On September 29, a few days after citizens first took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest the government’s election rules, a Facebook user going by Nero Chan uploaded a stunning video to the social network. Set against dulcet background music, the video is shot from the point of view of a hovering drone that flies both high above and close to the ground through the streets of Hong Kong, showing us the throngs of protesters that clog the arteries of the city’s thoroughfares.
Later that same day, the Facebook Newswire shared the video to its page, adding a few words of context but for the most part allowing the footage to speak for itself. Launched in April, the Newswire is a collaboration between Facebook and Storyful, a four-year-old company that discovers emerging content on social media and verifies its authenticity for clients, which include both news organizations and brands.
Within 24 hours of the Newswire’s resharing, the video had ricocheted around the world, eventually generating close to a million views and 26,000 Facebook shares. It was repackaged by news outlets, ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian, and an ABC News version of the video was viewed over 700,000 times. For many people who live outside Hong Kong, it was their first look at the sheer size and scope of the protests; it contextualized the uprising in a way that a single article or on-the-ground photo never could. In previous years, a newsworthy video or image that originated on Facebook likely would have been scraped and uploaded to somewhere like YouTube, allowing that platform to receive all the credit when being cited by news agencies. But with the launch of Newswire, Storyful has been able to utilize its powerful discovery tools to surface and spread valuable content on Facebook before anyone else, allowing many to recognize for the first time the potential the social networking giant has for generating groundbreaking news.
There’s been a common refrain among social media marketers that Facebook is not an ideal platform for hard news. In August, when the nation was gripped by clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri, many claimed that while you were likely to see retweets of on-the-ground Ferguson protesters on Twitter, your Facebook news feed would be populated by Ice Bucket Challenge videos. “Facebook is virtually useless for trying to follow updates on Ferguson,” wrote Circa editor-in-chief Anthony De Rosa. “Next to nobody here knows what an interest list is, or how it might potentially be a way to follow news here, and Facebook can’t be bothered to do anything about it.”
But despite these criticisms, Facebook Newswire has shown, time and again, that text, photos, and videos with hard news value do exist on Facebook if you know where to look. The problem is that not everyone does. “One of the things that was interesting to us, and why we began to have a conversation with Facebook earlier this year, was that there was a huge amount of content on Facebook that was very helpful to us and our news clients but it was to a certain degree much more difficult to find and to surface than it was on some of the other platforms,” said David Clinch, Storyful’s executive editor. Clinch, a former CNN journalist, told me that because Facebook was originally invented as a platform for friends, with a wide variety of privacy controls and sharing capabilities, it’s made it hard sometimes for content to spread efficiently, even when it’s shared publicly.
I met with Clinch and his New York team in early October to get a better understanding of how the Newswire works. Storyful was purchased by News Corp’s spinoff publishing division last year, and the team now works at a small flotilla of cubicles within the New York Post offices. Immediately upon arrival it became apparent how hectic a Storyful employee’s day truly is. Staffers were calling out to each other across desks, asking if they’d seen some trend or tweet flashing through their various dashboards. Clinch, returning from a lunch meeting, had to first check in with an ongoing Google Hangout, the method by which the New York, Dublin, and Hong Kong Storyful teams communicate throughout the day. As I later spoke to him, his eyes remained glued to his phone screen, and he kept apologizing for having to multitask during our interview.
One could reasonably assume that, as a result of the partnership, Facebook had given Storyful some kind of special backend access to the social network’s data and user base, but Clinch insisted that Storyful isn’t given any “special sauce,” but rather uses the same mix of shoe leather journalism and proprietary technology it has always used on other social platforms for years. “One of the things we explained to [our Facebook partners] was that we don’t go onto Facebook and search for content,” he explained. “That’s not really how we discover content. We discover content by tapping into what we call the human algorithm, and the human algorithm is a set of behaviors that happens within groups of people. There are groups or lists of people that you can create on all social platforms, and those groups are people who may not know each other, but they’re all interested in just one thing. They’re all interested in the Islamic state, they’re all interested in basketball, or they’re all interested in Justin Bieber.”
The Storyful team has compiled hundreds of these lists, based on both geographic location and interest, and it utilizes a proprietary tool that monitors all these lists simultaneously. When one of the lists shows a sudden spike of activity, sometimes around a specific keyword, it sends an alert to Storyful staffers, who then go and look to see whether something is emerging. “It could be a bombing in Boston,” said Clinch. “It could be protests in Hong Kong. And those people, those groups, they are by definition the experts who we, in our system, have identified as the experts. They act as a filter, because if anyone is going to know of something important, they are. If anyone is going to know what’s real and what isn’t real, they are.” In many cases, when the team knows there’s an upcoming event or protest, they can beef up and watch the lists in real time, confident that activists will post frequently to social media.
Identifying the emerging news item, however, is only half the battle. With so many social media hoaxes, from Jimmy Kimmel’s twerk fail to the $0 tip on a $100 restaurant bill, Storyful makes an explicit promise to all of its news partners: this content we’ve found for you is 100 percent authentic. In some cases, the social news agency also establishes a licensing deal with the content creator.
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How does Storyful make this guarantee? Through an extensive verification process that it has perfected over the years. “One of the key points is that we have to find the original,” explained Clinch. “If we’re looking at video and we haven’t even established that it’s the original, then you can be thrown off by false claims and copies. Anyone can claim they own video. For us, what’s really important is that if you find the original, then you find the person who’s behind the original. And that person, they have an online profile and a history, so you can see a lot about them before you even reach out to them. For instance, if they’re not in Hong Kong, then that reduces the chance that they even filmed this stuff. But if they are then you can see a little more about them before you even reach out to them. Then you’re a step ahead.” Oftentimes, because Storyful is the first news outlet to track the content creator down, it’s easier to get him to respond because he’s not yet being bombarded with interview requests.
This entire process has been consistently refined through a close collaboration between Storyful’s editorial and technology teams, who often work hand in hand to improve the company’s detection and verification methods. “The technology team is looking at it in real time and saying, ‘You’re searching for things on Facebook. We just created a tool to do it a better way.’ Instead of waiting months and months or us having to go and ask them, they do it in real time. We had an update today in the technology we use to search Facebook, and it’s five times better than what we were doing before. And it’s not like we asked for it; the technology team sees what we do, monitors what we do, and says, ‘You know what? You can do that much easier if you do it this way.’”
Mandy Jenkins, Storyful’s open newsroom editor who oversees the news team, described the adrenaline rush that can sometimes pervade the newsroom when they think they’ve stumbled onto some major news event. “Seeing something as it’s starting to take shape, you don’t even know what it is yet in some cases when it’s still early,” she said. “There’s something going on here where we’re seeing people use a hashtag, or we’re seeing some common photos from it. At first we can’t even form an idea yet of what’s taking shape, but it’s pretty exciting to see it come about.”
There’s no team that’s solely dedicated to monitoring Facebook, which is unsurprising considering how information jumps from platform to platform. A video of protesters being abused by police may be first uploaded to YouTube and then is later picked up and spread on Twitter. Storyful journalists also aren’t demarcated into various beats; instead, the 35 or so editorial staffers rely on their collective knowledge as well as various crowdsourcing methods in which they post questions to social media forums. One of those forums, called the Open Newsroom, is a Google Plus community page that describes itself as “a real-time community of news professionals working together to establish the maximum clarity and context around the big stories of the day.” The Open Newsroom is especially helpful when the Storyful team is looking at social media content in a language none of them speaks. “We have people [in the Open Newsroom] who speak a pretty wide variety of languages,” said Jenkins. “And we’ll say, ‘We’re looking at this video that needs translation, what can you tell us about it?’”
I sat next to Jenkins at her desk as she accessed a special Facebook account the company uses to curate all its topic lists. I watched as she flipped through various feeds, many populated with posts in languages I didn’t know. She also opened a separate tool — it looked similar to Tweetdeck — with various scrolling feeds and alerts.
I asked her what kind of content she sees most often on Facebook. “Weather is huge on there,” she said. “Tornadoes. Hurricanes.” In October, for instance, Facebook Newswire posted a fairly stunning up-close video of a tornado in the UK. The Ice Bucket Challenge, of course, was huge, with daily Newswire updates highlighting the latest celebrities to accept the challenge. But there’s plenty of serious news content as well. On the afternoon that I write this, the Newswire has posted images from Liberia concerning the Ebola outbreak there, as well as new video from Hong Kong. The Storyful team closely followed the protests and violent clashes in the Ukraine, and yes, the Newswire did surface user generated content from the Ferguson protests.
Reviewing all this content that is plucked out of millions of social media posts, I found it incredible that such a small team could consistently wade through these haystacks, find the needles, and then verify their authenticity. But when I expressed this awe to Clinch, he seemed unfazed.
“We have perfected the process to such a point that we don’t have to spend a lot of time doing the stuff that you’re talking about,” he replied. “We can sometimes do it at incredible speed, go through all those steps very, very quickly, because we have technology and workflows that are optimized for that. We’re just really good at finding people in real time.”
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