The Sift: NYT and Kavanaugh | Ukrainian Facebook network | How ads support disinformation

  News Literacy Project

On Sept. 14, The New York Times published an essay by two of its reporters, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, that was based on their new book, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation. The Times’ opinion section — which is responsible for the Sunday Review section, where the essay appeared — also posted a tweet promoting the piece. Both the tweet and the essay sparked a firestorm of outrage and criticism across the political spectrum and exposed a series of flawed editorial decisions and blunders. 


Within minutes after the tweet was posted, @nytopinion deleted it, calling it “poorly phrased.” (It asked whether exposing male genitalia in someone’s face might be considered “harmless fun.”) Soon thereafter, the second tweet also was deleted. Later that evening, @nytopinion described the original tweet as “offensive” and apologized. On Sept. 17, Pogrebin admitted to writing the tweet and said it was “misworded.”


The essay also included a new allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh when he was in college. Some readers were perplexed that the Times hadn’t made this new allegation the focus of the piece. Then it came to light that two important facts that are included in the book had been omitted in the essay: that the female student did not recall the incident, according to friends, and that she had declined to be interviewed. The Times later added those details to the essay, along with an Editors’ Note. 


Kelly and Pogrebin told MSNBC that there was no intention to mislead anyone, and that the omission occurred while the essay was being edited. The book identifies the female student by name; the Times typically does not identify victims in such cases. “In removing her name, they removed the other reference to the fact that she didn’t remember,” Pogrebin said of her editors during an appearance on The View.


One conservative publication contended that the Times was admitting to publishing “fake news” by adding the Editors’ Note and the omitted details, while other outlets called the update a “correction.” 


The new allegation did lead several Democrats running for their party’s presidential nomination to call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment — a development that the Times did cover

NO: This photo does not show trash left behind by “climate strike” activists. YES: It shows trash left in London’s Hyde Park on April 20 after an event supporting the use of marijuana.

NO: This is not a photo of people outside Area 51, the classified Air Force facility in Nevada, during a “raid” on Sept. 20. YES: It is a photo of people attending a religious revival in South Africa in 2014.

Click the image to view a larger version.

NO: President Donald Trump did not say this during a phone interview on Fox News’ morning show, Fox and Friends:


“The Democrats can subpoena me and my administration for the next 10, 15, 20 years and we will never capitulate. They need to face the fact that I am in charge, this is my country and I will do as I please, they have no control over me. The people support me and will always support me.”


NO: The chyron “President Trump goes ballistic on Fox and Friends” did not actually appear on the show. YES: A video still of a Fox and Friends phone interview with Trump on April 25 was manipulated to add this false quote and chyron.




NO: This is not an old photo of Democratic presidential contender Beto O’Rourke with wet pants after drinking too much at a party in college. YES: It’s a photo of the indie rock musician (Sandy) Alex G after spilling a drink on himself at a June 2017 event. 
NO: A “Somali mob” did not attack a man in Minneapolis last month. YES: A man was assaulted and robbed by a group of young men (WARNING: violent video footage embedded) outside Target Field in Minneapolis on Aug. 3. NO: None of the suspects (who were arrested) is Somali, according to the Minneapolis Police Department. YES: The Daily Caller posted a video on YouTube and on its Facebook page falsely claiming that the group was a “Somali mob.” 

Automated digital ad brokers are channeling hundreds of millions of dollars to websites that publish disinformation, according a new report (PDF) from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a U.K.-based nonprofit that describes itself as operating “on the three principles of neutrality, independence and transparency.” The report estimated that programmatic advertising — automated ad auctions and placements on websites — generated at least $235 million (U.S.) for 20,000 “disinforming domains” such as, and the Russian state-run “news” sites and Programmatic ads are frequently the primary source of revenue for such sites, and are placed by third-party ad exchanges such as Google, Taboola and Revcontent. Brands whose ads are placed by these exchanges are often unaware of the websites that their ads end up supporting.

Note: Programmatic ad exchanges currently filter out websites that clients are likely to find offensive and damaging to their brands. The report’s findings urge companies running these exchanges to include disinformation websites in these lists, thus cutting off ad revenue.

A network of Facebook pages that have built up large audiences by sharing memes celebrating U.S. patriotism — but are managed primarily by people in Ukraine — have recently begun pushing propaganda supporting President Trump, according to a report in Popular Information, a newsletter written by Judd Legum, the founder and former editor of ThinkProgress. The network’s largest page, “I Love America,” has 1.1 million fans and more overall engagement on Facebook than USA Today, which has 8 million followers. It has repeatedly posted memes that had previously been posted to pages run by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), which worked to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Ukrainian network includes pages dedicated to other topics (“Cute or Not?” shares cute puppy memes, for example, and “I Love Jesus Forever” offers religious memes); these pages also cross-post partisan content from the other pages in the network. The network does not appear to be run or supported by any government.


AI-generated stock photography has arrived. One company, Icons8, is offering 100,000 headshot images generated with artificial intelligence at no cost, The Verge reported. The headshots are free to use as long as “” is credited (and linked). The images offer a range of advantages — including consistent lighting and sizing; a range of ethnicities, ages and facial expressions; and a lack of copyright requirements and royalties — but critics are concerned about the possible misuses of such technology, such as fake social media profile pictures that are difficult to trace. 


A New York Times analysis of a large network of “sockpuppet” accounts run by the Chinese government found that some consistently advanced Chinese government interests, while others suddenly switched from tweeting about non-political topics — often in other languages — to tweeting about politics in Hong Kong and China. These tweets mostly originated from inside China, where Twitter and other non-Chinese social media platforms are blocked. Over 200,000 accounts were banned by Twitter last month — followed by 4,300 more last Friday — for engaging in a coordinated campaign to “sow discord about the protest movements in Hong Kong.”


Instagram has begun restricting who can see posts that promote weight loss products and cosmetic procedures. The Facebook-owned platform announced Wednesday that posts giving a price or offering incentives to buy such products — which are often mentioned by celebrity influencers, such as the Kardashian sisters — will be hidden from users under 18, and those that make “a miraculous claim” about specific weight loss products and provide a discount code will be removed. Instagram is also introducing tools that will enable users to flag posts that they believe violate this new policy. .  

Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
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