact-checking organisation on the continent.

Here is a guide on how to spot fake and hoaxes online.

Africa Check have also put together articles to fact-check or verify social media hoaxes or fakes. The best way is to start with this niffty five step fact checking guide

Here is a selection their fact-checking work:

Africa Check welcomes suggestions of what to fact-check from readers or the public. Send your requests by visiting this page: or contact them via their social media channels (Twitter: @africacheck) or even with a WhatsApp message: +27 73 749 7875.

Author and academic Howard Rheingold leads a team that put together A Guide to Crap Detection Resources.

This public google doc lists a wide range of useful resources (with links) for journalists including tools to identify the owner of a website, to identify altered photographs, fact-checking sites.

Journalist and news consultant Fergus Bell has also curated a comprehensive list of initiatives that are working to fix trust in journalism and tackle “fake news”.

It includes a longer list of guides on how to spot and deal with fake news.

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