Verifying Online News: Lessons from the beheading video hoax

Yesterday, news spread around that another American was beheaded by terrorists. The video, titled "Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheads an American", stated that Benjamin Vanderford, 22, was beheaded, with Quran verses chanted in the background, interspersed with images of mutilated dead bodies of men, women and children. Soon afterwards, news emerged that the video was a hoax by Benjamin Vanderford, and his friends Robert Martin, 23, and Laurie Kirchner, 20.

Today, more details on how this video was made and how it was distributed on the net came out. They used a low quality digital video camera, and downgraded the images some more, to make it grainy. They used corn syrup and red food coloring.

It was distributed in May 2004 to Kazaa, a Peer to Peer (P2P) network used for everything from pirated music and movies to child pornography to anonymous file sharing, as well as other P2P networks. This was eventually picked up by someone sympathetic to militants/terrorists, who posted a message on a bulletin board at http://www.islamic-minbar.com, which has posted messages from Al Qaeda in the past.

This was the first step in reporting a hoax as news, but it was not unexpected. Young extremists are not known for rational critical thinking, and this video plays to their biases, so they have some excuse to believe in what they want to believe.

Up till then, there was nothing special. False news circulate all the time on the net. The interesting part is when respected news outlets started reporting this "beheading" as a genuine case. Both Reuters and Associated Press news wires reported this story as truth, not even with the customary disclaimer "this could not be independantly verified"! Later, the news wire services added this disclaimer, and later published articles about this being a hoax.

It is important to see how quickly they swallowed the bait, without any verification, in their race to be first to publish the news.

The strange thing is the blame game that is now going on: some Western media sources are trying to blame this on two Arabic satellite news channels, Al Jazeera, and Al Arabiya (see first BBC article below), who are often seen as unprofessional or biased by many in the West. However, if you read the San Francisco Chronicle article below, you clearly see that both AP and Reuters were also fooled the same way, and reported this story just like the two Arabic channels above!

This is a black eye for both Western and Arab news sources alike.

To some extent, a similar problem has often been seen with print media, the so called the "Enquirer Effect". Tabloid newspapers, such as the National Enquirer would publish some alleged scandal on a politician or celebrity. Then, mainstream media will pick it up and report it. Soon, this will be accepted as absolute truth, since it is 'published everywhere', and the original source is forgotten and not scrutinized.

Lessons learned

  • P2P networks offering anonymity mask credibility of information as well.
  • If the source is not known, then some will drop all their biases, and believe what they want to believe.
  • It took three months for the video to be picked up by pro-Al Qaeda posters on web sites. This is indeed a long time, as expressed by Vanderford himself.
  • Even the most experienced news professionals can be fooled by information on the internet

In summary: use your judgement, and do not believe everything you read or hear, on the net, in print media, on TV or anywhere.

Sources

Contents: