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Monday, May 14, 2018
AI's upside/downside

The increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) is both exciting and troubling. There is tension between the possibilities of convenience and efficiency (augmenting human activities) and ethical concerns, such as privacy and consent. The trick, it seems, is balancing the enthusiasm for new technologies with the right amount of deliberation about who benefits most — along with consideration of longer-term consequences, such as how these technologies might be misused.

Some events last week illuminated the complex upside/downside of AI’s progress:

A still of the demonstration video for Google Duplex, a new virtual assistant. Click the image to view the demo.

Google Duplex: Though Google’s new Android P mobile operating system is full of changes driven by AI — including a new Google News algorithm that makes a number of judgments (including about the credibility of news reports and about a user’s likely level of interest in them) — the announcement and demonstration of a virtual assistant called Google Duplex making a hair appointment stole the show. It also sparked jokes — and significant concerns.
  • Discuss: Is it unethical to have an automated assistant call a business and interact with a human on your behalf? Is it unethical for such assistants to use fillers (such as “um” and “uh”) that make them sound more lifelike? Is it important for lifelike bots to disclose the fact that they are machines?
  • Idea: Have students show the Google Duplex demo video to friends and family, then document their reactions (by using a questionnaire, for example), then collect and create a visual to show the results.
  • Related: “No one knows how Google Duplex will work with eavesdropping laws” (Sarah Jeong, The Verge)
Facebook news feed tweaks: In January, Facebook announced that it would be changing its news feed algorithm to downgrade “public content” from businesses and brands and upgrade content from friends and groups. The move caused significant concern that quality news sources might be downgraded and experience large drops in traffic.

A recent analysis suggests that whatever changes Facebook has made since January don’t appear to be hurting mainstream news outlets, but do appear to be dropping the traffic and interaction of highly partisan, less reliable publishers, like Gateway Pundit.

  • Note: The changes to Facebook’s news feed have also sparked accusations of partisan bias from both conservatives and progressives.
  • Related: Facebook recently added — and quickly removed — a new “Page History” feature that allowed users to see more information about organization pages on the platform, such as when they were created, how many administrators they have and where those people are based. Facebook says it was an early (and temporary) test for users in Canada and Ireland. Reporters at BuzzFeed News, which has a significant presence in Canada, managed to capture information about a number of partisan pages before the feature disappeared.
Predictive suggestions still problematic: Jonathan Albright, the research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, has again captured and shared objectionable search suggestions — this time on YouTube:
  • Note: This topic was covered in more detail in the March 5 issue of The Sift.
  • Act: Challenge your students to join Albright — and others in the above thread — in documenting questionable predictive search suggestions and sharing them publicly.
Three minutes.

Five questions.

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Viral rumor rundown

NO: Pope Francis did not say that gun owners “can’t call themselves Christian.” NO:  Pope Francis did not criticize people who support the Second Amendment. YES: At a rally in 2015, Pope Francis said that when people who manufacture weapons “call themselves Christian,” it “leads to a bit of distrust.”

NO: A man and his son were not attacked for drinking alcohol in front of a halal restaurant (which follows Islamic dietary practices, including no alcohol) in Antwerp, Belgium. YES: A man and his son brought and were drinking their own alcohol in the outdoor seating area of a kebab restaurant that does not serve alcohol and responded violently when confronted.

  • Note: This highlights the way that spin often treats details selectively and misrepresents context to support an ideology or worldview.
  • Also note: Authentic video of this event that circulated along with this false claim seemed to support the false claim because it did not include the missing context.
NO: Martin Luther King Jr. did not lead a “kneeling protest” in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. YES: King led a prayer in Selma after a group of protesters were arrested there during a march to the Dallas County, Alabama, courthouse. YES: This iconic image has been compared to NFL players’ protests during the national anthem.
  • Note: This is an example of an “engagement-bait” account that uses images that have been altered or taken out of context to build up a large social media following.
NO: The “ad” above is not real. YES: It’s a parody of vintage ads that reflect dramatic shifts in cultural sensibilities.
  • Discuss: How many of you have seen this “ad”? Does it matter whether people believe this is real? Why or why not? Is it worth correcting this false ad when you see it presented online as authentic? Why or why not?


Russians target race

Last Thursday, the Democratic members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released over 3,500 ads that were placed on Facebook and Instagram by Russian operatives between June 2015 and August 2017. More than half of the ads made explicit references to race in ways that sought to deepen racial tensions in the United States. A third of the ads, including some that did not directly refer to race, invoked the issues of crime or policing (25 percent) and immigration (8 percent).

Some ads carried messages designed to suppress voting in communities of color, while others sought to exploit and foster a distrust of news media.

Two of the more than 3,500 posts that were created and placed as paid ads on Facebook and Instagram by Russian operatives between June 2015 and August 2017.

The ad data released also provide insights into how Russia used Facebook’s Ad Manager audience tools, along with mining the Facebook Page followers of other ideological pages, to target specific groups of users with messages. For example, it created a fake Facebook Page called “Back the Badge” and then paid 110,058 rubles (about $1,785) to promote it to Facebook users who had showed support for police.

An ad promoting a Russian propaganda Facebook Page called “Back the Badge”
was the top performer of the 3,517 ads that were released. It reached 1.3 million users.

  • Note: Only 10 percent of the ads contained messages that were election-related, and only about 100 stated support for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
  • Also note: This series of graphics from USA Today might be useful in the classroom.
  • Idea: Ask groups of students to download one portion of the ads released by the Intelligence Committee Democrats (they are organized by year and quarter) and conduct an analysis. Then discuss as a class:
    • Discuss: What specific themes emerged in the posts you reviewed? What social issues were common? What did you think of the messages themselves? Were there any to which you had a strong reaction? Do you think you were exposed to any of these on Facebook or Instagram?
Quick hits
  • ESPN eliminated its public editor position last week, saying that social media now allows the public direct access to reporters and editors. The person who filled the role — known at other publications as the “ombudsman” or the “readers’ representative” — was meant to be a neutral, independent third party who would press reporters and editors for answers (and changes, if needed) in response to questions of fairness and accuracy. In an era of financial losses, it’s seen as an easy position to cut — but some critics contend that social media is no replacement.
    • Discuss: Do news organizations still need public editors, or can the public play that role by responding on social media?
  • In a white paper, the American Press Institute suggests that journalists can help readers become news-literate by presenting stories in a way that clarifies the methods used in the reporting. “Organic news fluency” involves journalists’ anticipating what a smart consumer of news wants to know about the reporting and highlighting it — for example, by using boxes or pop-ups that explain sourcing or describe what is still in dispute.
    • Idea: Ask students to find a recent local news story, then write down all of the questions they have about the story and the reporting. Narrow the list through group discussion and by checking the story again for answers, then contact the journalist on social media to try to get answers. (Note that the piece linked above provides guidance about how such questions might vary, depending on the nature of the report.)
    • Related: “Can ‘Extreme Transparency’ Fight Fake News and Create More Trust With Readers?” (Michael Blanding, Nieman Reports)
  • A story prompted by a question from a listener of Curious City (an investigative project of WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate) — whether public water fountains had been tested for lead — has, along with reporting by other outlets, led to an announcement by the Chicago Park District that it may need to shut off half the drinking fountains in public parks.
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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