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Monday, June 4, 2018
Note: The June 18 issue will be the last of the 2017-18 school year. We’ll be back on Monday, Sept. 10.
Google amplifies Wikipedia vandalism

A subtle act of vandalism to the Wikipedia page for the California state Republican Party resulted in Google’s displaying “Nazism” as one of the party’s ideologies in its “knowledge panel” for the organization. (Knowledge panels are the basic information boxes prominently displayed at the top right of the first page of Google search results; information about organizations and businesses sometimes automatically comes from Wikipedia.)

The edit history of the California Republican Party Wikipedia page shows that the URL linked to the word “conservatism” in the Wikipedia “infobox” — a prominent panel of facts similar to Google’s knowledge panels — was changed on May 24 from Wikipedia’s “Conservatism in the United States” article to the “Nazism” article. This caused the Google knowledge panel for the party to automatically display “Nazism” as one of the party’s ideologies.

A screenshot of the archived revision page showing the May 24 vandalism that changed the target URL for "Conservatism" under the Ideology section of the Wikipedia infobox for the California Republican Party to the "Nazism" article.

The edit was not discovered until Vice News wrote about it on May 31 — and Google came under fire for pulling the detail into its knowledge panel.

The “Nazism” edit was made three weeks after Patrick Little, an openly anti-Semitic candidate for U.S. Senate, was kicked out of the state Republican convention on May 5.

  • Note: After the reference to Nazism was removed by editors on May 31, the edit history for the article shows it was added to — and removed from — the infobox again at least three additional times that same day, as was the word “Authoritarianism.” On June 1, Wikipedia editors banned the IP addresses involved in the vandalism and put a lock on the page, restricting edits to experienced Wikipedia editors.
  • Also note: Wikipedia vandalism has a long history and has generated a number of listicle pieces. There is also a Wikipedia page that lists the most vandalized pages on the site.
  • One last note: YouTube, which is owned by Google, also uses information from Wikipedia pages to warn users about conspiracy theories and sources of disinformation, such as state-sponsored “news” outlets. During an interview at South by Southwest in March, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced a plan to create “information cues” using Wikipedia for specific channels and videos.
  • Idea: Use this as an opportunity to help students understand how Wikipedia works, including how intentional misinformation can sometimes (usually temporarily) appear on the site and how to read and investigate edits to controversial pages.
    • Related: Whether you use this example to spark student learning about Wikipedia or not, you should strongly consider reading about and contributing to Mike Caulfield’s Newspapers on Wikipedia project, an effort to create Wikipedia pages for legitimate local news sources.
  • Discuss: What does this manipulation (and the way Wikipedia edits work generally) mean about the site’s credibility? Is it unethical to “vandalize” a Wikipedia page? Can Wikipedia vandalism be funny or an effective means of commentary? Can Wikipedia vandalism have unintended consequences? What ideas do you have to help solve Wikipedia vandalism?
  • Related: On June 1, Vice News broke another story: Google’s knowledge panel for Trudy Wade, a Republican state senator in North Carolina, used a picture of her with the word “BIGOT” superimposed in large red letters; the image was picked up from a 2012 post on a local progressive blog.
    • Discuss: Is this an inevitable byproduct of Google’s automated knowledge panels? Are these incidents evidence of carelessness or political bias on the part of Google? How do you know?

A screenshot showing the Google knowledge panel for a Republican state senator in North Carolina that included an old image from a progressive blog, labeling her as a bigot.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: Starbucks did not post signs saying that it was closing its stores on May 29 to “educate white people about their racism.” NO: Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson did not announce that “patrons of color will be allowed to move to the head of the line” in an attempt to “recognize our white privilege.” YES: Starbucks closed its company-owned stores in the United States during the afternoon of May 29 to “conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination” in its stores after a store manager in Philadelphia called the police on two black men who were waiting to meet a friend. YES: Starbucks has been a frequent target of troll attacks that seek to misrepresent the company’s policies and exploit racial divisions.

  • Note: The fake sign (above) circulated in online political discussion forums such as 4chan’s Politically Incorrect message board and in the r/TheDonald community on Reddit.
  • Discuss: What other false information has circulated about Starbucks in recent months? Why do you think Starbucks has repeatedly been targeted by disinformation trolls this year? Were the rumors above believed by a significant number of people? How can we know?
  • Idea: In teams, have students explore the possible impact of the rumors described above. Is there any evidence that they were believed? (An archived version of that link is here if needed.) How widely do they seem to have been shared?
  • Idea 2: Challenge students to collect the recent viral rumors and fake posts that have circulated about Starbucks and create an awareness campaign to help warn others of this misinformation pattern.
NO: White Major League Baseball players in the 1950s did not kneel during the national anthem to protest lynching and Jim Crow laws.

  • Note: This rumor was created on, a “prank news” generator site that makes it easy for users to create misinformation that looks like news. These types of user-generated “fake news” sites make it easy to create false stories — providing users with a template to complete with a headline, text and an image — and then serve ads against the traffic they generate. Some sites make it especially easy to post these creations to social media to “prank” your friends.
  • Misinformation pattern #1: Misinformation is almost impossible to control, regardless of the motivations of the person who creates and shares it. It frequently jumps from closed to open environments online and from one social network to another.
  • Misinformation pattern #2: Old pieces of misinformation recirculate when a new context emerges. This rumor was created in the fall of 2017 and was included in the Viral Rumor Rundown in the Nov. 13 issue of The Sift. It appeared again after NFL team owners approved a new national anthem policy on May 23.
NO: The leader of the Mormon church did not formally apologize for the church’s historic racism against its black members. YES: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned black people from full participation in the church until 1978, and in 2013 formally disavowed the racist theories supporting the ban. YES: A former Mormon created a counterfeit Mormon Newsroom website — at, which has a single hyphen added to the official URL, — as a parody intended to spark discussion about what an official church apology for its past racism would look like.
  • Note: See misinformation pattern #1 above.
  • Also note: The person who created the fake Mormon news site deliberately made it look authentic by copying the design of the real site and linking its tabs and other navigation back to that site. This meant that readers of the parody apology who clicked elsewhere on the fake site were directed back to the actual Mormon church site. There were a few signals that the fake site was inauthentic, including the subtle change in the URL and the disclaimer in the footer, calling the fake site the “official pasquinade newsroom of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”

A comparison of the authentic footer from the Mormon Newsroom website (top) and the footer from the fake "parody" site (below). Click the image to open a larger version in a new tab.
NO: Fox is not picking up the television show Roseanne after it was canceled by ABC last week due to a racist tweet by its star, Roseanne Barr. The claim originated with a satirical story published on Extra Newsfeed, a political commentary and satire site hosted by Medium.


Three minutes.

Five questions.

Eternal gratitude.

Take The Sift reader survey.

Quick hits
  • Twitter says it will help its users “identify original sources and authentic information” in the 2018 elections by applying “election labels” to the Twitter feeds of federal, state and local candidates who have qualified for the general election ballot in November and the campaign accounts of candidates for Congress or a state governorship. It’s partnering with Ballotpedia to identify the relevant accounts.
    • Discuss: Is it a good idea to give political candidates a special designation on social media? Why or why not?
  • Authorities in the southern India state of Kerala have arrested seven people for spreading hoaxes on WhatsApp about a virus that has caused several deaths. The Nipah virus, named for a village in Malaysia where the disease was initially discovered in 1998, was reported for the first time in mid-May in Kerala. Kerala police had warned that “creation of fake or false messages [and] spreading them to cause panic or public disorder are criminal acts and liable for investigation and prosecution,” and “those who forward such messages in the social media will also face investigation and prosecution.”
    • Discuss: Should creating and/or sharing “fake news” and other forms of mis- or disinformation be illegal? Why or why not? Could a law like the one in India be implemented in your home country? Why or why not?
  • Two new reports about internet use offer some overlapping findings:
    • Mary Meeker, a partner at one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capital firms, presented her annual (and well-regarded) internet trends report on May 30. In her 294 slides of analysis, she quantified, among other things, how tech’s privacy paradox is leading to more regulatory scrutiny (slide 33) and an increase in the length of time that people spend online.
    • That last point is also in Pew’s annual report about teens and social media, which found that 45 percent of teens say they’re online “almost constantly.” YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram dominate their online lives.
  • Dissident Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was reported assassinated on May 29 — but within 24 hours he appeared at a news conference, saying that he and Ukrainian security services staged his death after learning of a Russian plot to kill him. Journalism organizations raised concerns about the sting operation
  • Facebook is doing away with its Trending section after a slew of problems in its four years of attempting to list the most popular news stories. In 2016, editors curating the feature were accused of bias; the replacement for humans, algorithms, then allowed hoaxes to trend.
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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