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Monday, May 21, 2018
Note: There will be no issue of The Sift on Monday, May 28. The newsletter will return on Monday, June 4.
The info-aftermath of Santa Fe

Social media platforms and news organizations — such as KHOU, the CBS affiliate in Houston — handled misinformation about Friday’s Santa Fe, Texas, school shooting more responsibly and effectively than was done in past mass shootings.

Tragically, there have been enough mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years that several noticeable patterns have emerged for the misinformation that inevitably circulates in their aftermath. (I wrote about some of them after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.)

Disinformation agents, almost always including trolls from 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” community, attempt to exploit the “news void” — the moments immediately after a tragic event before confirmed details are available — to try to get false information (typically about the shooter) to go viral and, sometimes, get picked up by institutional media outlets. Conspiracy claims about “crisis actors” and “false flag” operations also tend to proliferate.

But the information aftermath of last Friday’s shooting at Santa Fe (Texas) High School seemed considerably different to some misinformation expertsprompting speculation about algorithmic suppression of some terms, but not others. “Sam Hyde” hoax memes still spread, but there were also pre-emptive efforts to warn people away from them. A number of fake Facebook profiles were created using the shooter’s name, but they were reported by users and deleted by the company almost as fast as they could be published. And local news organizations helped the public track verified and false information, among other refined practices.

Yet there was still a significant amount of dis- and misinformation circulating after the shooting, and most of it — along with strong, divisive opinions — was being amplified by networks of bots.

In the end, it seems clear that, at least in this case, recognizing misinformation patterns and applying proactive measures — across platforms and industries, and in individual acts from users — worked to stem the flow. But we also know from experience that, just as water typically finds a new pathway downhill when its original stream is blocked, misinformation also finds new ways to surface. It’s up to us to continue to track it.

  • Discuss: Should social media platforms change their algorithms after tragic events to downgrade conspiracy theory terms like “crisis actor” and “false flag”? Why or why not? Should those terms be permanently downgraded? Should users who create conspiracy theory videos be banned from social networks? Should YouTube monitor conspiracy theory videos that are published immediately after tragic events? Should it remove conspiracy theory content from the site altogether?
  • Idea: Create a reading list for students about disinformation, then challenge them to come up with a disinformation plan that social media users could follow to help beat back misinformation published after tragic events.
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Can you tell the legitimate news sources from the fakes in this new quiz?

Viral rumor rundown

NO:  There is no evidence that Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the suspected shooter in the Santa Fe (Texas) High School mass shooting on May 18, was a supporter of Barack Obama, a supporter of 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a supporter of President Donald Trump or a member of the anti-fascist organization Antifa. YES: A “satirical” news article claimed that the alleged shooter loves Obama (among other falsehoods). YES: Fake Facebook accounts attempting to connect Pagourtzis with Clinton, Trump and Antifa were created (and quickly reported by users, then deleted by Facebook) almost as soon as his name was released.

Screenshots of two of the fake Facebook profiles that emerged almost immediately after Dimitrios Pagourtzis was named as the suspected shooter at Santa Fe High School on May 18.

  • Misinformation pattern: False claims that the gunman in a mass shooting is affiliated with Antifa are common. They surfaced after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017, and again after the mass church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017.

NO: The shooting at Santa Fe High School was not the 22nd intentional “school shooting” of 2018 in the U.S. YES: It was the 22nd time someone has been shot — whether intentionally or accidentally — on school property, including at colleges and universities, in the U.S. this year.

  • Note: Because there is no standard definition for the term “school shooting,” statistics about gun violence in schools often differ. The major factors driving these differences are their location (are shootings “near” school property included?), intent (are accidental shootings included) and outcome (was anyone shot?).
  • Also note: Many school shooting statistics are influenced by a list created by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety that uses a broad definition for “school shooting.” The pitfalls of citing its broad definition for “school shooting” were included in The Sift’s viral rumor rundown on Jan. 29.
NO: The fact that Santa Fe High School had recently had a “lockdown drill” and a University of Texas hospital where victims of the shooting were treated had recently had a “mass casualty drill” is not evidence that the shooting was staged.
  • Misinformation pattern: “Crisis actor” and other “false flag” conspiracy theories — asserting that tragedies are staged by governments and other powerful actors to achieve policy goals — consistently emerge after mass shootings and other tragic events.

NO: U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, did not say that if she is elected president in 2020, her first act would be to impeach the current president, Donald Trump. YES: Waters has publicly called for the impeachment of President Trump a number of times.


  • Note: The above false meme — which was shared by a fan page for Fox News host Jeanine Pirro — appears to have begun with a satirical tweet from Washington Free Beacon reporter Alex Griswold on May 11. Someone then added that false quote and a fake chyron to an image of Waters being interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper on April 19, 2017, about Bill O’Reilly’s departure from Fox News.
  • Tool: The TV News Archive from the Internet Archive makes it easy to fact-check chyrons and transcripts from news broadcasts.

A hyperlinked screenshot of Maxine Waters’ appearance on AC360 on April 19, 2017, showing the authentic chyron on the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive tool.
  • Idea: Use the false meme as the start of a digital forensics learning pathway, as described in this tweet thread.
NO: An Illinois man was not arrested for dumping nearly $250,000 worth of manure on his former boss’ front yard after winning $125 million in the Powerball lottery.
  • Note: This piece of “satirical” news from World News Daily Report has over 57,000 shares on Facebook. It repurposes an unusual mugshot of a laughing man who was arrested for drunk driving in a Chicago suburb on July 3, 2014.
  • Also note: Fictional pieces created by World News Daily Report are frequently mistaken as legitimate news, in part because its satire disclaimers do not appear on individual posts that are shared into social media feeds.
  • One more note: This is not the first fake “boss revenge” story to go viral this month. It is a successful formula for virality — in part, it seems, because it is a “hope rumor”: something people want to be true.
  • Idea: Use this to introduce students to the basics of “rumor theory”: that viral rumors typically ignite one of four main emotional reactions (curiosity, fear, anger and hope) and also inspire one of four main propagation motives: altruism, self-interest, group interest and malice.
NO: The video in the tweet below, in which a covered human body moves, is not evidence of “crisis acting” by Palestinians during recent conflicts with the Israeli military. YES: The video is of Egyptian students at Al-Azhar University in 2013 pretending to be dead as a symbolic protest against the Egyptian government. YES: The video has circulated in other contexts, including the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict (note the correction at the bottom) and after the chemical attack in Douma, Syria, in April.
  • Discuss: Could the above tweet be satire? How can we know? Is satire that misleads people still satire? Does satire need to be labeled to be considered true satire? Why or why not? Who decides what counts as satire?
  • Idea: Challenge students to research the history of this video clip. Has it been used out of context before? For what events?



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Trump's ambiguous 'animals'

Some people believe that, during a meeting last week about immigration,  President Donald Trump’s use of the word “animals” was a specific reference to MS-13 gang members, while others contend that it was a broader generalization about undocumented immigrants in general.

What each of us “hears” in this remark by Trump depends not just on the context of the comment (which matters), but on how we interpret that context — and how broadly we define “context” in this instance (for example, whether other racially charged comments by Trump are relevant here), how literally we interpret Trump’s words and whether we believe that referring to anyone as subhuman is ever warranted.

Some news organizations fell well short of providing the context necessary to consider these questions. As the conservative news and commentary site The Blaze pointed out, several news organizations did not include any reference to criminals or gangs in their lead paragraphs, and a number of outlets and individual journalists tweeted misleading characterizations of the president’s comments. On Thursday, The Associated Press deleted a tweet about Trump’s remarks that it had posted the day before.

Today, the Trump administration continued its use of the word by issuing a press release: “What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13.”

  • Idea: Ask students who have heard about this controversy to try to set aside their prior knowledge of the incident, then screen this full clip of that portion of the meeting. Then:
  • Discuss: To whom was President Trump referring as “animals”? Why? Was President Trump wrong to use this word in this way? Why? Then:
  • Idea (cont’d): Ask students to take 10 minutes to do some independent reading about the incident, then revisit the discussion questions above to see if any students changed their minds. Then display some of the social media posts (especially this one and this one) about the remarks and read through the comments. Then have students pretend that they are in charge of a national news organization and decide what they would have posted to social media and what the headline and the lead paragraph of their story would have been.
Please share this newsletter with others who may find this information useful (archives and subscription 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 until June 30, 2018. Yes, it’s free.

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