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Monday, Feb. 26, 2018
Algorithms amplify conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are inherently outrageous and fraught with dangerous implications. But the baseless notion that the government manipulates public opinion by staging “false flag” events — in part by hiring “crisis actors” to portray victims and affected family members — is an especially malicious belief, one that has resurfaced online after every mass shooting since Sandy Hook in 2012.

Variations of this theory appeared within hours of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14 — and were immediately amplified by Russian bot networks. Still, it took a week for the phenomenon to reach its apex. On Feb. 19, the theory got a boost from a piece in the popular ultraconservative site The Gateway Pundit, which is also a favorite of Russian botnets. On Feb. 20, the theory was referenced by an aide to a Florida state representative in an email to a Tampa Bay Times reporter about two outspoken Stoneman Douglas students. When asked for evidence, the aide sent the reporter a link to a video on YouTube that included old (authentic) footage of Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg being interviewed in an unrelated August 2017 report by a Los Angeles CBS affiliate. Then on Feb. 21, a video using that footage — accompanied by a text description calling Hogg an actor, but also “bought and paid by CNN and George Soros” — reached the top of YouTube’s trending videos list, thus promoting it to a massive audience.

What’s worse, YouTube automatically suggests and creates a queue of similar content for users, which, in the case of conspiracy theory videos, can lead viewers into a “conspiracy ecosystem.” Add to this the fact that such theories are hyper-stimulating and intensely emotional, which easily hooks those people who “use gut feelings or instincts to process information,” and the support of bot networks which also boosted the theories, and you have a recipe for the broad-based amplification (and monetization) of disinformation. And it creates, of course, engagement — which is what the YouTube trending and suggestion algorithms are built to generate and serve in the first place.

In response to the outcry over the trending incident, YouTube removed the video the same day and promised to remove others like it for violating its terms of service. But some users reported seeing videos making identical claims — sometimes using copies of the removed video — at least a day later.

An updated "crisis actor" meme reasserting the conspiracy theory that mass shootings are staged by the government emerged online Thursday, a day after YouTube and other social media platforms came under public pressure to remove such content.

  • Note: As a case study of conspiracy thought, the Parkland “false flag” theories offer a number of pathways for meaningful inquiry into how such theories take hold and persist in the face of definitive evidence to the contrary. As this Snopes piece makes clear, a common dynamic is engaging in motivated “research” and backward reasoning that makes nonexistent patterns seem real to those looking for them. Such theories are also frequently buttressed by fraudulent attempts to manufacture evidence, such as the fake profile for David Hogg that was created last week in an attempt to undermine the facts.
  • Also note: While the victims-as-“crisis actors” conspiracy theory seems to have first appeared after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, the core notion of contrived, paid or otherwise inorganic civic actions is not new. Rumors that non-residents were bused into Alabama to cast fraudulent votes emerged after the Dec. 12 Senate special election there; and claims that supporters or protesters at political rallies — including the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — are paid to show up are common throughout history — even, as historian Kevin Kruse pointed out this week, about the Little Rock Nine.
  • Discuss: What conspiracy theories have you been exposed to recently? Why do conspiracy theories arise in the first place? How do they persist in the face of strong or definitive evidence that disproves them? What are some of the most infamous and tenacious conspiracy theories in modern American history?
  • Idea: Research major conspiracy theories and create a survey that measures the degree of uptake these baseless claims have among their peers, family and friends.
  • Idea 2: Challenge students to find iterations of “false flag” conspiracy theories that are still being hosted on popular social media sites.
  • Act: Have students document conspiracy posts on social media using a website archive service, such as, and then report the posts to the platform on which they found it.
  • Related:

Viral rumor rundown

  •  NO: 40 percent of guns in the U.S. are not sold without a background check. YES: About 13 percent of guns sold in the U.S. in the past two years were sold without a background check.
  • YES: National Rifle Association executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre said in a 1999 speech, “We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America’s schools. Period.” NO: This quote does not show that LaPierre has completely changed his position on guns in school. was not referring to school security or police officers. The next line of his 1999 speech was, “With the rare exception of law enforcement officers or trained security personnel.”
  • NO: Mass shootings did not “go up 200 percent in the decade after the assault weapons ban expired” in 2004. YES: The death tolls from mass public shootings have increased in the last decade, but the data used for the figure do not provide a clear-cut connection between the ban and the rise in number of shootings.
  • NO: The Miami Herald did not report that W.R. Thomas Middle School in Miami-Dade County had received threats of violence on two specific dates. This rumor was caused by a doctored image of a real Miami Herald report about a general increase in the number of threats to Miami-Dade County schools. The rumor started on Snapchat.
    • Note: In two similar incidents last week, a tweet by a Miami Herald reporter, and the headline on a BuzzFeed News story, were each altered and shared. See last week’s special #Parkland rumor rundown for details.

The authentic report in the Miami Herald on Feb. 16 about threats to schools (left) and the doctored image of the story (right) that went viral on Snapchat. The post also included a second image with fabricated quotes from officials.
  • NO: Two priests at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain did not put marijuana in the church’s famously large thurible.
    • Note: This story was originally published by a Spanish satirical site, Hay Noticia, on Jan. 9, but recently went viral when it was copied and translated into English by a self-described “humor website” that is sometimes mistaken for actual news.
    • Misinformation pattern: Purveyors of “fake news” frequently copy stories published by similar sites to steal a share of web traffic and ad revenue.
  • NO: A doctor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not say that the flu shot this year might be the cause of the flu “epidemic.”
    • Note: This is a particularly pernicious rumor because it directly contradicts the CDC’s actual advice. YourNewsWire, the counterfeit news site that published it, frequently fabricates such flu shot claims to exploit public fears for clicks and ad revenue. This particular story got some 820,000 engagements on Facebook and was copied by other counterfeit news purveyors, some of whom monetized the rumors with videos on YouTube.
    • Misinformation pattern: Fabricated stories about the flu shot are common and rely on eliciting fear to gain virality.
Newsweek's battle for independence 

The “note from the editors” (above) atop a Feb. 20 Newsweek investigative piece was astonishing in itself, describing to readers in great detail the extraordinary pressure that Newsweek’s parent company had put on the reporters as they wrote the story that followed.

The topic of Newsweek’s investigation was not new — Mother Jones is among publications that had reported on ties between Newsweek’s parent company and a small Bible college in California. And Newsweek and others reported in mid-January that the Manhattan district attorney had raided Newsweek’s offices. But the Feb. 20 editor’s note laid bare the ugly fights that sometimes ensue when journalists report on their own employers.

Independence is essential to high-quality journalism, and this turn of events is also an example of what journalists do when that independence is threatened. After all, if a newsroom is not free to report “without fear or favor” — even or maybe especially when reporting on matters involving that newsroom — then why should its audience trust anything else its reporters produce? While the actions by executives at Newsweek’s parent company show that conflicts of interest can sometimes weaken the “firewall” between the business side of a media company and its newsroom, the response of Newsweek journalists – who have continued to report on their parent company – is an important illustration of how serious, dedicated journalists push back against attacks on their independence. 

Other recent examples of this include:

All these actions, including the Newsweek note from editors, told the readers that the reporters’ allegiance lies with them, the public — and with facts and the truth.
  • Discuss: Why is independence important for news organizations? What steps do news organizations take to insulate editorial decisions from the interests of advertisers and corporate parent companies? What are the perils of allowing advertisers to influence news coverage? What else can news organizations do to reassure the public that they are independent?
  • Idea: Use a jigsaw approach to have students explore other examples of news organizations covering their own parent companies, including those described above.
  • Act: Research the ownership and major advertisers of local news organizations, then launch a student watchdog campaign to monitor for conflicts of interest. If any arise, compare coverage of that issue with that of another source.
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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