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Friday, Oct. 6, 2017

Fast and pernicious

Within hours of Sunday night's mass shooting in Las Vegas, the creators and propagators of hoaxes, rumors, conspiracy theories and organized disinformation campaigns swung into action. Teaching students how this type of content emerged, how and why it was shared, and what its impact was it had (and continues to have) on real lives is the most important news literacy lesson we can possibly teach this week. Thank you for reading and have a great weekend, everyone.

                                                                                                        — Peter 

 Las Vegas misinformation machine

Within hours of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, online misinformation about the event was already rampant. At 6:25 a.m. ET on Oct. 2 (less than 5½ hours after the gunfire began), Ryan Broderick of BuzzFeed News published a summary of the hoaxes and other misinformation that had already emerged. Minutes later he tweeted that coordinated misinformation campaigns were taking place on 4Chan, a collection of online forums where participants post anonymously and toxic speech occurs in some subgroups. Once authorities had identified the shooter as Stephen Paddock, users of 4Chan doxed his girlfriend, Marilou Danley, and were actively pushing the idea that her ex-husband, Geary Danley — whose likes on Facebook included progressive organizations, people and causes — was the real shooter. That rumor quickly spread to far-right social accounts and was published on a notoriously inaccurate right-wing website, Gateway Pundit (the story was later taken down).

The stream of misinformation continued: Images of comedian Sam Hyde began to circulate with claims that he was the shooter (a standing joke in some corners of the internet); several attempts were made to connect Paddock to the antifa movement (far-left militant groups); rumors spread that both Marilou Danley and Paddock had converted to Islam; a number of pleas on social media asked for help finding “missing” people whose identities had been fabricated using pictures found elsewhere online; and a variety of conspiracy theories emerged, including the notion that the shooting was staged.
This Twitter thread from Broderick, along with his running list of falsehoods about the shooting, is essential reading.

  • Related and relevant: Broderick also quickly caught the fact that Google’s search algorithm was placing links to 4Chan in its Top News section at the top of search results for “Geary Danley.” Google’s wasn’t the only algorithm to be fooled into concluding that the misinformation that was quickly spreading was relevant and worthy of surfacing for other users; Kevin Roose of The New York Times caught links to stories from Russian state propaganda organization Sputnik, along with other disreputable sources, on Facebook’s “trending topics” page about the shooting. Roose also wrote about a link from an alt-right website peddling misinformation that showed up in Facebook's official “safety check” page. And The Guardian's Sam Levin found results for broad searches on YouTube (such as “Las Vegas shooting videos”) to be awash in conspiracy theory walkthroughs (which, he points out, “hurt victims and survivors already struggling to cope with trauma”).
  • Discuss: What could help stop misinformation from taking hold in the immediate aftermath of major tragedies and other breaking news events? Are Google, Facebook and YouTube (owned by Google) responsible for search results that contain overt misinformation, including irresponsible conspiracy theories? What might happen if these companies blocked or deleted such content from their platforms?
  • Idea: Ask students to try to reconstruct when and how various hoaxes, disinformation campaigns and other pieces of misinformation emerged after the shooting in Las Vegas. What kinds of insights does examining this event generate?

 Viral rumor rundown

Do you want to help your students make sense of the torrent of news and information streaming through their online worlds?

Join me and my colleague, John Silva, for the final workshop in our PD series "Teaching News Literacy" on Thursday, Oct. 12, at 6 p.m. ET. 

Details and registration here

(Use the promo code PREMIUM and get 50 percent off your registration.)

 Quick connections

  • In a tweet on Thursday morning, President Donald Trump asked why the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence “isn’t looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country” and asserted that “much of our news is just made up.” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote a good summary of the outrage and alarm those comments elicited from journalists and First Amendment experts.
    • Discuss: Can the government punish news organizations that publish incorrect information?
  • The premature reports of the death of singer Tom Petty are a case study in the importance of good sourcing and verification. CBS News tweeted the news Monday afternoon, attributing it to the Los Angeles Police Department, and other well-known news outlets quickly followed, citing CBS. The LAPD later acknowledged that it had no information about Petty and that “initial information was inadvertently provided to some media sources.” (Petty was found unconscious on Monday morning and was taken to a hospital, where he died late that night.)
    • Idea: Have students explore what went wrong in this example, then have them compare this with the mistakenly reported death of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was shot and severely wounded during an outdoor town hall at a Tucson shopping center in January 2011.
  • Our current partisan divide was brought into sharp focus this week by the results of two surveys. Shortly after the shooting in Las Vegas, SurveyMonkey published a pair of maps using data from interviews the firm had conducted with voters on Nov. 9 and 10 (the two days after Election Day). The results illustrate the stark division between households with gun owners (overwhelmingly Trump supporters) and those with no guns (almost all backed Hillary Clinton). The interview data, which can be broken down in a variety of ways (including by type of computer or cellphone owned), show “enormous divisions” along partisan lines, SurveyMonkey said. (The New York Times’ Upshot created a useful analysis of the data.) On Thursday, the Pew Research Center published new findings showing significantly widening divisions — from a gap of 15 percentage points in 1994 to 36 percentage points in 2017, on average — in political values on key topics such as race, immigration and the environment.
    • Discuss: What are some of the reasons for this growing division in American society? What actions can students take that might help narrow it?
  • Here’s an excellent explanation of the watchdog role of the press: Politico’s Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan write about the steps they took to expose Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private jets, at taxpayers’ expense, for his routine travel.

 Fighting disinformation on social media

  • Facebook is testing another strategy to fight misinformation on its platform: a button that gives users more information about the source behind a shared link. The tool, announced Thursday, will provide a test group of users with additional context about the piece of content and its source; if it’s successful, Facebook will roll it out more widely.
  • Jonathan Albright, a social media analyst and the research director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, researched the six Facebook accounts that, to date, the company has confirmed to have ties with Russia. Before the accounts were closed, Albright downloaded the most recent 500 posts on each one and created an interactive data visualization page with the full text and the engagement data (interactions, including reactions, comments and shares) of the posts.
    • Idea: Have students explore this data and take action. I offered some ideas in this tweet.
  • Researchers at Oxford University found that in the final days before the 2016 presidential election, “links to content from Russia, WikiLeaks and junk news sources” circulated in more “highly concentrated doses” in swing states with significant electoral votes. The study also found that “nationally, Twitter users got more misinformation, polarizing and conspiratorial content than professionally produced news.”
"Big Tech’s breaking news problem is an issue of scale — the networks are so vast that they must be policed largely by algorithm — but it's also one of priorities. Platforms like Facebook and Google are businesses driven by an insatiable need to engage and add users and monetize them. Balancing a business mandate like that with issues of free speech and the protection of civil discourse is no easy matter.”
  — Charlie Warzel, BuzzFeed News
The Big Tech Platforms Still Suck During Breaking News

 'Lone wolf,' 'terrorism,' 'most deadly'?

Like almost all breaking news events, the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas prompted a spate of coverage that reignited several ongoing debates about word choice.

After finding no evidence that anyone else was involved in the attack, Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department described the gunman as a “lone wolf,” and most news organizations reported this language in some way, sometimes in headlines — though some consumers perceived a bias in the use of this term.

So far, the authorities and most news outlets have resisted characterizing the attack as “terrorism.” To date, there is no evidence that Paddock sought to “intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (the federal government’s description of terrorism), though the shooting does appear to meet the state of Nevada’s definition.

And numerous news outlets proclaimed the shooting to be the “most deadly in American history” before being reminded by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) that at least two historical mass shootings — the Colfax Massacre of 1873 and the East St. Louis Massacre of 1917 — involved larger numbers of victims (who, in both instances, were black). This issue also arose after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., in June 2016; at that time NABJ and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists called on their colleagues in the news media to avoid such superlatives. Most news organizations adjusted their language in some way this week — for example, using “one of the deadliest” or “deadliest modern mass shooting” — after this was pointed out.

  • Discuss: How should the government and news outlets determine when to use the word “terrorism”? Should news organizations use the government’s description of the term or develop their own? (And what if there is a difference between the federal description and state law, as here?) Does an event need to have a political motivation (for example, an attempt to change a policy or pressure a government) to be considered terrorism, or does it simply need to cause terror by targeting innocent people?
  • Note: It’s important to point out that the use or non-use of the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist” frequently prompts cynical assumptions about the motivations of news media. While activating students as critics of usage is important, make sure they also understand that many news organizations have internal debates and carefully considered standards about this term.
  • Idea: Have students search for the continued use of “superlative” descriptions for the Las Vegas shooting (the “most” this or “largest” that) and have them respond in some way.
  • Act: Contact your local news outlets and ask if they have a standard for using the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism.” If they do, request a copy of the standard and evaluate it. If they don’t, ask whether the organization will be developing one.
  • Related and relevant: See articles exploring this question by Scott Shane in The New York Times, by Aaron Blake in The Washington Post, by Michael Harriot in The Root, and by Karen K. Ho and Alexandria Neason in Columbia Journalism Review.
In this section, NLP's director of education, John Silva, NBCT, offers weekly suggestions for connecting news literacy with civic engagement and action.

In breaking news events, check sources carefully

As the tragic events in Las Vegas unfolded late Sunday night/early Monday morning, social media lit up as people tried to figure out what was happening. In the chaotic initial hours after a breaking news event — amid the raw videos and images; the rumors, theories and attempts at partisan point-scoring; the heartfelt appeals to locate loved ones — it is easy to mistake assertions and speculation (even from eyewitnesses and experts) as verified truth.

Here’s one effective strategy to avoid sharing and spreading such misinformation: Track what official sources are saying. After the Las Vegas shooting, for example, the official Twitter account of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department posted frequent updates. The City of Las Vegas and the Las Vegas office of the FBI also added important information.

Though such offices and agencies aren’t immune to error (and may sometimes act in their own best interests), they are often the only source of verified information in the immediate aftermath of major breaking news events where journalists’ access to the scene is limited.

So while occurrences like these spark a strong, natural desire to learn more — usually through live coverage on television and radio or online and through social media — it’s important to look for attribution in the early reports, which tend to contain a lot of unconfirmed information. It’s also important to remember that raw information can be misleading, and that trolls and propagandists often exploit this “curiosity gap” to cause confusion or advance their agendas. Remind your students to check whether the initial details have been confirmed by official sources. Doing this won’t just help them sort fact from fiction in these situations; it will stem the tide of misinformation before it spreads even wider.

Other Stuff We Read This Week

  • “The advantage of seeding 1,000 theories, on the other hand, is that any single one can be disproven while still creating a sense of skepticism about a massacre. 

    "It doesn't matter if the audience believes any of it, per se. What's important is to make the situation so muddled that the average person, already primed over years to distrust the traditional media, can shrug their shoulders about what 'the real truth' is and move on.

    "At least until the next time.”
Please share this newsletter with others who may find this information useful (subscribe here). For more examples and ideas like these, you can follow me on Twitter (@PeterD_Adams). Also follow @TheNewsLP and @MrSilva.

If you're looking for engaging and effective news literacy resources, check out NLP's checkology® virtual classroom. We’re giving away student licenses for 1:1 functionality for the entire 2017-18 school year. Yes, it’s free.
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