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Monday, Feb. 5, 2018

Shortly after #ReleaseTheMemo began trending sharply on Twitter in mid-January, the real-time Russian propaganda dashboard of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, Hamilton 68, showed Russian botnets and trolls actively pushing the hashtag.

In a written statement to lawmakers last week, Twitter claimed that its initial geolocation analysis of the hashtag did not show “significant activity connected to Russia with respect to tweets posting original content” containing #ReleaseTheMemo. But that statement ignores two critically important factors: The geolocation of tweets can be altered to show a false location, and botnets typically operate not by “posting original content,” but by amplifying others’.

On Sunday, Politico published a detailed analysis of the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign by Molly McKew, an information warfare expert with New Media Frontier, a social media intelligence group. She and her team traced the first appearance of the hashtag to what appears to be a genuine Michigan-based account — one that was amplified quickly by Russian botnets.

This kind of “computational propaganda” works, says McKew, in several ways: It integrates itself into networks of hyperpartisans, gathers partisan memes and messages from across the web, tests this content for potential virality, and then seeds closed social media groups full of extremely active genuine users with variations that also tag targeted influencers and lawmakers. These tactics appear to have not only effectively gamed Twitter’s trending algorithm (a goal about which partisans on the platform speak openly), but also perhaps dramatically exaggerated the level of public pressure to release a memo, written by the House Intelligence Committee’s Republican staff, alleging that the FBI had abused surveillance tactics while investigating ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.

  • Note: While McKew’s piece may be too dense for many secondary school students, it invokes terms and concepts that 21st-century students should know: “computational propaganda,” “sockpuppet,” “astroturfing,” “Twitter rooms,” “botnet,” “automation networks,” “cyborgs” and “human bots.”
    • Share: If you add to this list or create materials to teach these and other new media terms, please tweet them to me so I can share.
  • Discuss: Is social media a reliable indicator of public opinion? What other indicators are available? Are attempts to game social media algorithms unethical, or are they smart political strategy? How should politicians gauge public sentiment?
  • Idea: Spend a week using the Hamilton 68 dashboard to track the ideas, stories and events being pushed by Russian propaganda amplifiers. Then have students reflect on the drivers behind major trends. For example, why would “Philly” be a top trend among Russian-linked accounts the day after the Super Bowl? (Hint: The theme of urban decay and depravity under Democratic leadership is a major narrative of hyperpartisan memes.)
  • Act: How can students use Hamilton 68’s real-time trend data to respond to propaganda? What ideas do your students have to counter propaganda?
  • Act 2: Challenge students to identify social media bots based on “#BotSpot: Twelve Ways to Spot a Bot” (Digital Forensics Research Lab) and using tools such as

Are you an experienced news literacy educator? Apply to become an NLP Ambassador at NCSS 2018.
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A 'verification "Swiss army knife"'

The InVID European Project has released an update to its “fake video news debunker” — a powerful extension for Chrome and Firefox that brings a number of digital forensics and fact-checking tools together in a single interface. InVID, funded by the European Union, is a consortium of universities, news organizations and media and technology companies.

This self-described “verification ‘Swiss army knife’” helps users authenticate key details of digital images and video by making it easy to perform a number of fact-checking tasks, such as finding other sites where an image was used (a reverse image search), isolating and searching for video keyframes and thumbnails, pulling metadata from images and video, magnifying and analyzing digital images, and doing advanced Twitter searches — all from one dashboard.

The demo video featured in the InVID Chrome extension description provides a useful overview of its functionality.

  • Idea: Use the tutorial video from InVID to introduce the tool to students, then give them a guided fact-checking challenge such as those found on Mike Caulfield’s Four Moves blog or tweeted each weekday by members of the digital forensics group Bellingcat.
  • Act: After students have solved one or more fact-check challenges made by others, have them work in teams to create and share their own.

Viral rumor rundown

  • YES: An estimated 45.6 million people watched Trump’s State of the Union address on broadcast and cable networks. NO: Trump’s tweet calling it the largest TV audience for a State of the Union speech in history is incorrect. (Bill Clinton in 1994 and 1998, George W. Bush in 2002 and 2003 and Barack Obama in 2010 all had larger numbers than Trump). YES: Trump is correct in stating that Fox News had the largest network audience for this year’s speech (11.7 million).
  • NO: An environmental activist with Greenpeace did not get his arm bitten off when he tried to hug a great white shark.
    • Misinformation pattern: This is too perfect, and it activates partisan sentiments.
  • NO: Muslim refugees are not citing their religion to refuse to work for Americans — or in establishments that serve pork or alcohol.
    • Misinformation pattern: Sensational — and in this case fictional — claims about Muslim refugees are commonly used to convert outrage into clicks and ad revenue.
    • Discuss: Ask students to read this false story (archived here, to avoid rewarding the perpetrators with web traffic) and highlight red flags such as lack of evidence, loaded language and grammatical errors.
  • NO: Palestinians at the United Nations did not play music on a cellphone and dance in response to a U.S. threat to stop giving Palestinian refugees humanitarian aid.
    • Note: This false claim has gone viral with the help of a reappropriated video clip of a 2013 performance at the U.N. by Palestinian pop singer Mohammad Assaf.
  • NO: An NFL lawyer named Dan Goodes was not found dead after telling news media that the NFL is rigged. There is no NFL lawyer with that name; the whole thing is fiction, published on an imposter news site.
  • YES: A cryptocurrency called PonziCoin was launched in late January. YES: Its website warned that the concept was a joke and a scam. NO: That didn’t stop people from investing in it. (Saying the joke “had gotten crazy out of hand,” the creator of the fake cryptocurrency quickly shut down sales from the site.)
    • Note: This bears a striking resemblance to “fake news” purveyors whose stories prompt real outrage and go viral despite signals — and, sometimes, actual disclaimers — that the content is satire.
Warning: Government-funded content ahead

The next time you watch a video posted on YouTube by a news outlet, you may see a “notice” alerting you that the outlet receives “some level of government or public funding.”

The new labels — announced on Friday and being rolled out initially to viewers in the U.S. — offer “greater transparency” by providing viewers “with additional information to help them better understand the sources of news content,” YouTube said. They will link to the Wikipedia page for the outlet that posted the video. YouTube has promised that it will take “many more steps” in 2018 to respond to recent criticism and help users avoid the misinformation and disinformation that its algorithm has brought to users’ attention in the past.

An example of labeling, provided by YouTube: This one is for a video from Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded broadcaster.

In a January 2017 report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence flagged the issue of state-run media and named RT, whose cable and satellite channels are targeted to viewers outside Russia, as of particular concern. RT — formerly Russia Today, funded entirely by the Kremlin — joined YouTube in 2007; six years later, it proclaimed that it was “the first news channel to reach” 1 billion views on YouTube. Today it claims more than 5 billion total views across all its YouTube channels and boasts that it is YouTube's most-watched news network.

The header image on RT’s main YouTube channel.

But some are concerned that YouTube’s policy change also applies to videos posted by broadcasters that receive any amount of government support — notably, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which is funded largely by contributions from foundations, corporations and individuals. A spokesperson for PBS pointed out that funding from the federal government accounts for only a small percentage of its budget — and noted that the label might call its independence into question. The Wall Street Journal reported that the label for PBS would describe it as “a publicly funded American broadcaster,” while the one for RT would say that it “is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government.”

  • Bell-ringer: Display the RT logo, then ask how many have heard of RT. Ask how many have seen news from RT and, from those who have, what they thought about it. Then ask if they know who funds and controls it.
  • Discuss: Is “news” that is entirely funded by a government propaganda by definition? Why or why not? Do you agree or disagree with YouTube’s announced changes? Why might people need to be warned about when they are consuming news that is created or funded by a government agency? How many state-run (government) news organizations are you aware of? Is public funding for news organizations a good idea?
  • Idea: Research and compare news coverage of the same issue or event from PBS NewsHour and RT. What differences do you notice? Then compare coverage of both the U.S. government and the Russian government. Do any patterns emerge?
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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