Let's look at the events that led to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's death hoax.
An X account running in the name of Nobel Prize winner Claudia Goldin shared a post announcing her win.
It got over a million views, and people engaged with the post in huge numbers.
Hours later, the account posted about "close friend" Amartya Sen's death.
It took minutes for journalists and media houses (who would have seen Goldin's post on their timelines) to pick up the post and report on it.
The journalists and media houses neither waited to check the X account's history nor for a statement from Sen's family.
Sen's daughter Nandana had to announce on X that it was "fake news".
The person behind the hoax – Tommaso Debenedetti.
Who is Tommaso Debenedetti?
Born in 1969, Debenedetti began his career in pranking in the early 2000s by publishing fake or made-up interviews of American writers like John Grisham and Philip Roth in local conservation Italian publications.
In a 2010 interview with The New Yorker and Spanish publication El Pais, Debenedetti claimed he came from a family of authors and journalists. However, Debenedetti wanted to be "Italy's champion of the lie".
After getting caught for publishing fake interviews, Debenedetti moved to the internet and started creating fake X profiles of world leaders ranging from Afghan president Hamid Karzai to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev.
He has confessed that his modus operandi was to find leaders without an X account and create fake profiles for them.
One of his most notable pranks was when he announced the death of Bashar al-Assad in August 2012, and the price of crude oil skyrocketed.
He has since then managed to fool the likes of Times, The Guardian, and USA Today into falling for the deaths of famous personalities. Victims of his death hoaxes have included the Pope, Fidel Castro, Kazuo Ishiguro and now Amartya Sen. He told The Ringer on a phone call that he was "out to expose how credulous the media is ".
So, Why Do Journalists Fall For These Hoaxes?
In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, Debenedetti said, "Social media is the most unverifiable information source in the world, but the news media believes it because of its need for speed".
This still holds true, as we saw in the reporting around Amartya Sen's fake "death". Minutes after the fake tweet from Debenedetti was posted, journalists started sharing it, and news agencies rushed to report it.
The race to "break news" leads journalists to prioritise speed over fact-checking. Fact-checkers have noted an increased amount of misinformation during breaking news situations like natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other unexpected occurrence.
It happens as people seek more information than is available on trusted news websites – creating an information vacuum. In situations like these, journalists should take extra caution in reporting during breaking news situations.
The likes of Debenedetti take advantage of this rush to report first.
In fact, online hoaxes became so common that BuzzFeed and fact-checking organisation Snopes created dedicated sections for hosting such stories. Indian fact-checkers have also repeatedly debunked hoaxes. However, major news outlets in India and abroad continue to publish stories without fact-checking.
The Mess That is X/Twitter Blue
While Debenedetti's "pranks" began before X's verification was used by influential people, the micro-blogging site's new X/Twitter Blue policy is only making the situation worse.
Since the platform started its verification policy – where users have to pay to get verified - several people have chosen not to have verified profiles. This further worsened the situation for users and journalists to find verified information. In Amartya Sen's case, Goldin's account was unverified. However, it was easy to confuse it with a real account.
Writing for The Quint in April, Internet Freedom Foundation's Policy Director Prateek Waghre mentioned that while the idea of Twitter's blue check was not an endorsement from the platform, the ambiguity in which it was distributed before the Twitter Blue Subscription came into effect led people to believe that it was one.
X owner Elon Musk had said on X that Twitter would prioritise replies by people a user follows to verified accounts (Twitter Blue) and then unverified accounts.
So, What is the Solution?
1. An integrated workflow: With the amount of mis/disinformation in the news cycle, it is important to include fact-checkers in the editorial process from the start. Any content flagged by fact-checkers should go through a thorough verification process before putting it out as "breaking news".
2. Training sessions with reporters/news writers: For newsrooms with smaller news desks, there needs to be regular workshops and training sessions to train about simple fact-checking tools, methodologies, and sources.
3. Shared Resources: Having a database of resources for news writers and fact-checkers to contact in case of breaking news situations. This could include reporters, experts and senior journalists.
4. Transparency: News writers should ensure as much transparency as possible while writing the article so that the user understands the sources of information and the basis for claims.
5. Promptly rectifying wrong information: If case an error is made while reporting during a breaking news situation, it is important to correct them promptly and transparently, which ensures the false claims don't spread widely.
6. Avoid Overreliance on Single Sources: Writers and fact-checkers should corroborate information from at least two sources. If different sources contradict each other, it should raise a red flag.