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How to identify fake tweets that claim to be from media outlets

Fake tweets that look like they are from real media are becoming more common on social media. But what are the little details that help you identify the content for what it is? The FRANCE 24 Observers team will show you some examples of how we debunk these tweets, in the hope that you can discover them for yourself in the future.

On Twitter, more and more fake tweets are being created to look like they are coming from established media. The BBC and US broadcaster CNN have been targeted many times, especially since the start of the war in Ukraine.

However, there are techniques to identify them.

It’s all in the name…

If you see a suspicious tweet, make sure the author is who he says he is.

View the account of the Twitter user who published the tweet. Media outlets have a so-called Twitter verification, which is a small blue circle with a check mark next to their name. The blue decal (which can also sometimes appear white, depending on whether you’re using dark or normal 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 to share false information.

These accounts copied the news channel’s logo and created usernames that make it appear as if they were affiliated with CNN. the accounts @CNNUKR and @CNNAfghan claimed to be the point of sale offices in Ukraine and Afghanistan respectively. Both accounts spread a fake rumor about the death of an American in Ukraine.

This is a screenshot of tweets containing false information shared by accounts falsely claiming to be affiliated with CNN.  The person in the photo is actually someone named Jordie Jordan, an American YouTuber.
This is a screenshot of tweets containing false information shared by accounts falsely claiming to be affiliated with CNN. The person in the photo is actually someone named Jordie Jordan, an American YouTuber. © Observers

These two accounts do not have the verified emblem, unlike CNN’s official accounts, such as: @CNN or @cnnphilippines† CNN also reported these two accounts to Twitter, which suspended them (read the article about this from our AFP colleagues by clicking here

It’s important to get into the habit of checking Twitter accounts to see if they are certified if they claim to be media outlets. But beware: some fake accounts add an emoji with “✔️” or “✅” to make it look like they’re certified. So make sure the checkmark is in a blue or white badge next to the username.

If an account does not have this certification, 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.

Treat a tweet

Most of the fake tweets shared online come in the form of manipulated screen grabs.

There are a few methods of creating these fake tweets, which sometimes look very real. Unfortunately, the process is quite simple.

Some tweets are edited using an editing program such as Photoshop. If you look closely at the font and number of characters used, you can sometimes spot these fakes, especially since they often deviate from Twitter standards.

For example, this screenshot from a tweet falsely attributed to the BBC claims that French President Emmanuel Macron made a statement saying there are 60 million refugees in Europe.

This is an archived version of the Tweet.

If you look closely at this tweet, you’ll see that the text is outlined in a color that’s not the same as the background. In addition, the number of characters used exceeds the Twitter limit of 280.

Scrolling back through the BBC’s actual Twitter feed, we found a tweet that looks similar and was posted around the same time as the fake tweet. However, this is not about refugees at all. Check it out below.

We placed the two tweets side by side to compare them.  The real tweet, outlined in red, is on the right.
We placed the two tweets side by side to compare them. The real tweet, outlined in red, is on the right. © Observers

The BBC has also denied posting this tweet (we debunked this tweet on our French-language site in April).

Another example is: this tweet wrongly attributed to CNN† It is about a so-called secret Chinese document that predicts the demise of the West through multiculturalism.

A fake screenshot of a tweet circulating online.
A fake screenshot of a tweet circulating online. observers

Indeed, the tweet has the checkmark to verify the account. However, the text has a slightly gray outline and the number of characters used, 302, exceeds Twitter’s 280 limit.

Changed source codes

There are other methods to create a fake tweet besides Photoshop.

It is possible to change the text of a tweet by modifying the source code of the page. If you change the source code, you can see the changed page on your screen, but you cannot save the changes.

However, this gives people who want to share misinformation a chance. They change the source code, the modified tweet appears on their screen. They can then take a screenshot of it and then share it on social media. The tweet looks real in every way.

This is an example showing how we modified the source code of a tweet on our own Twitter account (@observers

On the left you can see the original tweet from our Twitter account, as well as the source code (below).  On the right is the edited tweet, which we edited by changing the text in the page's HTML source code.
On the left you can see the original tweet from our Twitter account, as well as the source code (below). On the right is the edited tweet, which we edited by changing the text in the page’s HTML source code. © Observers

Moreover, there are online sites where you can generate fake tweets. You just type in a username, upload a profile picture and choose a time. You can even add a verification badge if you want. You can’t share it directly to Twitter, but again, you could post a screenshot 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 whether the suspicious tweet in question has been posted on a media outlet’s Twitter account or not.

Let’s take the example of a tweet attributed to the BBC that circulated online at the end of May.

A tweet sharing a screenshot of a fake tweet.
A tweet sharing a screenshot of a fake tweet. observers

You can see the verification badge on this screengrab. The username corresponds to an official BBC Twitter page, “@BBCWorld”. To verify that the outlet actually 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 search for tweets containing both of these two keywords. The (from:BBCWorld) notes that we only want to search for tweets shared by this particular BBC Twitter account.

This is a screenshot showing the result of the search on Twitter.
This is a screenshot showing the result of the search on Twitter. © Observers

It turns out that no tweets with these two words come up in this search. You can use the same method to see tweets shared by that BBC account with the words “Saudi Arabia”. Again, there is no message from 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 time the tweet you want to verify was supposedly shared.

And what if the BBC had shared this tweet, only to later delete it? You will also find out, because a deleted tweet doesn’t just disappear, it leaves a trail.

At least that is the case for this tweet, which is falsely attributed to the BBC about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The tweet says there have been “834 quote Tweets”. If you do an advanced search before May 22 on the “@BBCWorld” account, you should find an indication that the original tweet was removed in any tweets where it was mentioned. But there are none.

It is also possible to check the tweet using the “WayBackMachine”, an archiving tool that stores previous versions of sites. You can see what appeared on that Twitter page at the date and time the tweet you are verifying was shared, as long as the page is archived.

Conclusion

Here’s a list of habits you should learn to help you verify tweets allegedly spread by media outlets.

  • Make sure the tweet author has a Twitter verification sticker (a blue or white stamp with a check in it). Make sure it’s really the verification badge and not an emoji that looks the same!
  • Verify that the account is authentic and really associated with the appropriate media channel. Are there spelling mistakes in the username? Is that really their account?
  • If the tweet is from a screen grab, check that the number of characters exceeds the Twitter limit of 280 and that the font and colors are the same as Twitter standards.
  • Check the media outlet’s Twitter history to see if they actually posted the tweet in question.

If you want to brush up on more techniques for verifying content online and avoiding fake news, check out our guide.

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