Markham Nolan: How to separate fact and fiction online


Markham Nolan – managing editor of, Markham Nolan has watched journalism evolve from the pursuit of finding facts to the act of verifying those floating in the ether.


Markham has been a journalist since he was 17, but the way people access news is changing, and the people who write news is changing. In the modern age, readers access news in real-time, with journalists playing catchup to collect news from their readers. For example an earthquake in Costa Rica was reported by a citizen on Twitter within 30seconds of it occurring – meaning anyone in the world could know about it within 30 seconds. However, massive amounts of data are uploaded to the internet every second so how do you filter it and work out what is true?

During Hurricane Sandy real photos were posted alongside jokes and fakes, leaving journalists to filter through to find the truth. Instead of the old model of finding the story, their job was to hold back the untrue stories. One tool to identify truth was to identify who was telling it. They followed a conversation by looking at re-tweets, and identified the most influential people. These could then be investigated further to build up a contact directory of genuine sources.

Markham discusses a Youtube video of a violent storm and an unseen woman filming it. It was an amazing clip – journalistic gold, but it needed verification first. The username was Rita Krill, with only a single video uploaded. First they used free tools to identify Rita Krills in a number of cities, then cross-checked with wolfram-alpha to find which cities had violent weather on the day of uploading. Then White pages for addresses, and Google maps to find a swimming pool featured in the video. They could then call her and verified it was true.

Sometimes verifying truth in Youtube videos is extremely important – when they depict war crimes. A video allegedly of Muslim Brotherhood members tossing bloodied bodies off a bridge near Hamah for example. To verify, they looked for details of the bridge itself – the shape of railings or direction of shadows (to identify it is an East-West bridge). They used Google Maps to find East-West bridges around Hamah, then photos of the bridge to check the railings and other features from the video, successfully identifying a bridge near Hamah that matched the one in the video. They verified the location a video was filmed using free tools within 20minutes, from an office in Dublin thousands of kilometers away from the video’s origin.

Although the web is a torrent of information, with a few clues you can work out amazing things. We have amazing tools and algorithms to filter the info, but these tend to be binary (in or out). However truth is not binary, it is a variable, it is emotional and fluid. No matter how good computers get, humans cannot be removed from the truth-finding, because truth is such a human trait.

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