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Better location data = better witnesses to news

“We’ve proven to be relatively bad at verifying authenticity in the face of a culture that seems weirdly amused by tricking the press.”

If you are standing in front of a plane crash wearing a torn pilot’s uniform, reporters would be justified in asking you questions about what happened. If you tweet about being onboard or seeing the plane come down, it’s extremely hard to know whether or not to believe you, because it’s so hard to know if you’re actually there.

In 2014, expect both technology and attitudes to shift to make determining proximity to news events far, far easier.

philip-bumpIn the media’s defense, it’s only been about five years since the number of potential witnesses to a news event became nearly infinite. When something happened somewhere in 2008, there was a local team who would head to the scene, interview and filter witnesses, and report back. In more remote locations, maybe a national network would be there within 24 hours. Those things still exist, but the timeframe has collapsed. Deadlines once drove news reporting; now, the deadline is often the moment something happens, and witnesses to a news event are almost always available instantaneously on social media.

We don’t know how to deal with that — mostly because we’ve proven to be relatively bad at verifying authenticity in the face of a culture that seems weirdly amused by tricking the press. If we’re better able to tell where witnesses are, that job becomes easier.

There are two ways to identify when and if someone on social media was close to a news event. They can post visual or auditory media from nearby. Or their posts can be tagged with a location. In 2014, those tools will expand (thanks to ad sales teams), but so will the readiness of users to share location information in the first place.

In an essay at Business Insider earlier this month, the site’s executive editor, Joe Weisenthal, indicated that his preferred engine for surfacing details about news events was Instagram. His argument, in brief:

Instagram isn’t perfect, but for the most part you don’t get re-posts (though re-gramming is a thing on a small scale) and you can fairly quickly establish whether a person’s photo makes sense in the context of their previous images. Whereas on Twitter lots of people are news curators, on Instagram people mostly all do the same thing: post what they see right in front of their eyes at that time.

What they purport to see in front of their eyes isn’t necessarily accurate. But it’s much easier to fact-check a photo than a sentence. That’s one of Weisenthal’s point, but the benefits of Instagram go further.

Visual news searching didn’t originate with Instagram. For years, YouTube has been an essential tool for reporters looking to find visual information about an event quickly. But Instagram has two massive advantages over YouTube. For one, the clips are shorter — and therefore have a lower barrier to entry and quicker time to upload. And two, Instagram puts location information front and center. It’s baked into the product. This was often one of the reasons that people suspected that Facebook found Instagram appealing as an acquisition target: Instagram moved geolocating to the background. Facebook’s stumbling Places tool put the onus on users to identify where they were. Instagram treats that data as icing to sharing a picture or video, and quietly makes location-sharing opt-out. Weisenthal’s right. That’s much better than YouTube.

Facebook wants location data because it wants to give you the right ads. That’s certainly a large reason why Twitter is putting a new emphasis on location, rolling out a tool to show nearby tweets. (Which will provide the tool’s apparent name: “Nearby.”) It’s actually a fascinating idea: extending your social network from friends and family (Facebook) to people you choose to learn from (Twitter) to people in the same place as you (“Nearby”). If one of those nearby tweets is was promoted by a coffee place that has a discount for Twitter users, great.

But imagine a Twitter in which every tweet is geotagged. Instagram search would pale in comparison. Twitter just needs to make it work.

Twitter has allowed users to tag their tweets with a geocoded location for some time. When the feature was first introduced in 2009, the company, like Facebook with Places, tried to encourage adoption with only mixed results. The tool isn’t tricky, but very few people, even in the media, use it. If Nearby can expand that adoption, it helps Twitter’s bottom line. And, obviously, it helps those looking to validate tweets from a particular location.

One reason the company might feel more optimistic about its second stab at expanding geolocation is that — thanks in part to tools like Instagram — people are beginning to feel more comfortable using location data on their phones. It’s only been five years since the media was suddenly inundated with eyewitnesses, but it’s only been about that long that the witnesses have had network-linked computers in their pockets. We’re getting more comfortable with that. Maturing.

Pew Internet’s most recent report suggests that only 30 percent of Americans have automatic location-sharing turned on for social posts, and three-quarters use some geolocating tools on their mobile devices. But phones already have tools to trigger reminders or alerts based on location, something IFTTT is expanding with proximity triggers, using your phone’s location to create a rudimentary sort of RFID-simulator. Understanding the phone as a location-based tool isn’t insignificant. Get smart developers expanding how that understanding is applied, and suddenly you have an ad hoc witness verification system. Geolocated tweets. More Instagrams. An instantaneously identifiable and near-instantaneously confirmable pool of witnesses.

AOL’s Patch stumbled in part because it tried to spread reporters across the country to report from the scene. But the reporters are already there, if you can find ones you can trust. In 2014, it seems likely that this will get easier.

Philip Bump is a staff writer at The Wire, née The Atlantic Wire.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20