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Monday, Feb. 12, 2018
Learning from Newsweek turmoil

Newsweek Media Group — the parent company of Newsweek and International Business Times — has received considerable negative publicity in recent weeks, including from its own journalists.

On Jan. 18, as part of a months-long investigation into Newsweek Media Group’s finances, investigators from the Manhattan district attorney’s office raided the Newsweek office and seized 18 servers. Newsweek published a report on the raid later the same day, then continued to dig into its parent company’s finances and leadership. It also covered the eventual resignation of the company’s chairman and its finance director.

On Jan. 29, BuzzFeed News reported that Newsweek Media Group’s chief content officer, Dayan Candappa, had been fired from his previous job at Reuters after a subordinate filed a complaint accusing him of repeated sexual harassment. Newsweek quickly published its own report by Celeste Katz, who had also written about the financial fraud investigation. (Candappa was placed on leave and reinstated following an internal investigation.)

One week later, Newsweek’s editor in chief, another senior editor and Katz were fired. At least eight other journalists have resigned, including some of the outlet’s most prominent reporters, as has the parent company’s chief sales officer.

Featured Resource:
The Four Moves blog by Mike Caulfield

A new image verification challenge on the Four Moves blog highlights a viral fake image of Carl Sagan that was prompted by SpaceX’s launch of a Tesla Roadster into orbit around the sun:

This challenge opens a number of verification pathways that can help students develop several fundamental fact-checking skills, including reverse image searching, lateral reading, source evaluation and recognition of misinformation patterns (in this instance, altered signs).

Four Moves is a collection of credibility challenges for students created by Mike Caulfield, the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver.

  • Note: Check Caulfield’s Teacher’s Guide for a full explanation of this example, along with suggested discussion prompts (some of which are adapted below).
  • Also note: Viral rumors can be a powerful “side door” into discussions about current events and historical figures. They also provide excellent opportunities to practice responding to misinformation in a civil, transparent and effective manner.
  • Discuss: How do viral rumors spread? How much does the original intent behind a piece of misinformation matter? Do different kinds of image manipulations have different ethical implications? Is it ever illegal to manipulate an image? Should it be?

Viral rumor rundown

  • NO: Donald Trump did not tweet in 2015 that if the “Dow Joans” average ever fell 1,000 or more points in a single day, the sitting president should be “shot into the sun.” (The Dow Jones industrial average did fall 1,175 points on Feb. 5.) The creator of this fake tweet claimed that he thought it would be obvious that it was a joke when he shared it on Twitter – but it quickly went viral.
    • Note: Many viral rumors begin with fake content that is shared on social media as parody — and then is widely mistaken as authentic.
    • Also note: Fake tweets are easy to create. They are also easy to spot because they appear as saved images of tweets, rather than embedded, live, clickable tweets.
  • NO: Rosa Parks’ granddaughter did not say that her grandmother would have stood for the national anthem if it had been played on the bus in which she famously refused to give up her seat in 1955.
    • Note: Rosa Parks has been referenced in relationship to the NFL national anthem protests several times, perhaps most notably by the head of the NAACP in September 2016.
    • Misinformation pattern: Rosa Parks had no children, so also had no grandchildren. Attributing made-up statements to her nonexistent daughter and granddaughter – see here and here – is a common misinformation tactic.
  • NO: Facebook has not changed its algorithm to restrict the number of friends’ posts that appear in news feeds to 25 or 26. NO: The fact-checking website Snopes never verified the claim that commenting on a chain copy-and-paste post helps you combat this change and enables you to continue to appear in friends’ news feeds (in fact, quite the contrary: Snopes declared it “false”). YES: Facebook recently changed its algorithm to promote posts by friends that spur the most conversation and demote public content posted by organizations.
    • Misinformation pattern: Viral social media posts that claim you’ll benefit in some way by reposting them are always suspect.
  • YES: The seven largest single-day point drops in the Dow Jones index have happened while a Republican president was in office. YES: Nine of the biggest 10 single-day point gains in the Dow also have happened while a Republican president was in office. NO: Neither of these facts, by itself, demonstrates the effectiveness of any particular economic policy.
    • Note: The meme below, from the highly partisan advocacy group Occupy Democrats, uses cherry-picked facts to show an incomplete picture and arrive at an inaccurate conclusion.

Are you an experienced news literacy educator? There is still time to apply to become an NLP Ambassador at NCSS 2018. If you're selected, you'll receive up to $1,000 toward your conference expenses.
See details and apply here.

The 'junk news' conundrum 

Last week, the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project published a study concluding that hard-right groups and supporters of President Donald Trump share a higher proportion of “junk news” online than other groups. Critics quickly raised questions about the findings, pointing out potential flaws in the methodology and disputing the accuracy of the results.

To begin their study, the researchers collected information sources from across the political spectrum that were shared in more than 22 million tweets between Nov. 1 and Nov. 11, 2016 (the days before and after the U.S. presidential election). They then tested those sources against five criteria they devised for “junk news”:

  • Professionalism (failure to follow standards and best practices of professional journalism).
  • Style (use of “emotionally driven language” and misleading headlines).
  • Credibility (reliance on false information, conspiracy theories and not-credible sources).
  • Bias (use of “ideologically skewed” language; opinion and commentary presented as straight news).
  • Counterfeit (use of fonts, branding and other tactics that “mimic professional media”).

If three or more of the criteria applied to a source, it was placed on a “junk news” list. The researchers developed data visualizations of user activity on Twitter and Facebook in the 90 days before Trump’s State of the Union address on Jan. 30 to identify clusters of accounts that interacted with each other and shared content from common sources. They then determined the percentage of posts for each group that shared links from the sources on their “junk news” list.

Three groups — what the researchers call “Conservative Media” and “Trump Support” on Twitter and “Hard Conservative” on Facebook — shared a significantly higher percentage of links to sources on the “junk news” list than the others.

In the end, the “junk news” list contained far more hard-right and conservative sites than liberal ones and included some of the most popular sources for conservative news, analysis and commentary, such as Breitbart, The Daily Caller, National Review, The Washington Free Beacon and the Drudge Report. This led critics to wonder if the study merely “proves nothing other than conservatives tend to share conservative media online.”

Some news outlets further confused matters by using sensational and misleading headlines that replaced the study’s “junk news” designation with “fake news”: “Fake news sharing is a rightwing thing, says study” (The Guardian), “Liberals don’t share or believe fake news as much as right-wingers, study finds” (Newsweek) and “Trump Supporters Consume And Share The Most Fake News, Oxford Study Finds” (HuffPost).

  • Note: Keep in mind that creating a taxonomy of entire sources of information is imprecise by nature. The controversy stirred by this study is reminiscent of the turmoil over attempts to create lists of “fake news” sources.
  • Also note: While popularity of information sources is important to consider, keep in mind that popularity — particularly among partisans — is not a reliable indicator of credibility, especially given the steady increase in political polarization over the last two decades.
  • Discuss: Are high-quality sources of information generally popular? Can popular sources of information lack quality? How should the quality of information be measured? How many examples of published information does one need to determine the quality of the source overall? Can the information habits of groups of people be determined by analyzing social media data?
  • Idea: Challenge groups of students to find 10 examples of information with what they think are dissimilar levels of quality. Then have them apply the five criteria from the Oxford study and sort those pieces into two categories: “junk” and “quality.”
    • Discuss: How easy was it to apply the five criteria? Were the criteria missing anything? Did the members of your group disagree about specific examples? How many examples from a given source of information do you think you would need to accurately classify the entire source?
  • Related: “Study bashes Trumpites for promoting ‘junk’ news. But what’s that?” (Erik Wemple, The Washington Post)
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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