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Friday, Sept. 29, 2017

Russians seeking to divide

As usual, this week brought dozens of news literacy teachable moments, but none is bigger or more important than the still-unfolding story of Russian disinformation campaigns that sought to further divide the American public. A number of the links below relate to these ongoing revelations. This week's Viral rumor rundown has some rumors that I think are particularly engaging for students. And this week's Crowdsourced includes a comment from a reader who shared criticism and questions about the Brookings Institution survey I wrote about last week. Thank you, Corey Remle, for taking the time to comment. Have a great weekend, everyone.

                                                                                                        — Peter 

Incivility and chaos

Details about Russian attempts to disrupt the American political process continue to emerge and show a sophisticated, coordinated attempt to increase discord, disagreement and confusion across the ideological spectrum. This summary in GQ by Luke Darby does a good job of highlighting, and linking to, key reporting from The Washington Post, CNN and the Daily Beast that shows how Russian-linked accounts sought to enflame partisan passions through a variety of tactics, including aiming specific messages at specific communities (for example, targeting people in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., with a Facebook ad that referenced Black Lives Matter) and establishing an imposter social media account using the name of an actual organization, United Muslims of America. (Late Thursday, a CNN report exposed yet another racially divisive social media account from Russia.)

  • Discuss: Why might Russian operatives promote conflicting political messages to different audiences? How do incivility and division weaken democracy? What role might memes have played in this process? Why are memes such an effective (albeit limited) form of political speech?
  • Act: What can students do in light of these revelations? How can they help raise awareness about the influence campaign that is coming to light? What kinds of truthful, nuanced and positive memes might they make to aid this effort?
  • Related and relevant:

 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

  • Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed News’ media editor, tweeted a thread showing how Your News Wire — a website described by The Hollywood Reporter as spreading “murky fact and slippery spin” — blends partisan takes on actual events with completely fake news.
    • Note: This trend of blending fabricated pieces of information with legitimate news reports (in this instance with a partisan spin) is a strategy that students need to be aware of as they learn to evaluate sources of information.
  • Jordan Klepper’s new Comedy Central show, The Opposition, may have its fans, but I have concerns about the language in its social media promotions.
  • Shahak Shapira, a Israeli comedian who lives in Berlin, recently gained admin control of several right-wing Facebook groups in Germany and changed their names (and their focus).
    • Note: This is an interesting flip on the trend of clickbait accounts that spread “amazing” content to get followers, then change their names and begin posting political content.
  • Twitter accounts with suspected ties to Russia were active on the NFL controversy this week, tweeting on all sides of the issue with hashtags such as #boycottNFL, #StandForOurAnthem and #takeaknee.
  • Tweets from President Trump’s personal account (@realDonaldTrump) expressing support for Sen. Luther Strange in Tuesday’s Alabama Republican primary runoff were deleted after Strange lost the race. (This is why Politwoops, from ProPublica, is such an important archive.)
    • Discuss: Is it OK for politicians to delete tweets? Why or why not?
    • Idea: Use Politwoops to see whether your students’ senators and representatives have deleted any tweets (and make sure your students know who their elected officials are!). For more on this, see "@MrSilva Suggests" below.
  • Axios reported that the Federal Election Commission is considering new disclosure rules for digital political ads.
    • Discuss: Is this a good idea? What possible drawbacks might result from these new rules? What are the drawbacks of not imposing new rules?

 'Frida Sofia'

The New York Times this week reconstructed the spread of what turned out to be a false story about a girl trapped alive in the ruins of a Mexico City elementary school after the Sept. 19 earthquake. Widespread public concern began, the Times said, with a report broadcast on the country’s largest television news network, Televisa, that cited rescue workers on the scene. The Televisa reporter, again citing workers on the scene, subsequently told viewers that rescuers had made contact with the girl and that her name was Frida Sofia; the Associated Press soon followed with a similar report, quoting another worker. Rescue efforts focused on the area where the girl was believed to be, while stories of hope and a frantic race against time spread across social media. In the end, the girl did not exist.

  • Note: This is a useful case study in just how much can go wrong at the scene of a breaking news event, especially one that involves tragic loss of life. In this case, journalists, whose access to the scene was restricted, relied on eyewitness accounts that turned out to be inaccurate. It’s remarkably similar to the Sago Mine disaster in January 2006, in which a relayed message from inside a collapsed coal mine in West Virginia resulted in an announcement that the 13 miners trapped in the mine were alive when, in fact, only one was.
"'As a result of our anxiety and expectations, we interpret the information provided by rescuers in a distorted way,' Mr. Reyes said in an email. 'It is demonstrated that our perception and attention is selective, that is, it is restricted by our experiences and socio-affective elements, such as the desire to find a person who has disappeared from the disaster or find a loved one alive in the rubble of a collapsed building.'
“Mr. Reyes said this could lead people to 'transform the information' and sometimes spread misinformation.”

 Health care hot seat

Two pieces about the health care bill proposed by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana (the most recent attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act) raise some interesting news literacy questions.

First, Rich Noyes from NewsBusters (the blog of the Media Research Center, a conservative-leaning media watchdog) wrote last Friday that both ABC News and NBC News had aired reports on the legislation that featured parents of children who have serious medical conditions — but neither disclosed that those parents had engaged in advocacy on the issue of health care: One was featured in an ad urging a Republican senator to vote “no” on earlier repeal/replace legislation, and the other participated in a June protest on Capitol Hill.

Second, the Daily Beast reported on Saturday that late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, whose son was born with a heart defect that required immediate surgery and who has been outspoken in his opposition to the Graham-Cassidy bill, has received guidance and talking points from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other opponents of the legislation.

  • Discuss: News organizations should try to present a variety of views in their news reports, but do they need to disclose any partisan or activist activities that the people featured in those reports have participated in? Should the people who are interviewed be truly unbiased, or should news organizations specifically look for a range of opinions? Should Kimmel have disclosed the fact that he was getting research from Schumer and others who opposed the Graham-Cassidy bill? Why or why not?
  • Idea: Collect and examine recent coverage of the health care legislation from ABC News and NBC News (perhaps using the TV News Archive from the Internet Archive) and see if you can find evidence of systematic bias. Do the allegations made by the Media Research Center hold up?
  • Note: These topics may make the concept of “false balance” available for discussion. Also note that it might be good to advise students not to judge a news organization’s overall coverage of an issue based on a single report; instead, they should look at a range of reports over time.

Image result for spark emoji Crowdsourced

Last week, I called attention to a Brookings Institution survey conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings senior fellow and UCLA professor. It found, among other things, that nearly 20 percent of college students believe that violence is an acceptable response to a speaker who makes “offensive and hurtful statements.”

Sift reader, sociologist and educator Corey Remle pointed out that the way the study was conducted has been called into question. Critics of the survey, including polling experts, note that it was not administered to a random sample of students, the methodology was unclear and no part of the work was subjected to peer review.

  • Note: If these criticisms hold up, the attention the study received — including an op-ed column in The Washington Post, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, a report by Breitbart and comments made elsewhere — is a good example of the way that fact patterns (in this case, colleges canceling guest speakers after student protests) can sometimes solidify into storylines that can influence news coverage. In other words, once an idea gains traction — such as the notion that college students may be intolerant of ideas they don’t agree with or find offensive — journalists, along with everyone else, need to guard against the innate tendency to read this idea into events when it may not be present. This headline in The Weekly Standard demonstrates how this can happen: “Survey Confirms What Many Suspected.”
  • Related and relevant: Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke about the state of free speech on college campuses at Georgetown University Law Center on Tuesday.
In this section, NLP's director of education, John Silva, NBCT, offers weekly suggestions for connecting news literacy with civic engagement and action.

Follow your elected officials on social media

When I taught social studies, I always emphasized to my students the importance of knowing the names of their elected officials — local, state and national. Today, I’d also encourage my students to follow their officials on social media and track their posts: What issues get more attention? Are they asking for — and responding to — the thoughts and opinions of constituents, or are their accounts more “one way”? Do they share verified information? Do they ever share inaccurate information — and if they do, do they acknowledge it if it’s pointed out? If someone posts something on their Facebook page or Twitter feed that they disagree with, do they delete that post or block that person? (This is an interesting 21st-century First Amendment discussion.)

Another important question: Who does the posting? Does the elected official have control over the account, or does a staff member do most, if not all, of the posting? How easily can members of the public find this out? (On some accounts, posts or tweets made directly by the official will end with his or her initials.) Does this matter?

Finally, have any of your elected officials tweeted something and then deleted it? The good folks over at Politwoops (now run by ProPublica) track the “Tweets They Didn’t Want You to See” — both by people currently in office and by candidates for office.

Other Stuff We Read This Week

  • “Of course, it's a good practice to edit out a mistake, so it doesn't get repeated. And sometimes NPR will edit out a mistake and then acknowledge it on the digital transcript page. That's what happened in the case of this Morning Edition interview that mischaracterized the violence in Charlottesville, Va. But often, NPR's mistakes, along with material that is either confusing or inappropriate, are simply edited out and never acknowledged.”
  • VIDEO: “VOA Director Amanda Bennett presented ‘The Power of Truth in a World of Disinformation’ at the ‘Media Meets Literacy’ conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia. In her talk, she noted the difference between fact-based journalism and propaganda. ‘What do we do at the Voice of America? ... We are doubling down on traditional journalistic values, on fairness, on facts, because we believe that in the end, people recognize the truth.’”
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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