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Monday, April 30, 2018
'Drew Cloud' evaporates

The “founder” of a student-loan debt “news” site who had been cited as an expert source by several mainstream news organizations was exposed as fiction by The Chronicle of Higher Education last week. “Drew Cloud,” it turns out, was not the founder of The Student Loan Report; instead, “he” was a creation of staff members of LendEDU, a student loan refinancing comparison and referral site.

An archived copy of the About page for The Student Loan Report from April 20 — four days before the Chronicle article was published — lists Cloud as the founder and describes him as “a journalist” who has “always had a knack for reporting” and “wanted to funnel his creative energy into an independent, authoritative news outlet.”

In a statement posted to The Student Loan Report’s homepage, LendEDU CEO Nate Matherson admitted the previously undisclosed relationship between the two sites and explained that “Drew Cloud” was a composite figure reflecting experiences of LendEDU’s staff members. Matherson insisted that the staff has “always worked to keep editorial separation” between the two entities — though, as he went on to write, LendEDU is mentioned in nine Student Loan Report articles and the connection should have been disclosed.

Perhaps worse is the fact that some news organizations based articles on information from “Drew Cloud,” who was actively presented in press releases as an expert source. One common tactic used in these attempts to get media coverage, it seems, was to conduct edgy polls and release the results as a news hook. One of the most successful of these story pitches was built around a questionable Student Loan Report poll that found 21.2 percent of current college students have used financial aid money to invest in cryptocurrencies. The results were covered by The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, CNBC and others — all of which have since added editor’s notes to the original stories.

A screenshot of The Student Loan Report homepage on April 30 showing the site simultaneously apologizing for its deceptive practices and touting the news coverage those practices generated.

  • Note: The news organizations that cited the fictitious Cloud dealt with the news of “his” nonexistence differently. The Washington Post removed references to “Drew Cloud,” along with “his” quotes, from its story and added an editor’s note, while CNBC left the quotes and references intact for transparency and added an editor’s note at the top.
  • Also note: When contacted by CNBC via email about the cryptocurrency poll findings, “Drew Cloud” claimed to be available only via email because “he” was traveling. “Cloud” made the same claim to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Discuss: What is “brand journalism”? Is “brand journalism” ethical, regardless of whether it’s disclosed? Is The Student Loan Report credible? Was the creation and propagation of “Drew Cloud” wrong? Could the news organizations that cited “Cloud” as an expert have avoided the error? If so, how? What changes to their standards might they make to avoid being duped in this manner again?
  • Idea: Have students find as many uses of “Drew Cloud” as an expert source as they can, then explore how each publication has handled the news that “he” is a fabrication.
  • Idea 2: Put students in the role of editor at a major mainstream news organization that cited “Drew Cloud” in a story and charge them with the task of coming up with a guideline for their newsrooms that would prevent this from happening again.
Comcast cares too much?

In a move reminiscent of Sinclair Broadcasting’s recent push to have local news anchors read “must-run” promos from corporate headquarters, “Comcast Cares Day” — a one-day corporate volunteer event with more than 100,000 expected participants in community service programs — was featured on NBC's Today and mentioned during local newscasts on a number of NBC affiliates. (Comcast owns NBCUniversal.) But it was a segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on April 20 that seemed most notable for its length and depth.

A still of the Morning Joe panel discussion on April 20 about Comcast Cares Day.

Immediately following a commercial for Comcast Cares Day, MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace (third from left above) led a six-minute panel discussion featuring David Cohen (second from left), Comcast’s senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, and the Rev. Al Sharpton (second from right), a civil rights activist and MSNBC host, who at one point compared the Comcast event to Nelson Mandela’s vision of the role corporations can play in a society.

  • Discuss: How does the “coverage” of Comcast Cares Day on NBC and NBC-affiliated channels compare to the on-air promos from Sinclair Broadcasting? Does the philanthropic nature of the event being covered make it any different? How do you think viewers of Today and Morning Joe should respond to this coverage? If consumers are aware of the corporate parent ownership of news outlets, does it make sense for companies to compromise their news outlets’ independence?
  • Idea: Use the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive to search for “Comcast Cares Day” and analyze how NBC affiliates reported on this event. Do they disclose the relationship?

A hyperlinked screenshot of search results for “Comcast Cares Day” on the TV News Archive from the Internet Archive. A graph (top left) shows the phrase spiking once a year, as one would expect, along with an increase in coverage from one year to the next.
  • Idea 2: Have students search news outlets’ archives for coverage of their parent companies. Which, if any, seem to have maintained their independence and which, if any, do not?
  • Idea 3: Have students work in groups to create a corporate parent ownership infographic or map to help friends and family watch out for and respond to any problematic coverage or other conflicts of interest.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: Canadian authorities did not, as part of a cover-up, swap out an image of the Toronto man allegedly involved in a van attack with that of a different man. NO: Alek Minassian, the accused, was not bald on the day of the attack, nor did he grow hair overnight. YES: There are obvious differences in the appearance of his hair between low-resolution images taken from a distance at the scene of his arrest and a courtroom sketch. YES: Courtroom sketches are frequently imprecise and widely misunderstood.

  • Idea: Use the conspiracy theory meme above to teach students about the complex nature of evidence, especially in the 21st-century information landscape. Start by sharing the meme on a projector and asking students if they think it is evidence of a cover-up or some other kind of tampering with the case. Then guide them to the following questions:
    • Discuss: What other images exist of Minassian at the arrest scene? What does his hair look like? What is the purpose of courtroom sketches? How accurate are they? Under what conditions are they produced?
  • Next, give students 10 minutes to read laterally about this claim. Then ask them to re-evaluate the strength of the images in the meme as evidence of a cover-up.
  • Note: Conspiracy theorists are often guided in their “research” by their existing beliefs, meaning that they overlook or disregard contradictory evidence and selectively use search terms, images, quotes and other artifacts to support their theory. The explosion of images and information online has only made this practice easier.

NO: Comedian Michelle Wolf’s TV series was not canceled by streaming service Hulu as a result of the controversy over her remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on Saturday. (Her show is coming to Netflix, not Hulu, at the end of May.) This is yet another false rumor created by “fake news” purveyor Christopher Blair.

NO: Actor Denzel Washington did not endorse Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. NO: Washington did not say that “we need more and more jobs” and that Trump has “hired more employees, more people, than anyone I know in the world.” YES:  Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said this in March 2016.

  • Note: This is an iteration of a piece of misinformation that has evolved over time as it has spread across a variety of unreliable websites. Other examples falsely claim that Washington said that when Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, “we avoided a war with Russia, and we avoided the creation of an Orwellian police state.”
  • Also note: Variations of this rumor circulated widely throughout late 2016, then re-emerged in February 2018 when Washington was nominated for an Oscar. The apparent catalyst for its recirculation last week was the prominence of discussions about the political loyalties of black voters as an extension of the controversy surrounding Kanye West’s tweeted statement of support for Trump.   
  • Discuss: Why do some viral rumors recirculate? Why do you think this quote didn’t circulate with the name and image of Charles Evers, the person who actually said it?
  • Idea: Challenge teams of students to find a viral rumor that has circulated multiple times and share the details with the class.
  • Idea 2: Use the false Denzel Washington quote meme above (which also appears in this blog entry) as the starting point for a digital forensics pathway (see this tweet thread for an example).

NO: A bill passed by the California State Assembly would not ban the sale of the Bible. YES:  A bill passed by the state Assembly and sent to the state Senate would prohibit advertising and selling “sexual orientation change” services. NO: The Bible is not such a service. YES: According to one of the authors of the legislation, individuals and organizations could still provide so-called conversion therapy but would not be permitted to charge for it.

A screenshot of a One America News Network segment on an OAN show’s Facebook page with the inaccurate headline “New bill in the California Assembly would BAN the Bible!” At right is a comment declaring, “it is time we the people formed a vigilante force to take these democrats out of all government positions by force and violence as needed.” The video — which is just one of many pieces of viral content making similar claims — has more than 10 million views, 262,000 shares and nearly 10,000 comments.

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Facebook goes public with rules 

Last week Facebook published its Community Standards — the guidelines that its 7,500 moderators use to decide which content to remove and which people or pages to ban. Also for the first time, users can now appeal when they believe their posts have been removed unfairly.

The move toward transparency comes on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica data breach and almost two years after allegations were published that the curation team for Facebook's “trending” section had suppressed certain stories. (Months later, the company would turn its trending story curation over to an algorithm — a move that generated new problems and criticism.)

The world's largest social media platform has faced accusations of inconsistent rules enforcement and political bias ever since, including when it recently deemed posts from pro-Trump activists Diamond and Silk “unsafe to the community” (in error, it said later) and when its automated spam filter temporarily blocked users from sharing a Daily Caller article containing the just-released full transcript of text messages between two former FBI employees who were critical of President Trump.

  • Note: Facebook’s Community Standards rules are not new — though its content-moderation experts update them regularly — but the challenges inherent in enforcing them are clear in the introduction: They apply to 2 billion people in 40 countries. Hate speech laws vary, as do local definitions of what is considered “indecent” or “vulgar.” And even with guidelines, it takes editorial judgment — which is necessarily subjective — and understanding of context to determine whether something is “offensive” versus “dangerous” (in Myanmar, human rights activists say their complaints have long gone unheeded) or whether a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam is “inappropriate” child nudity.
  • Also note: Facebook increased its staff of moderators by 3,000 only in 2017 after a rash of live videos were posted showing rapes, killings and shootings. While Facebook has long argued that it is a platform, not a publisher, the recently released guidelines resemble the ethics guidelines found in many newsrooms.
  • Discuss: Should Facebook moderate the content that is shared on its platform, or should it allow users to share anything they want? Why? What other social media platforms moderate content? How do the moderation guidelines from Facebook compare with those of other platforms, such as YouTube? Should social media platforms moderate and curate the topics that trend, or should these be entirely driven by raw use metrics, even if the topics are potentially offensive or dangerous?
Quick hits
  • Why do local news organizations share news that isn't local?
    Shan Wang, a staff writer at NiemanLab, analyzed Facebook posts by the news divisions at 28 local TV stations and discovered that just over half of those posts could be considered legitimately “local.” She also found evidence of sharing patterns among stations owned by the same corporate parents.
    • Discuss: Why might local news outlets share nonlocal stories on Facebook? Does this count as “engagement baiting”? Why or why not?
    • Idea: Continue and extend Wang’s work by surveying the Facebook posts of local news outlets in your community. What percentage are truly local? Are nonlocal stories always labeled as such to avoid confusion? Are there differences in the posting trends of local TV, radio and print news organizations? Have students email or tweet to Wang to learn more about her methodology or to share their results.
  • Road map to requesting your data profile
    An app developer at ProPublica has published a piece that includes step-by-step instructions for requesting the data that several major platforms and data brokers have collected about you. The list includes Cambridge Analytica — which is located in England and so must comply with strict U.K. data privacy regulations but still manages to make it extremely difficult to get a copy of the data it has about you — along with Oracle, Facebook and Google and the data brokers ALC Digital, Experian and Epsilon.
    • Idea: Divide the list of companies in the article among groups of students and have each request one person’s data profile (either a student, a friend or a family member who agrees). Have each group log the steps and track the time it takes to retrieve the requested data, then share highlights and insights (with the permission of the subject, of course) with the class.
  • Malaysia hands out first punishment for 'fake news'
    A Malaysian judge sentenced a Danish citizen visiting Malaysia to a week in jail and a fine of 10,000 ringgit (about $2,500) for posting a video on YouTube that accused the government of an intentionally slow response to the shooting of a Palestinian man in Kuala Lumpur in April. The sentence was the first punishment under a new “fake news” law that prohibits the deliberate creation and sharing of false information in Malaysia. (h/t Mike Caulfield for alerting us to this.)
    • Discuss: Should all countries enact laws punishing the deliberate creation and sharing of false information? Why or why not?
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.

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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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