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Monday, Nov. 27, 2017
Covering Nazis

When The New York Times published a profile of a white nationalist and adherent of Nazi ideology Saturday, it touched off a storm of criticism — mostly focused on how it “normalized” its subject.

Later that day, the Times published a follow-up from reporter Richard Fausset, acknowledging “there is a hole at the heart” of the original profile. On Sunday, Times national editor Marc Lacey wrote a further response to the criticism.

But critics weren’t satisfied. New York University professor Jay Rosen tweeted that “rich contextual knowledge was glaringly absent.” When a story leaves the interpretation of facts up to readers, he warned, it creates “a recipe for contributing to the phenomenon you’re covering.” Others contended the story never should have been published.

  • Background: Consider starting with Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple’s piece and Columbia Journalism Review staff writer Pete Vernon’s overview (both with reader reaction) as well as the conversations sparked by these six tweets (one, two, three, four, five, six).
  • Idea: Prepare your students for a difficult conversation. Recreate the controversy by having them read the original piece, selected reactions on social media (curated by you to ensure they’re appropriate), Fausset’s follow-up and Marc Lacey’s explanation. Then:
    • Discuss: To what extent should we try to understand what leads people to adopt ideologies of hate? What’s the difference, if any, between humanizing and normalizing a subject? Is it news that “normal” people advocate ideologies of intolerance and hate? Does covering such people, ideas and organizations simply help them by giving them national attention? Do mainstream news sources focus too much on the perpetrators of hate and too little on people whose lives are affected by that hatred?

Your browsing recorded

A big “thank you” to Sift reader Brian Turnbaugh (@wegotwits), an AP language teacher at West Chicago (Ill.) Community High School, who regularly shares important topics with me — including this one. 

You’re no doubt aware that most websites use tools that keep track of the pages you view and the words and phrases you search for. What you may not know is that some of those sites also use “session replay scripts” — pieces of code that record visitors’ interactions with each page, including their keystrokes, mouse movements and scrolling. These scripts are usually added by third-party analytics companies that provide insights about visitors’ behaviors to website owners, purportedly to help them improve their site’s content and design.

These tracking tools are far from benign, according to researchers at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, who published their findings earlier this month. The tools breach expectations of privacy by recording actions that users never intended to share with the website owner (let alone a third party), including text that is highlighted by mouse or characters entered into webform fields but deleted before submission. And while most session recording companies allow their clients to exclude specific actions (for example, keystrokes in a credit card field), these redactions are riddled with exceptions and other problems that cause sensitive information to be captured.

The analysis includes a list of websites that the researchers confirmed have session replay scripts embedded in them. In addition, it includes a screencast of a session replay company’s script in action.


  • Watchdog connection: Walgreens was one of the companies identified as using session replay scripts. As she was putting together a story about the Princeton research, Nitasha Tiku, a reporter at Wired, contacted Walgreens for comment — at which point the company said it would turn the scripts off while it looked into the concerns raised by the research. Online retailer Bonobos, which is owned by Walmart, also said that it had stopped using the scripts while it re-evaluated the service it had been using.
  • Discuss: Do website owners have the right to record the data their websites generate? Should they be required to disclose when a session replay script is active on the page, or is it up to individual users to know this? Are these scripts any different from the security cameras found in stores and other places of business? If so, how?
  • Idea: Have your students go through the Princeton researchers’ list of 482 websites with third-party session replay services to locate several that their friends and family members often use. Create a poll to measure those users’ reactions to these scripts, and publish the results. What percentage of users are uncomfortable when they learn about these scripts? How many are not concerned?
  • Act: Contact some of the owners of the websites that use third-party session replay services and ask them if they plan on suspending their use of those scripts. Share the results on social media, using a class account.

Tomorrow, people are taking a break from internet shopping and surfing to join a worldwide philanthropic movement — one that supports organizations and causes that reflect their values and address their concerns. Your support makes our work — work like The Sift — possible. Stand up for the truth and donate on #GivingTuesday.
Facebook's propaganda checker

Lawmakers in Washington have strongly criticized Facebook for accepting — and promoting — posts and ads placed by Russian propaganda outlets on both the world's largest social media platform and Instagram (owned by Facebook) in the two years prior to the 2016 presidential election. Now, Facebook is creating a tool to let users check if they have liked (on Facebook) or followed (on Instagram) pages created by operatives at the Internet Research Agency, a propaganda factory in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Facebook estimates that about 29 million Americans saw such posts in their news feeds. But another 140 million who are friends and followers of those 29 million might also have seen the propaganda in their Facebook and Instagram timelines. In addition, 10 million people were exposed to targeted ads that were purchased by Russian agents, the company said last month.

Once the tool is released, users will find it in the Help section of the two platforms.

  • Discuss: Is this a positive development? Does it address the spread of Russian propaganda on these platforms? Should Facebook and other social platforms notify users who share propaganda? What about other forms of misinformation?
  • Act: You can spread the word when the tool becomes live by creating and sharing an Animoto, screencast video, pictorial guide or PSA.
  • Relevant: Facebook’s propaganda self-check tool is rare positive news in a steady stream of mistakes, oversights and misguided experiments. Another recent positive announcement came from Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, who told the Halifax International Security Forum that Google is “deranking” (downgrading) content from state-owned Russian media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik.

Viral rumor rundown

  • NO: The etymology of the phrase “Black Friday” has nothing to do with slave auctions. It initially emerged more than 65 years ago as a reference to the widespread practice of workers just not showing up on the day after Thanksgiving so they could have a four-day weekend; a decade or so later, it was popularized by the Philadelphia Police Department’s traffic division (with the help of a reporter for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin) as shorthand for the terrible traffic jams in the city as shoppers headed downtown and football fans arrived in the city for the Army-Navy Game. (The first use of “Black Friday” in reference to stores becoming profitable — or going into the black — that day thanks to holiday sales didn’t come until the 1980s.)
  • NO: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not copy a picture of a pecan pie from the Public Broadcasting Service and tweet it as the chocolate pecan pie she made for Thanksgiving dinner. But the perception that she did — rooted in the mistaken belief that Twitter’s default host for photos ( is a PBS website — touched off criticism and a sarcastic meme in the replies. (She also didn’t copy a photo of a pie from the Whaley Pecan Co. of Troy, Ala.)
    • This rumor offers a reminder about the power of confirmation bias to make people less skeptical of claims that they want or assume to be true. It is also a good reminder that reverse image searches locate pictures that are both identical to and similar to the image being searched for. In this case, Sanders’ image is quite similar to (but clearly is not) a photo of a pie from the Whaley Pecan Co.
  • YES: The hosts and guests on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” pretended to have already eaten their Thanksgiving meals and already watched Thursday’s football games when they recorded Friday’s show — on Wednesday.
    • This was disingenuous at best and will almost certainly further damage the public’s trust in all media organizations.
  • YES: A gift shop at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia sold wines from Trump Winery. NO:  The federal government had nothing to do with the shop’s decision to sell products from the Charlottesville, Va., winery that Donald Trump bought in 2011 (and that his son Eric now runs). The National Park Service contracts with private companies to run its hotels, restaurants and gift shops, and those contractors determine the specifics of what is sold where. Delaware North, the company that operates the hotels and gift shops at Shenandoah National Park, likes to feature “local and regional” products in its facilities, a spokesperson said when asked about the Trump wines. NPR reported that distribution of Trump wines to the Shenandoah National Park shop was halted in September.

    • This report activates the confirmation bias of people who are concerned that Trump is using the presidency to steer business to his family’s companies. It also taps into another hot topic of late: the National Park Service’s recent proposal to begin charging higher fees.
  • YES: Actor LeVar Burton is getting misdirected criticism and anger on social media meant for LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo Ball, a UCLA basketball player recently freed, along with several teammates, from jail in China after being arrested for shoplifting. President Trump has taken credit for the young men’s release and has described the elder Ball as being “ungrateful” (among other things) to him. (Burton, meanwhile, posted an example of the tweets he has been getting.)
  • NO: The yolks of flamingo eggs are not pink. (Seriously?)
    • Yes, this is too perfect — and it also underscores two important news literacy lessons:
      1. Changing the color of objects in digital images is an easy and common manipulation.
      2. Such alluring but inaccurate claims are often circulated by viral “amazing facts” accounts.
  • YES: Sen. John McCain switched a protective boot he had been wearing on his right foot to his left foot. NO: This is not evidence that the Arizona Republican is faking his injury (or his recent cancer diagnosis, for that matter) — nor does it indicate his involvement in a criminal conspiracy (and a need to hide an ankle monitor). McCain tore his right Achilles tendon several weeks ago, and — as he later explained on Twitter — he simply moved the walking boot from his right foot to his left to give his left leg “a break” because it had been “doing extra work to compensate for the boot” on the right.
  • YES: Jake Tapper, then a writer for Washington City Paper and now CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, went on a date with onetime White House intern Monica Lewinsky in December 1997, several weeks before the news broke about her relationship with President Bill Clinton. NO: This isn’t a revelation or a scandal (though former Love Connection host Chuck Woolery, now a conservative activist, apparently thinks so). In fact, Tapper wrote an article in defense of Lewinsky in January 1998, shortly after her involvement with Clinton became headline news.
Keeping lawmakers accountable

The investigative news site ProPublica is offering new insights into the policy priorities of members of Congress, thanks to a new feature in its legislative action database. Represent — which tracks data about members of the House and the Senate, the bills they consider and their voting records — now includes an algorithm that has dissected more than 86,000 press releases to reveal what lawmakers have said about bills they have considered or are about to vote on; it even includes what they have said about issues not yet reflected in any legislation.

This makes Represent a more powerful teaching tool for government and civics teachers, and it provides an opportunity to help students understand how their lawmakers release information to the media.

  • Idea: Have students use the new Policy Priorities data — located in the Statements section of the Represent site — to find statements by their representatives and senators about a major issue. Then have them compare those statements to news coverage of that issue.
  • Discuss: What is a press release? Why do legislators make public statements? Do their statements accurately reflect their priorities? If lawmakers release their own statements through press releases and on social media, why do we need journalists?
  • Act: If students find that an issue they care about is missing from a local representative’s record on Represent, have them contact the representative to ask about his or her priorities on the issue — and to encourage the lawmaker to pay more attention to it.

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Editor's note:

In last week’s issue of The Sift, a hyperlink was inadvertently removed from one of the suggestions under “Exploiting history for clicks” — an item about social media accounts that manipulate images of historical figures or leave out information that puts the images in context. The Act suggestion was to have students research viral image accounts on Twitter and contribute their findings to a live shared list — but the link to the shared spreadsheet was missing. Apologies for the omission.

In this section, NLP's director of education, John Silva, NBCT, offers his suggestions for connecting news literacy with civic engagement and action.

@MrSilva Suggests will return Dec. 4

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 @TheNewsLP 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 entire 2017-18 school year. Yes, it’s free.
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