The Sift: Big week for Big Tech | False rally photo walkthrough | Doomscrolling woes

 

Teach news literacy this week
Big week for Big Tech | False rally photo walk-through | Doomscrolling woes

 

Big week for Big Tech

As the U.S. presidential election draws near, social media companies are taking action against falsehoods and questionable content posted on their platforms, sparking fresh controversy on the timing and scope of such efforts.

YouTube announced on Oct. 15 that it is banning QAnon and other “harmful conspiracy theories” that target individuals. The decision follows similar recent efforts by Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to curb content related to QAnon, a sprawling system of conspiratorial beliefs.

Other social media decisions restricting content also made headlines in rapid succession. On Oct. 12, Facebook cracked down on “any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust” — a reversal of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s previous stance that the platform should allow for a wide range of free speech. A day after the Holocaust announcement, the company banned ads that discourage vaccine use. Both decisions unfolded less than a week after the company said it would temporarily stop running political ads once polls close on Nov. 3.

Twitter and Facebook also each took steps to slow the spread of a widely disputed Oct. 14 report by the New York Post, which included unverified claims based on purportedly hacked materials involving Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Twitter prevented users from sharing certain links and related images. (Amid pushback, the company soon reversed course and said it was changing its hacked-material policy.) Meanwhile, Facebook opted to reduce the reach of the Post piece while the company’s third-party fact-checkers reviewed it.

Note: There’s growing concern that online falsehoods could foment real-world violence around the election.
Also note: Despite a steady stream of content moderation efforts by Facebook in recent years, engagement with misinformation on the platform is higher today than before the 2016 election, according to a new study.
Related:
Discuss: Do you agree with the steps that social media companies have taken recently to prevent the spread of misinformation? Is banning Holocaust denial, QAnon content, anti-vaccination ads or post-election political ads censorship or responsible moderation? If you were the CEO of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or another major platform, how would you respond to misinformation on your platform?

Viral rumor rundown

NO: This aerial photo does not show crowds at a rally for President Donald Trump in Ocala, Florida. YES: The photo shows a crowd of more than 1 million people at the 2018 Street Parade music festival in Zurich, Switzerland. YES: More than 5,000 people attended a rally for Trump at the Ocala International Airport on Friday, Oct. 16.

Note: This isn’t the first time this photo has gone viral in a false context. In August it circulated online along with the false claim that it showed crowds protesting against COVID-19 restrictions in Berlin. There was such a protest in Berlin on Aug. 1, but the crowd was not nearly as large.

Tip: Be wary of aerial photos showing crowds from user-generated sources of information (especially anonymous people or strangers online). Viral rumors often present images of large crowds in false contexts to try to exaggerate support for a given position.

★ Featured rumor resource: Use these classroom-ready slides to turn this viral rumor into an engaging, fact-checking challenge with your students.

 
 
 

YES: President Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump did say his father “literally saved Christianity” in an Oct. 2 radio interview (advance to 23:18 in the recording). NO: He did not say “It was illegal to even say Merry Christmas and now you can say it year round, anywhere you want. I hear it everyday.” NO: This interview was not with Fox News Radio. YES: It was on What’s On Your Mind?, a conservative talk show broadcast on four local radio stations in the U.S. northern Plains and several Canadian provinces.

Note: Memes are not reliable sources of information, especially those posted by partisan Facebook pages like “Stop the World, the Deplorables Want Off” (whose subtle watermark is on this meme under the attribution).

Also note: Memes that attribute a claim to a source are not inherently more credible than those that don’t, especially memes that don’t include specific information. In this example, a false source (Fox News Radio) is used to try to trick people into thinking it’s accurate and no date is provided.

 
 
 

NO: If a poll worker were, for some reason, to write on a ballot, it does not invalidate that ballot. NO: Poll workers generally do not write on ballots except, in some states, to verify the ballot’s authenticity with a signature or stamp. YES: Several iterations of this copy-and-paste rumor recently went viral on Facebook, gaining traction with voters outside South Carolina, where the claim appears to have originated.

Note: These kinds of rumors in which blocks of text are copied and pasted — sometimes with slight alterations — are called “copypasta” in internet parlance.

Also note: Aside from lacking evidence for this claim, the version of this rumor shown above contains two additional red flags: It attributes the shared text to “a very reliable good friend” who is unnamed, and encourages people to “PLEASE PLEASE PASS THIS ON!”

 
 
 

NO: Musician and independent presidential candidate Kanye West did not get 40,000 votes for president on Oct. 13, the first day of early voting in Kentucky. YES: A screenshot of a cached webpage from LEX 18, a local NBC affiliate in Lexington, containing randomly generated testing data from the Associated Press, went viral on Oct. 13. NO: These results do not reflect actual votes. YES: West appears on the ballot in Kentucky and a number of other states this year as a candidate for president. YES: West tweeted about the simulated results, and appeared to celebrate them in a video after the screenshot went viral.

Tip: Be wary of screenshots shared on social media without any links to credible sources.

Idea: Use this as an opportunity to teach what cached and archived webpages are, and how to access them.

 
 
 

NO: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden did not kneel during the national anthem at a campaign event in Miami on Oct. 5. YES: Biden knelt while posing for a photo (and maintaining social distance) with a dance troupe that had performed at the event. NO: The national anthem was not playing at the time the photo was taken.

Related: “Out-of-context photos are a powerful low-tech form of misinformation” (Lisa Fazio, The Conversation).

 

News Goggles

Recognizing the difference between news and opinion is a core news literacy skill. Straight news coverage primarily seeks to be as fair, accurate and impartial as possible, while opinion writing generally shares a specific point of view. This week, we want to keep these distinctions in mind as we examine the ongoing debate over The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning 1619 Project, which marks the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America.

The project, first published in August 2019, attracted renewed attention recently after a New York Times opinion column criticizing the project appeared online on Oct. 9. Grab your news goggles and let’s examine short excerpts from four different pieces related to the 1619 Project — including an excerpt from the project itself — to determine whether these examples are news or opinion.

★ Featured News Goggles resources: Download our full annotations in Microsoft Word or as a PDF. Also, these classroom-ready slides offer a guided activity on this week’s topic.

 

★ Sift Picks

Suzannah: “The news is driving you mad. And that’s why you can’t stop devouring it.” (Elahe Izadi, The Washington Post).

These days, keeping up with the news is … well, a lot. If you need affirmation that you are not alone in feeling overwhelmed and/or experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out when you’re not constantly checking for the latest developments) over the current news cycle, this story is for you. My favorite tip comes from Quartz reporter Karen Ho (a.k.a. “Doomscrolling Reminder Lady” on Twitter), who “reminds her followers every night that it’s okay to put their phones down and go to bed.”

Note: Doomscrolling is when you spend a lot of screen time reading news that is upsetting to you.

Discuss: How is the current news cycle affecting you? If adversely, what steps can you take to prevent getting overwhelmed or anxious?

Idea: Test the effects of doomscrolling by asking students to voluntarily join one of three groups for a set amount of time. Group One will make no changes to its media habits. Group Two will follow Ho’s advice and reduce its doomscrolling (perhaps by limiting news consumption to watching the evening news for 30 minutes each night). And Group Three will increase its online news consumption by having members intentionally check their feeds as often as possible. Students could keep a journal throughout the experience, or share their experiences afterward.

 
 
 

Peter: “‘It’s been really, really bad’: How Hispanic voters are being targeted by disinformation” (Tate Ryan-Mosley, MIT Technology Review).

In an election year, the disparate impact of misinformation on specific groups of people can sometimes get lost in the flood of fact-checks and coverage about social media platforms’ actions against coordinated disinformation campaigns. But racially targeted disinformation is an important reality. It has major implications for fact-checking initiatives and platforms’ content moderation. As this piece highlights, Latinos in swing states are being targeted by sophisticated, well-funded political messaging campaigns pushing misinformation, but falsehoods in Spanish often go unchecked by English-language fact-checking organizations and get missed by platforms’ warning labels.

Note: An Oct. 16 report from April Glaser at NBC News details disinformation campaigns engaging in “voter depression” efforts — attempts to make voting seem pointless — aimed at young Black voters.

Related: “Fake Twitter accounts posing as Black Trump supporters appear, reach thousands, then vanish” (Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker, The Washington Post).

 
 
 

Hannah: “Opinion: Can The NPR Approach To News Survive 2020?” (Kelly McBride, NPR).

As the public editor of NPR, Kelly McBride fields feedback from the news organization’s audience, including growing complaints over NPR’s approach to covering national politics. Some celebrate NPR as a “sane alterative to partisan shouting,” while others, McBride writes, feel “driven to distraction by the lack of outrage” in recent political coverage. McBride unpacks some of the tough choices journalists face over story framing and tone, for example — and drives home the high stakes for newsrooms to “ensure that every story hits the mark.”

Related: “Recommendations for Media Covering the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election” (Election Coverage and Democracy Network).

Idea: Have students compare some of NPR’s coverage on President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis (here and here) with select NPR reports on the first presidential debate (here and here). Consider headlines, tone, framing and any context provided. How might journalists’ efforts to be even-handed sometimes stray into false balance (“bothsidesism”) or false equivalence? Do students agree or disagree with McBride’s assessment, which praised the “clarity and precision” of NPR’s coverage on the president’s diagnosis and medical care in particular? Consider sharing students’ feedback with McBride using this form.

Resources: “Understanding Bias” and “Arguments & Evidence” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

What else did we find this week? Here's our list.

 

Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Suzannah Gonzales and Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) of the News Literacy Project. It is edited by NLP’s Mary Kane (@marykkane).

You’ll find teachable moments from our previous issues in the archives. Send your suggestions and success stories to thesift@newslit.org.

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Check out NLP's Checkology virtual classroom, where students learn how to navigate today’s information landscape by developing news literacy skills.