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How To Fact-Check Social Media

You're right on deadline and need to verify that claim flying around on social networks. Henk van Ess explains how the internet can help you to debunk the internet -- in real time.

Did Pope Francis play a major role in Argentina’s Dirty War? Reporters published photos of dictator Jorge Videla with a cardinal, allegedly with Jorge Bergoglio, the recently elected Pope Francis. But something was wrong with these reporters’ findings.

Henk van Ess explains how the internet can help you to debunk the internet.

The buzz started just hours after the waiting for the white smoke was over.

“New Pope has strong ties to Argentina’s old regime”, reporters tweeted. The claim originated from a 2011 story in The Guardian, The Sins of the Argentinian Church.

The link to the story was retweeted over and over again, without anyone questioned it. Blogs came 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 Volkskrant, these tweets were sufficient to break the story. “Pope sparks controversy”, the newspaper wrote.

The next day, everybody had to correct his story. Moore withdrew his tweet, The Guardian corrected some false allegations about Jorge Bergoglio and Volkskrant apologized for using the wrong photos.

With the help of some basic internet research skills this never would have happened. Let’s debunk all four clues:

1. The Guardian story


The story came from the “Comment is free” section, the newspaper’s speaker’s corner. 
It was not a factual story, but an opinion piece, that had been retweeted by the public.


2.  Many people retweeted the story

Social media reporters noticed many retweets of the story, lacking all criticism from those who produced the tweet. But if you search in Twitter for:

to:[name of source]

several concerns emerge. Usually, followers are the first to correct false tweets. Therefore, it makes sense to use to:@csvdr or @to:MMflint (Michael Moore) to find out if somebody warned the source of the story.

The number of retweets by itself, does not tell much about the credibility of a story.

Take, for example, a look at a fake amber alert, that was retweeted thousands of times:


3. Blogs

Blogs broke the news, like Consortium News.

Who is behind that source? I use this little Google trick to find sources that talk about 
the blog, but are not affiliated with it. Here’s how you do that:

If you type in the name of the site (in quote marks to search for that exact phrase) and then a minus sign followed by site:[sitename], you will subtract instances from the site you are searching about.

The writer is Robert Perry, who is self-proclaimed to have a serious problem “with millions of Americans brainwashed by the waves of disinformation“. His site wants to fight distortions from 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 his original tweet. Without his correction, however, validation of the image 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 now presents a list of most popular search words in conjunction with the image. When I tried this on the exact day the Pope was presented, the words were different: corruption Argentina and church. This indicated the joker 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 mentioned:

Now compare this with Pope’s Francis biography from the Vatican:

It says he was a spiritual director in Córdoba, 700 kilometres away from Buenos Aires. Sure, they have buses and trains and planes in Argentina, but normally local church leaders don’t travel that far.

Another tip now: always think “video” when you see a picture. Just type some words from the event in Google’s search engine. This will lead to a Youtube-video of the same event as captured on the Getty photo.

Now you see both people from the Getty image, but this time they are moving.

If this is meant to be Pope Francis, it doesn’t make sense. Pope Francis was born December 17, 1936. Jorge Videla was born August 2, 1925. Videla is more then ten years older. In the Youtube video, the ages don’t seem to match.

Now that we have uncovered enough reason to doubt the original claim about Pope Francis, go for the final check. Probably more people discovered what you just found out. So, order Google now to search for fake photos:

false OR falsely OR fake photo “jorge videla” “jorge bergoglio”_

Don’t search in English, but go for Spanish and French. You can type in the words in English, Google translates the keywords and the hits are translated back into English.

The first hit leads to a source that claims that the Michael Moore photo is false:

Other keywords can be “not true”, hoax or blunder.

There you have it.

The Guardian amended its own story on March 14, 2013. The same day, the cardinal on the Getty photo was proven to be not the Pope. Nevertheless, newspapers broke the story the next day.

By doing some background research, this could have been avoided. Had proper fact-checking taken place, this story should not have been written in the first place.

Dutch-born Henk van Ess currently chairs the VVOJ, the Association of Investigative Journalists for The Netherlands and Belgium. Van Ess teaches internet research & multimedia/cross media at universities and news media in Europe. He is founder of VVOJMedialab and search engines or Facing Facebook. His current projects include crowdsourcing for news media, fact checking of social media and internet research for seasoned reporters.

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