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Monday, April 16, 2018
YouTube's extreme suggestions

A new study of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm suggests that the platform tends to point users to channels with content that is more extreme than what they were originally viewing. It further suggests that this effect is more pronounced among users watching far-right political videos — partially because the political far-right is a more robust and connected community than that of the far-left.

In their April 11 piece on Medium, disinformation researchers Jonas Kaiser and Adrian Rauchfleisch started with an initial set of 1,356 relatively mainstream political channels on YouTube. They then collected the channels recommended on each of those, and then the recommendations for those new channels.

A screenshot of PBS NewsHour’s channel on YouTube, along with the algorithmically suggested “related channels”: These suggestions are what researchers Jonas Kaiser and Adrian Rauchfleisch used as the basis of their study.

They found that YouTube’s automated channel suggestions tend to lead users to channels espousing increasingly fringe and extreme ideas. (This was true for suggestions on both overtly partisan content and some mainstream news and information sources.) Those who subscribe to these suggested channels can create a dangerously insulated filter bubble of fringe ideas.

  • Note: Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed News provides an excellent summary of this study.
  • Also note: This isn’t the first time that a researcher has highlighted the radicalizing potential of YouTube algorithms, which are designed to keep users on the platform by helping them find additional content that may interest them.
  • Reflect: Should educators address the presence of fringe and extremist online communities, such as conspiracy theory, white supremacist and “men’s rights” networks? If so, how can we responsibly teach students about these fringe communities and extremist ideas without unintentionally driving some students toward them?
  • Discuss: If YouTube’s algorithm is based on users’ viewing patterns, who is responsible for the recommendations? Which channel suggestions count as “problematic,” and who should decide? If you were in charge of YouTube, what would you do in response to criticisms of your algorithm?
  • Idea: Have students re-create part of the study. Assign them a group of channels (for example, their favorite channel, one mainstream news channel and one mainstream political opinion channel). Have them take a screenshot of the channel recommendations, then click on one of the recommendations and take a screenshot of those recommendations, then click and take a screenshot one more time. (In other words, mimic the study’s “three steps removed” approach.) Then have students analyze and share their results. (A capture of a suggestion path from the Democracy Now! channel to RT in just two steps is below.)

Click the image to open a larger version.

Viral rumor rundown

 NO: The image in the tweet below is not the launch of U.S. missiles against targets in Syria early Saturday. YES: It depicts missiles being fired toward Syria by the U.S. Navy, but in April 2017. 

 NO: The image below is also not from Saturday’s strikes against Syria by the United States, France and the United Kingdom. It is a computer-generated image originally published in The Aviationist magazine in 2012 as a representation of what an Israeli attack on Tehran might look like. 

YES: The image below is the USS Donald Cook, a U.S. Navy destroyer. NO: The USS Donald Cook did not have to turn around on its way to the eastern Mediterranean Sea because the crew forgot to load its missiles.
  • Note: This misinformation was designed to look like news and published under the guise of satire by Waterford Whispers News, out of Ireland. The story itself (archived link to avoid giving the originating site revenue-generating traffic) does not bear any satire disclaimers and is easily mistaken for an authentic news report. The site does have a subtle disclaimer linked in its footer.
  • Idea: Turn this piece of misinformation into a digital forensics challenge. Share the archived link to the story with students, and let the following questions lead them through a multistage fact check:
    • Discuss:
      • Is the claim in the headline true?
      • Is the USS Donald Cook a real destroyer in the U.S. Navy?
      • Is the ship in the picture actually the USS Donald Cook?
      • Where did the picture originally come from?
      • On what date was the picture taken?
      • Note: This digital forensics pathway will work best if you give students the questions one at a time. Ultimately, students should discover that this is an authentic picture of the USS Donald Cook, but that it was taken in May 2017 as a handout by the U.S. Navy.
YES: The Charles Koch Foundation is one of seven foundations helping to fund a research initiative in which scholars will examine how Facebook affects elections and democracy. NO: Facebook is not giving Charles and David Koch “unprecedented access” to its users’ personal information.
YES: The picture in the meme below was taken at an entrance to a Delaware high school in 1973.
NO: One of the people pictured is not a teacher. YES:  Both people pictured are students. NO: The school had not received a shooting threat that morning. YES: The school was aware of rumors of bomb threats during final exams that year. NO: The students weren’t guarding the school from a specific threat. YES:  They brought their hunting rifles to pose for a photo that ran in the school newspaper with an article about the hoax bomb threats.

YES: A dead sperm whale found off the coast of Spain had 64 pounds of garbage, including plastic debris, lodged in its digestive tract, which authorities determined caused its death. YES: The left image below is an authentic photo of the dead whale. NO: The right image below is not this (or any other) whale’s body; it’s an activist-art installation by Greenpeace Philippines.
  • Discuss: Do you think that this column about the dead whale, published by Forbes and including a photograph of the Greenpeace project, could have played a role in people’s mistaking that installation for the actual whale found in Spain?
NO: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin did not say that he saw an alien ship as Apollo 11 was headed to the moon for the historic landing in July 1969. YES: The crew did see (and ask Mission Control about) a piece of space debris. NO: Aldrin did not pass — or take — a lie detector test stating that he saw a UFO. YES:  Sharry Edwards, a “bioacoustics biology” practitioner and conspiracy theorist, believes that Aldrin’s voice in an interview for a 2006 documentary shows “emotional confidence but intellectual doubt” in what he saw.
NO: Pro-Trump political commentators Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson — popularly known as Diamond & Silk — were not banned or censored by Facebook.
Syria disinformation war

The first gruesome reports (warning: graphic images) of the April 7 chemical attack in Syria came from the Syria Civil Defense (SCD), or “White Helmets,” a group of about 3,000 volunteers who help deliver aid and evacuation services to civilians in rebel-held parts of Syria and Turkey. These areas are generally too dangerous for journalists to report from on a regular basis, and international observers are typically barred from the sites of attacks like the one on April 7, so the SCD volunteers are often one of the only sources of information about conditions on the ground — including the tactics employed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. (In this case, the U.S. and its allies say that Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical attack that killed about 70 people in Douma, a Damascus suburb.)

In response to the evidence provided by the SCD of chemical weapon use in Douma, a disinformation network spearheaded by the Russian government (which backs Assad) swung into action, pushing conspiracy theories, including the false assertions that the chemical attacks were staged and that the SCD is allied with al-Qaeda. The conspiracy network pushing such allegations extends beyond Russian state sources like Sputnik and RT to include bloggers and conspiracy theorists around the world, including Alex Jones of Infowars.

  • Note: One of the major disinformation themes about the Syrian conflict is that the evidence showing the use of illegal chemical weapons in rebel-held areas has been staged by the rebels to provoke military action by the West. This echoes the now-familiar “crisis actor” and “false flag” propaganda claims that have circulated after mass shootings and other polarizing tragedies in the United States.
  • Discuss: Why do you think so many people find “crisis actor” and “false flag” conspiracy theories convincing?
  • Idea: Have students create a survey designed to (informally) measure attitudes and awareness about the “crisis actor” and “false flag” propaganda tactics, then ask them to administer it to as many friends and family members as possible. What do their overall results show? What do their results that are segmented by age (adult versus teen, for instance) or other factors show?
  • Act: Create a public service announcement or other campaign to help increase awareness of these dangerous propaganda techniques.
  • Related: “Anatomy of a Russian Chemical Weapons Lab Lie” (Adam Rawnsley, Bellingcat)
Quick hits
  • Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s 10 hours of testimony before Senate and House committees last week prompted a spate of news, commentary, fact checks and memes that can make it difficult to discuss the underlying privacy issues with students. Here’s a good place to start: the students’ own experiences on the platform. That would include checking to see whether their own Facebook information, or that of their family members and friends, was shared with Cambridge Analytica, and downloading and analyzing the data from their Facebook accounts.
    • Discuss: How does Facebook’s business model work? Is its collection of data unethical, or did users clearly know — and understand — what they were agreeing to when they created their accounts? What do you think the future of digital privacy look like?
  • Last week, Sinclair Broadcasting responded to CNN’s reporting of its “must-run” promo (detailed in last week’s issue of The Sift) by highlighting the use of the phrase “fake news” by CNN’s Brian Stelter, the host of Reliable Sources, over the last couple of years and comparing it to the language in the copy read by its anchors.
    • Note: In its response, Sinclair omitted one of the most contentious claims from its promo: “More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories without checking facts first.” This sentence drew heavy criticism last week, including from Stelter, but wasn’t included in Sinclair’s rebuttal.
  • The deaths of two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver, who were kidnapped in late March near the Ecuador-Colombia border by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, were confirmed on Friday. On Sunday, a Russian journalist who had recently reported on covert Russian military activities in Syria died in a fall from his fifth-floor balcony. Some press freedom watchdogs are suspicious.
    • Idea: Use the Committee to Protect Journalists’ data tracking the number of journalists attacked, imprisoned and killed to spark students’ interest in press freedoms and the many threats faced by journalists around the world.
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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