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Monday, March 19, 2018
Note: The Sift is taking a spring break. We'll be back on Monday, April 9.
Harvesting Facebook data

Last Friday, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm largely owned by billionaire Robert Mercer, for using and retaining user data in ways that violated its terms of service. The suspension from the platform came just hours before two reports about the firm were published by The Guardian and The Observer (the Sunday edition of The Guardian) and The New York Times.

The crux of the controversy is the firm’s use of data that was acquired through a third party: a Russian-American researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, who taught at Cambridge University and was familiar with a technique to map personality traits using Facebook data. The Times and the Guardian/Observer reports rely on accounts provided by Christopher Wylie, a founder and former staff member of Cambridge Analytica. (Kogan’s and Wylie’s Facebook accounts were also suspended.)

Independent of his work at the university, Kogan developed a Facebook application called thisisyourdigitallife, then worked with Cambridge Analytica (which has no relationship to Cambridge University) to pay 270,000 people to use the app on Facebook to take a personality test. When Facebook users agreed to the permissions of the app, they (knowingly or not) gave it access to key data belonging to their entire networks (their “friends”) as well.

This improperly acquired data trove of some 50 million users allowed Cambridge Analytica to build a powerful set of psychographic models that helped it target specific political messages at specific users, effectively using their personality traits and interests to draw them into a given appeal. The firm’s clients included Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination (which Mercer supported until Cruz dropped out in May 2016), Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the “Leave” campaign for Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Facebook claims that Kogan received permission for his app under false pretenses, initially describing it as “part of a research program in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.” The company first learned of Kogan’s partnership with Cambridge Analytica in 2015, and demanded that all parties involved delete the 50 million users’ data. But as the reports from both The Guardian/The Observer and The New York Times makes clear, copies of the data still exist.

  • Note: As commentators and expert observers of Facebook have pointed out,  Facebook’s very business model is based on the harvesting of consumer data through people’s engagement with content — capturing and parsing how and what topics people respond to.
  • Also note: President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 employed psychographic modeling that targets individual voters, at times using Facebook.
  • Discuss: How many of your students have used apps, such as games, that are native to Facebook? How many remember accepting the terms and conditions connected to those apps? How many students have accepted — but not read — the terms and conditions of mobile applications? What does Facebook know about its users?
  • Idea: Together, as a class, explore and annotate the terms and conditions of a Facebook app — perhaps a personality-quiz app, similar to the one used by Kogan and Cambridge Analytica. Then ask: Is it fair to present users with these terms and conditions? Are they easy to understand? Do the terms involve giving the app permission to access information that could be abused?
  • Idea 2: Use this Newsweek article by Jason Murdock to walk students through the process of checking which apps they have given permission to access their personal information on Facebook. Have students check their own permissions, and those of friends and family members, and report what they find. How many apps, on average, were accessing their data? How many were accessing their friends’ and family members’ accounts? How many of their friends and family members were aware of what was being accessed?
Gender, race and editorial judgment

In recent weeks, two influential publications — The New York Times and National Geographic — have produced retrospectives that examine how their reporting in the past has been skewed by judgments based, whether explicitly or implicitly, on gender and on race.

On March 8, the Times launched “Overlooked,” an initiative to add “the stories of remarkable women” whose deaths were not covered by the Times when they occurred. “[W]ho gets remembered — and how — inherently involves judgment,” write Amisha Padnani and Jessica Bennett in their introduction to the project — and for many decades, the judgment of Times editors gave significantly less weight to the contributions of women and of people of color. The feature launched with 15 “overlooked” obituaries and a promise to add more each week, including those suggested by readers.

For its critical review of its archives, National Geographic commissioned John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor and expert on the history of photography and the history of Africa, to delve into 130 years of reporting and photography. His findings were summarized by National Geographic’s editor in chief, Susan Goldberg, in an introduction to the April issue of the magazine — which is devoted solely to the topic of race.

Mason found a pattern of racist depictions, such as “uncivilized” native people and “exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, [and] noble savages” who are fascinated by the advances of Western society. Until the 1970s, Americans of color were largely ignored — except as laborers or domestic workers.

And, Goldberg noted, Mason came across language that “leaves you speechless,” like this caption on a 1916 photograph of two Aboriginal people: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

  • Note: Critics of the “Overlooked” initiative, such as Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in The Intercept, point out that more recent Times obituaries skew toward white males and exclude women of color whom Mohajer says are worth writing about. Her essay includes comments from the Times’ obituaries editor, who in his own column about obituaries and editorial judgment cited fame, accomplishments and newsworthiness as among the criteria considered when assigning a news obituary (which appears in the news pages and is different from a paid death notice).
  • Discuss: Does the racism and sexism in historical news coverage and feature writing accurately demonstrate how racist and sexist previous eras were, or did that coverage help promote racism and sexism at the time? (Or both, simultaneously?) Are these two projects positive developments? Should more news organizations examine their archives for evidence of racism, sexism and other problematic forms of discriminatory coverage? Why or why not?
  • Idea: Challenge students to dive into the archives of their local newspapers and conduct their own analyses of historical coverage.
  • Act: Have students combine their analyses into a report, then engage local news editors at the organizations whose coverage is included in a discussion about what the existence of such coverage means, and how modern-day newsrooms might handle it.
Looking for The Sift archives? You can find them at:

Viral rumor rundown

NO: These stills are not from videos of the U.S.-Mexico border. YES: The images are from video of migrants from Africa crossing into Melilla, Spain, a Spanish enclave city in Morocco, in 2014. YES: President Donald Trump’s campaign used this same footage in a campaign ad in January 2016. YES: This footage was also used by Christina Hagan, a Republican state legislator in Ohio who is now running for Congress, in a campaign ad.

Two stills of video footage used in a campaign ad for Christina Hagan,
a Republican state legislator in Ohio who is running for Congress.

NO: Actor Matt Damon is not moving to Australia to keep his family safe, or out of frustration with President Trump.

NO: “Trucks full of illegals” did not appear at six polling locations while votes were being cast in the March 13 special election for a U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania. NO: did not report this, as the Daily World Update item claims. NO: The lead image was not taken in Pennsylvania in 2018.

A fictional piece of outrage clickbait (published under the pretext of satire) by Daily World Update on March 14, a day after Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly won a special election to represent Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District — an area that has consistently voted Republican in recent elections — in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Misinformation pattern: Rumors about voting irregularities are extremely common, especially those making claims about coordinated efforts to bring unregistered or otherwise unqualified voters to the polls.
  • Digital forensics pathway: Read this tweet thread to learn how you can turn this piece of misinformation into an engaging fact-checking activity for your students.
  • Note: As fact-checker Maarten Schenk has pointed out, similar rumors about a “van full of illegals” and a “busload of blacks” showing up to vote circulated after the December 2017 special election in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat.
NO: A group of 23 Mexicans did not parachute from a plane flown across the U.S. border and inadvertently jump into La Maga Laro State Prison in New Mexico, where they were arrested by ICE agents. This is a fabrication published by Daily World Update and designed to look like news.
  • Note: This fictional story may have been prompted by fact-checker Maarten Schenk’s comment in debunking the “trucks full of illegals” rumor (above) that the next voting fraud fiction “will undoubtedly feature ‘a trainload of illegals’ or maybe ‘a passenger plane full of illegals.’”
NO: A child protective services investigator with the Roanoke, Va., Department of Social Services was not fired for having a concealed weapons permit, as she claimed.

NO: California Gov. Jerry Brown did not change state education standards to require that “ARABIC numbers” be taught. YES: Students in California — and in much of the world — are required to learn Hindu-Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9).

A highly misleading meme that derisively satirizes the misplaced outrage it elicits — published on the Facebook page of America’s Last Line of Defense, an inflammatory satire site.

NO:  Gunshots were not fired in a Northwestern University dormitory on March 14, the same day that thousands of students walked out of schools across the nation to honor those killed in the Parkland, Fla., shooting and advocate for stricter regulations on gun sales. YES: A man placed a hoax “swatting” call to Evanston, Ill., police and claimed to have shot his girlfriend, prompting a campuswide alert. 

ProPublica retracts

What matters most in journalism is getting the story right. But when errors are made, what matters most is how they are handled.

On March 15, ProPublica retracted two erroneous statements it had made in a February 2017 article about Gina Haspel, who had then recently been named deputy director of the CIA — the agency’s No. 2 job — and is now President Donald Trump’s choice to succeed Mike Pompeo as CIA director. The article, which examined Haspel’s tenure overseeing a “black site” prison in Thailand where waterboarding and other torture techniques were used, said that Haspel had been running the prison when suspected al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah was tortured (she was not) and that she had ridiculed Zubaydah after he was tortured (she did not).

ProPublica updated the original report with a correction — signed by Stephen Engelberg, the editor-in-chief — that explained how the errors were made. It aggressively pushed its correction on social media.

The correction shows that ProPublica reporters did not make the errors recklessly or tactically — in other words, they did not make up details or purposefully include false information because they wanted to damage Haspel. It also highlights the challenges that reporters often face in reporting complex stories about classified government matters.

  • Note: The particulars behind the errors are extraordinary: the difficulty of pinning down details about events that happened 15 years previously as part of a secret program; three former government officials who told ProPublica that Haspel was in charge of the prison when Zubaydah was waterboarded; an online post by a former CIA officer that seemed to confirm ProPublica’s other sources; and a government agency that would not provide specific confirmation of any details.
  • Discuss: What are some reasons errors occur in journalism? Can errors ever be eliminated from reporting? Do you think corrections are seen as widely as the original flawed reporting? How should news organizations handle errors when they occur?
  • Idea: Ask students to gather corrections from local news coverage for a set period of time (for example, one or two weeks). Then break students into groups, with each asked to provide a different ranking to each error. Devise whatever ranking system you like, but consider applying them to how serious each error was, how effective the correction of each error was, how clearly the cause of the error was explained, and whether the news organization indicated what it might do to prevent similar errors in future coverage.
  • Related: “How Do We Keep Bias Out of Stories?” (Jason Grotto, ProPublica Illinois)
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 @NewsLitProject and @MrSilva.

If you have suggestions for future issues of The Sift, please share them here.

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 rest of the 2017-18 school year. Yes, it’s free.

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