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Monday, May 7, 2018
Google's propaganda problem

A May 7 screenshot of nonpersonalized YouTube search results for “white helmets.” Three of the top four results returned by the platform are from Russian state propaganda outlet RT, which has actively pushed disinformation about Syria Civil Defense (civilian volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, that provide aid in conflict areas). The search is a replication of one performed by Donara Barojan of the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

People may not think of YouTube as a search engine, but it is. By volume, it is the internet’s second-largest search engine, processing some 3 billion searches a month, which is more than Bing, Yahoo, Ask and AOL combined. Only Google — which, of course, owns YouTube — is bigger.

But both platforms have a disinformation problem. It’s not just that they surface conspiracy theories and suggest increasingly extreme content to users. It’s that they are being used to spread and legitimize Russian propaganda.

As the Digital Forensic Research Lab’s Donara Barojan points out, searches on YouTube for Kremlin hot topics like “Douma,” “White Helmets” or “Skripal” regularly return videos from the Russian state-funded outlet RT. Searches on Google for identical terms also direct users toward Russian state propaganda, often from the Kremlin-controlled Sputnik International.

A May 7 screenshot of nonpersonalized Google search results for “Skripal.” Two of the three top stories suggested by Google are from Russian state propaganda outlet Sputnik.

  • Idea: Challenge students to capture Google’s and YouTube’s search algorithms’ vulnerabilities to Russian propaganda or other sources of misinformation using screenshots of results, as I have done above. Then publicly share these captures — along with any questions they have about this issue — on social media and tag Google accounts.
  • Related: “After a week of Russian propaganda, I was questioning everything” (Elizabeth Flock, PBS NewsHour)
    • Note: This piece highlights several strategic patterns of Russian propaganda that are important for students to recognize and reflect on:
      • This disinformation positions itself as innocuously providing “alternate explanations” of events not offered by mainstream Western outlets.
      • It routinely mixes legitimate news (about topics unrelated to the Kremlin’s interests) with conspiracy theories, fabrications and “fog” (about topics of great interest to the Kremlin) to try to gain credibility.
      • It tries to use appeals to skepticism — the inquisitive habit of questioning everything — to lure even the savviest of consumers into cynicism, or the belief that truth is a tactical and context-dependent construct.
    • Also note: The goal of this style of disinformation is to “attack the facts” until “everything is possible” and nothing can be confidently said to be true or false. That’s a trap we can’t allow our students to fall into as we try to instill in them the importance of asking critical questions.
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Censorship at the UN

Note: The Sift is a product of the News Literacy Project, which is involved in the events described below.

On May 2, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) — which was established in 2005 to fight extremism through open dialogue — indefinitely postponed an event it had scheduled for World Press Freedom Day (May 3) after the News Literacy Project refused the agency’s demand that it censor a preview of a new NLP lesson on international press freedoms.

The lesson — which will be released on NLP’s e-learning platform, the Checkology® virtual classroom, in August — helps students explore the vital role that press freedoms play in protecting the public and learn about the many ways these freedoms are weakened or restricted by governments. Led by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of NPR, it includes comments from journalists in several countries with varying degrees of press freedom.

NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller, had participated in a World Press Freedom Day panel with UNAOC in 2017, and the agency asked him several months ago to coordinate this year’s event. He assembled a panel that included CNN’s Brian Stelter and The Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi to discuss world press freedom issues, and he planned to take several minutes at the event to introduce the new lesson. He submitted the videos previewing the lesson several days in advance, as requested, so they would be ready to share with the audience.

Two days before the event, Miller was asked to replace a submitted video with a version in which a reference to Turkey — which had more journalists in jail than any other country in the world in both 2016 and 2017 — had been deleted without NLP’s consent.

A still from the eight-second segment that UNAOC sought to remove from NLP’s new interactive lesson about international press freedoms. The lesson will be released as part of Checkology 2.0 in August.

When Miller refused to agree to show the censored version, a UNAOC official warned him that the agency might need to cancel the event. UNAOC then broadened its original request, telling Miller that he would not be permitted to use any of the three submitted videos, which included references to limits on press freedom in Mexico, Russia and Egypt and remarks from journalists in Russia and Pakistan about the severe challenges they face.

The following day, UNAOC announced that the event was being postponed due to a scheduling conflict.

  • Note: In a blog post on May 2, NLP explained its decision to stand up for its principles. After UNAOC issued a misleading statement about its reasons for its action, NLP responded in a follow-up post.
  • Also note: Turkey was one of two sponsors of the initiative that led to the creation of UNAOC in 2005. Turkey has also led the world in the number of journalists jailed for their reporting in the last two years. In 2016, 31 percent (81 of 259) of the journalists jailed globally were in Turkey; last year, nearly 28 percent (73 of 262) of the journalists jailed globally were in that country.
  • Discuss: Explain the irony in the above events. In your opinion, should either party involved have done something differently?
  • Also discuss: What country do you think has the greatest degree of press freedom in the world? Which do you think has the least? Where do you think your country’s level of press freedoms falls in relation to other nations? Does your country have any journalists in jail for alleged crimes related to their reporting?
  • Idea: After posing the above questions, have students explore press freedom rankings as determined by Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, along with the database of imprisoned journalists compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
  • Related: “Turkish Cartoonist Wins Prize on World Press Freedom Day” (Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters)
    • Idea: Have student groups research and collect their favorite cartoons about press freedom in Turkey, then share and explain them to the class.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: Netflix did not announce that it was producing a series based on the popular video game God of War. YES:  A convincing piece of “fan art” posted to a Facebook page for enthusiasts of the game was mistaken for — and subsequently went viral as — an authentic Netflix promotional image.

  • Note: This was a composite image that combined a computer-generated image of a character from the game with a promotional image of actor Jason Momoa as Aquaman in the movie of the same name. A close look at the original image of Momoa — observing, for example, the scar over his eye — shows that the actual image was flipped to create the composite.

At left, the computer-generated image of Kratos, a character in God of War. At right, a promotional image from Warner Bros. of actor Jason Momoa as Aquaman. A fan of the God of War video game combined them into a composite image (middle) for a fake announcement about a (nonexistent) God of War series on Netflix. (The triptych above is from
  • Also note: Viral rumors often provide engaging examples that can “hook” students and motivate them to learn the underlying news literacy concepts, tools and skills.
  • Discuss: Was it unethical or otherwise wrong for the fan of this game to create this false image? What should or could this person have done once it started to go viral?
  • News lit lesson: Misinformation created for any reason — even if just for fun or to pay homage to something — is often difficult to control once shared with almost any online audience. The fact that even starting to type “Jason Momoa” into a Google search field prompts autocomplete suggestions for “Jason Momoa God of War” demonstrates the spread of this rumor:

A screen capture on May 5 of Google predictive search suggestions, using a private browsing session.
YES: There are three Americans known to be held captive in North Korea (as of May 7). NO: The Obama administration did not repeatedly seek and fail to secure their release. YES: Two of the three prisoners were detained after Donald Trump became president. NO: None of the prisoners has been freed, despite Rudy Giuliani’s claims on Fox and Friends last Thursday that North Korea would be “releasing three prisoners today.”
YES: The triptych below shows the same girl being helped by three different men. NO: The images are not from different events. NO: The images were not staged in any way — by either CNN or any governments. YES: The images are all from the aftermath of a bombing at a wake in Syria in August 2016. YES: The girl was a survivor of the blast and is shown being helped by different individuals at the scene of the bombing.
  • Note: This is a pernicious example of a “crisis actor” or “false flag” rumor. The image is frequently used as “evidence” to support the false claim that governments and news media stage tragic events.
  • Also note: Educators, collectively, are in a position to wipe out stubborn viral rumors by “inoculating” their students against them in the classroom.
  • Idea: Display this false meme as a bell-ringer and ask students to respond: Is this true? What is actually going on in these images? Collect their responses on the board or a sheet of chart paper. Then ask teams of students to research the rumor for 15 minutes and compare what they know now with the original list of responses.
  • Act: Ask students to evaluate the spread of this rumor by doing a reverse image search on the meme. How common are this image and its accompanying “crisis actor” claims online? What action can students take to wipe out this particular piece of misinformation?
NO: Comedian Michelle Wolf was not fired by Comedy Central after her controversial performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 28. YES: Wolf left The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in December 2017.

The physical addresses for (top) and (bottom). A screengrab of the WHOIS data for each site has been added as an inset. Links to these searches appear in the Discuss explanations above.
YES: Child hunger is still a problem in the U.S. NO: It is not believed that 1 in 5 children in America go to sleep hungry at night. YES: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made this claim in an April 26 news conference. YES: According to the Census Bureau, about 8.8 percent of American children — or 1 in more than 11 — live in households in which at least one child is “food insecure,” which includes those experiencing “reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet” but not reduced quantity.


Quick hits
  • Facebook changes news feed, takes on charges of bias
    Following up on recent promises to create a safer, better community for his company’s 2 billion users, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week announced:
  • Facebook’s algorithm accused of introducing Islamic extremists
    Researchers with the Counter Extremism Project discovered that Facebook’s “suggested friends” feature — which tries to help users connect with new “friends” based on their existing relationships and interests — also introduces Islamic radicals to one another.
  • Marketing companies paying app developers to track you
    Apple’s App Store and Google Play both have policies that prohibit apps from sharing user information with third parties — but BuzzFeed News has exposed marketers and data brokers who regularly approach app developers with offers of cash in exchange for embedding hard-to-detect location trackers used to pitch location-based ads.
    • Discuss: Should app developers be allowed to sell users’ data to third parties? Do you think location-based marketing is cool and convenient, or creepy? Why? Have you installed any of the apps listed in the BuzzFeed News piece?
  • Circumventing censorship
    A youth-led movement for increased constitutional protections in Pakistan is using social media to skirt government censorship of mainstream media.
Please share this newsletter with others who may find this information useful (archives and subscribe form 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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