You may well have heard of Storyful, a social media intelligence firm headquartered in Dublin, Ireland. Since its foundation in 2009, by award-winning broadcast journalist Mark Little, the company has become a vital cog in the news cycle. Its aim, to find eight to ten items of corroborating evidence before verifying information, has demystified major stories such as the white power march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the tragic, ongoing bombardment of East Ghouta, in Syria.
Storyful understands that social media does not just hold a mirror to today’s news: it is the news. Which makes it all the more surprising that more firms are not employing a combination of proprietary technology, and traditional journalists, as it is doing.
Some startups, including Factmata, Distil Networks, Digital Shadows, Perimetrix, Userfeeds and others, are challenging fake news with a tech-only approach. That is not enough, Lisa McDonald, Storyful chief creative officer, tells Red Herring.
“The company grew out of the need for newsrooms to understand the sources and context behind the content they were seeing online,” says McDonald. “The Arab Spring was a watershed moment for us in many ways because it proved that simply finding content was not enough.
Today, the entire world is starting to understand just how complex and intricate social media is,” she adds. “It’s more than just the Facebook NewsFeed or recommended videos on YouTube. Ideas and content travel across platforms and are often coordinated by people with varying degrees of sophistication and ideological agendas.”
That sophistication has spread to the murky world of fake news – with devastating effects on the media, and society at-large. Last June Statista reported that just 11% of Americans fully trust cable news. Fourteen percent trusted newspapers. Hyper partisan news has flooded the Internet and polarized opinions worldwide. Bots – shell social media accounts – accounted for 52% of all Internet traffic in 2016, while incidents such as the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, have further denuded trust in media platforms.
Fake news, says McDonald, is not just bots, nor content, nor rumor – nor innuendo. Often it is all of these things, and no single piece of technology can address them all at once. “That’s why we believe that our data access, our proprietary tools, and our news heritage combine to make us the best partner to help not only newsrooms, but corporate clients identify, navigate and mitigate the impact of fake news,” she says.
Storyful has become a darling of the media industry by debunking and confirming stories over which all other organizations have stumbled. It has been key in clearing up misunderstandings, partisan and government lies surrounding Syria’s civil war in particular, which continues to rage. But other smear campaigns, such as those aimed at survivors of the Parkland shooting in Florida, have brought out the best in its mix of old and new sleuthing.
“What social media platforms have done is give scale and reach to all voices and, consequently some voices can achieve unwarranted influence on political, cultural and corporate stories, fake or otherwise,” says McDonald. “Social media is an incredible tool for news gathering and news reporting. At its best, it brings to the world stories that may otherwise never get told. Whether that’s humanitarian crises in places like East Ghouta in Syria or emerging movements like what we’re seeing in the US around gun legislation.”
Since its foundation Storyful has grown into a full-fledged multinational company, with offices in Sydney, London, New York and Hong Kong, in addition to its Irish HQ. That would not have happened without its hierarchy’s savvy decision to leverage their service in other verticals.
Storyful has worked with some of the world’s largest media companies, including Google, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, Vice and NHK. But there is more to its business than fighting fake news. Brands including Coca Cola, Turkish Airlines and AT&T. Storyful helps brands utilize user-generated content, that is, according to research, 35% more memorable than traditional brand creative.
Social media is also a vital component of firms’ risk and reputation management. Storyful steps in to untangle the noise. It also leverages a library of thousands of user-generation videos.
Our creative and intelligence teams support our marketing and communications partners with reputational growth opportunities, and reputational risk mitigation,” says McDonald. “Our intelligence team divines qualitative insights that our partners use to develop marketing and communications strategies for campaign planning, new product launches, or crisis management. Partners can also engage with our creative team, using these insights to develop social content strategies and user-generated creative campaigns to support brands’ reputational growth.”
In 2013 Storyful was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for $25 million. That has not affected its independence, company sources assured Red Herring. News Corp has been “integral in our ability to scale and build our services further into the brand and risk and reputation fields and work with new partners globally.” Some have criticized its subsequent financial performance. But in News Corp, it has a parent that can absorb any costs.
Ultimately, however, it is Storyful’s journalistic heritage that is its most “mature” service, according to McDonald. And it is that, truth-seeking side of the business that, she adds, “permeates the company.”
That is vital, as the tools to create fake news, and distort democracy, get better. “The current strategies and tactics of bad actors will continue to adapt as the world starts to develop social media literacy and become more attuned to disinformation,” says McDonald. She and her growing team are at the vanguard of the fight against those tactics.