How to identify fake tweets that claim to be from media outlets
Issued on: Modified:
Fake tweets made to look like they come from real media outlets are ever-increasing on social media. But what are the small details that help you identify the content for what it is? The FRANCE 24 Observers team will walk you through a few examples of how we debunk these tweets in the hopes that you will be able to spot them yourself in the future.
On Twitter, there are more and more fake tweets made to look like they come from established media outlets. The BBC and US broadcaster CNN have been frequent targets, especially since the start of the war in Ukraine.
There are, however, techniques for identifying them.
It’s all in the name...
When you see a suspicious tweet, the first thing you should do is verify if the author is who they say they are.
Take a look at the account of the Twitter user who published the tweet. Media outlets have what is called a Twitter verification, which is a little blue circle with a tick mark next to their name. The blue decal (which can also sometimes appear white depending on whether you use dark or regular mode on Twitter) means that Twitter has verified the authenticity of the account and the user behind it.
Last February, several Twitter accounts falsely claimed to be affiliated with CNN and shared false information.
These accounts copied the news channel’s logo and created user names that made them look like they were affiliated with CNN. The accounts @CNNUKR and @CNNAfghan claimed to be the outlet’s Ukraine and Afghanistan bureaus, respectively. Both accounts spread a fake rumour about the death of an American in Ukraine.
These two accounts don’t have the verified decal, unlike CNN’s official accounts, like @CNN or @cnnphilippines. CNN also reported these two accounts to Twitter, which suspended them (read the article about this by our AFP colleagues by clicking here).
It’s important to get into the habit of checking Twitter accounts to see if they have a certification if they claim to be media outlets. But watch out: Some fake accounts do add a “✔️” or a "✅" emoji to make it look like they have been certified. So make sure that the check mark is in a blue or white badge positioned next to the user name.
If an account doesn’t have this certification, you need to be wary. It doesn’t always mean the account is fake: It could also be a media outlet with a small audience or a newer outlet that hasn’t completed the verification process yet.
Doctoring a tweet
Most fake tweets that are shared online come in the form of doctored screengrabs.
There are a few methods for creating these fake tweets, which sometimes look very real. Unfortunately, the process is pretty easy.
Some tweets are modified using an editing programme like Photoshop. If you look closer at the font and the number of characters used, you can sometimes spot these fakes, especially because they often deviate from Twitter standards.
For example, this screengrab of a tweet falsely attributed to the BBC claims that French President Emmanuel Macron made a statement saying that there were 60 million refugees in Europe.
Macron:— Althus (@golgoth51306) April 17, 2022
"L'Europe devra accepter jusqu'à 60 millions de réfugiés au cours des 20 prochaines années en provenance d'Afrique et du Moyen-Orient, car les sanctions contre la Russie entraîneront un effondrement économique en Afrique qui importe une énorme quantité de blé russe." pic.twitter.com/D3TH7TIOAE
If you look closely at this tweet, you can see that the text is outlined with a colour that isn’t the same as the background. Moreover, the number of characters used surpasses Twitter’s limit of 280.
By scrolling back through the actual BBC’s Twitter feed, we found a tweet that looks similar and was posted around the same time as the fake tweet. This one, however, isn’t about refugees at all. Check it out below.
The BBC has also denied that they put out this tweet (we debunked this tweet on our French-language site back in April).
Another example is this tweet falsely attributed to CNN. It’s about an alleged secret Chinese document predicting the downfall of the West because of multiculturalism.
The tweet does indeed have the tick mark verifying the account. However, the text has a slightly grey outline and the number of characters used, 302, surpasses Twitter’s 280 limit.
Modified source codes
There are also other methods, besides Photoshop, for creating a fake tweet.
It’s possible to change the text of a tweet by modifying the page’s source code. If you change the source code, then you can see the modified page on your screen but you can’t save the changes.
However, this gives people hoping to share disinformation a window of opportunity. They change the source code, the modified tweet appears on their screen. They can then take a screengrab of it and then share it on social media. The tweet looks, for all intents and purposes, real.
This is an example showing how we modified the source code of a tweet on our own Twitter account (@Observers).
Moreover, there are actually sites online where you can generate fake tweets. You just type in a user name, upload a profile picture and choose a time. You can even add a verification badge if you like. You can’t share these directly on Twitter but, again, you could post a screengrab of the image.
How to verify content?
There are a few clues that can help you identify these fake tweets. First of all, you can check if the suspicious tweet in question has been posted on the Twitter account of a media outlet or not.
Let's take the example of a tweet attributed to the BBC that circulated online in late May.
You can see the verification badge on this screengrab. The username matches with an official BBC Twitter page, “@BBCWorld”. To check if the outlet has indeed posted this tweet, we can run the keywords that appear in the tweet through an advanced search on Twitter.
For example, you can type this into the Twitter search bar: [“Saudi” AND “Pride” (from:BBCWorld)]. The “AND” indicates that we want to look for tweets featuring both of these two keywords. The (from:BBCWorld) establishes that we only want to search for tweets shared by this particular BBC Twitter account.
It turns out that no tweets using these two words come up in this search. You can use the same method to see any tweets shared by that BBC account featuring the words “Saudi Arabia”. Again, there is no post by this account that mentions a “Straight Pride Month” being held in the kingdom.
You can also scroll back through the BBC’s Twitter account and check what was posted at the time and hour the tweet that you want to verify was supposedly shared.
And what if the BBC had shared this tweet, only to delete it later? You can also figure that out, because a deleted tweet doesn’t just disappear, it leaves a trace.
That’s the case, anyway, for this tweet falsely attributed to the BBC about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The tweet says there have been “834 quote Tweets”. If you run an advanced search for May 22 on the “@BBCWorld” account, then you should find an indication that the original tweet has been deleted in tweets that mentioned it. But there are none.
It’s also possible to check for the tweet using the “WayBackMachine”, an archiving tool that saves past versions of sites. You can look at what appeared on that Twitter page on the date and time that the tweet you are verifying was shared, as long as the page was archived.
Here’s a list of habits you should get into to help you verify tweets supposedly put out by media outlets.
- Check to see if the author of the tweet has a Twitter verification decal (a blue or white stamp with a tick mark in it). Make sure it's really the verification badge, and not an emoji that looks similar!
- Check if the account is authentic and really is linked to the media outlet in question. Are there spelling mistakes in the username? Is that really their account?
- When the tweet comes from a screengrab, check if the number of characters exceeds Twitter's limit of 280 and if the font and colours are the same as Twitter standards.
- Check the media outlet's Twitter history to see if they really posted the tweet in question.
If you want to brush up on more techniques to verify online content and avoid fake news, check out our guide.