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The most essential question to ask of viral online content is also frequently one of the most difficult to answer: Where did this come from?
While this question isn’t new — after all, purveyors of misinformation have always “adapted their workflows to the latest medium” — it has been elevated by an information ecosystem optimized for anonymity, alteration, fabrication and sharing.
It’s a perfect storm, the authors of a new report argue, for “source hacking”: organized information influence campaigns that exploit “technological and cultural vulnerabilities” to strategically amplify — and obscure the provenance of — false information. The paper provides new vocabulary for common tactics employed by bad actors online: viral sloganeering (packaging and pushing claims and talking points); leak forgery (fabricating and “leaking” false documentation); evidence collages (selectively bundling information and examples from multiple sources); and keyword squatting (using sockpuppet impersonation accounts and flooding or “brigading” comments, keywords and hashtags to misrepresent issues, individuals or groups).
Used in combination, these tactics make it difficult to determine the origins of pieces of coordinated misinformation. Disguising the content’s creators and their intent helps false claims get amplified to large audiences by social media influencers and by news outlets debunking or otherwise covering the campaign. But this new vocabulary can help the public move beyond opaque and less useful terms — like “trolling” — to accurately describe and better understand coordinated disinformation efforts online.
Also note: The U.S. Department of Defense announced last week that disinformation is a significant enough threat to U.S. security that it is launching an initiative to repel “large-scale, automated…attacks.”
Discuss: Can breaking down and naming the techniques used by disinformation agents online help people better avoid being exploited by mis- and disinformation? Will knowing these four techniques help you?
NO: Disney World in Orlando, Florida, did not remove the spires from Cinderella's Castle in preparation for Hurricane Dorian. NO: These spires were not designed to be removed for major storms. YES: This rumor has circulated numerous times in connection with previous storms.
NO: A photographer from The Weather Channel did not capture a photo of a dolphin suspended in Dorian’s winds. YES: This satirical claim has gone viral during other hurricanes.
Idea: Ask students to complete a survey of hurricane-related misinformation, then document any patterns they see.
Act: Have students create an infographic or list that can be shared online before future storms to help warn people away from hurricane-related misinformation.
NO: Al Gore did not claim that Hurricane Dorian was caused by the climate change policies of President Donald Trump. NO: Trump did not tweet that “millions would’ve died” in Florida during Hurricane Dorian if “low IQ Andrew Gillum had won” the 2018 gubernatorial election. YES: Trump has claimed that a number of critics and political adversaries have low IQs. NO: Hillary Clinton did not use the threat of Hurricane Dorian to make an appeal on Twitter for donations to the Clinton Foundation. YES: An image of a fake Clinton tweet making such an appeal circulated last week. NO: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), who has made climate change one of her signature issues in the U.S. House, did not post a tweet saying that people are better off with electric cars during hurricanes in case “the power is out for a week.” YES: An image of a fake tweet making this claim circulated last week.
Note: Associating political figures with events that are getting a lot of public attention is a common misinformation strategy.
Idea: Challenge teams of students to come up with a plan to inoculate their friends and family against the most common hurricane-related hoaxes and rumors.
Five to teach
A report commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford found that traditional news media are no longer as relevant or as dominant as sources of news among people aged 18 to 35 in the United States and United Kingdom. Young consumers view news as not only what one should know, but also what is useful, interesting and fun to know, according to the report. They also have a more individualistic conception of news, focusing on what it can do for them rather than for society as a whole, the report said.
Discuss:How has the news ecosystem changed over the last several decades? Do you intentionally seek out news on a regular basis, or do you simply encounter it incidentally? How would your life change if news was not available to you? How would our society change without daily coverage of the news?
Facebook said on Wednesday that it is beginning to introduce methods, such as pop-up messages, that will lead users looking for vaccine information to the latest facts from the World Health Organization. They are also being rolled out to Instagram, which Facebook owns. Misinformation that questions the safety of vaccines remains a pervasive problem on social media.
Discuss: Do you think social media platforms should treat medical misinformation more seriously than other types? What kinds of posts about vaccines should and shouldn’t be allowed?
Idea: Have students, in groups, evaluate how social media platforms handle medical misinformation. Then compare their findings and create a set of recommendations as a class.
A survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that female and gender non-conforming journalists bear the brunt of harassment related to their work. In findings released Wednesday, survey respondents said they experienced threats of violence from trolls, readers, listeners, viewers, and the public, and they identified online harassment as the biggest perpetrator. CPJ surveyed 115 U.S. and Canadian journalists whose experience ranged from several months to nearly four decades.
Discuss: Do journalists face more harassment online than other people? Why do female journalists experience more harassment than males? Does the harassment of journalists have an impact on news coverage? On newsroom gender diversity?
Idea: Send local journalists the questions asked in the CPJ survey, then compare the results. Invite one or more local journalists to your classroom to discuss the findings and their experiences regarding harassment.
Discuss: Are the news outlets covering climate change more prominently protecting the public interest? Why or why not? How prominently and regularly should the subject of climate change be covered? Does a commitment to in-depth coverage of climate change indicate that the journalists and/or outlets involved are politically biased? Should news outlets take steps to avoid the appearance of bias about climate change?
Idea: Allow students to review opinions expressing partisan viewpoints about climate change coverage, then pretend to be news editors meeting to decide how to cover the topic and how much time and space to dedicate to it.
Native advertising uses a newsroom's credibility and authority to enhance the value of an ad, according to a new guide to this type of branded content released Friday by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Native advertising is content paid for by an advertiser that is designed to resemble a news story. This practice emerged as readership of news organizations' print editions was shrinking and targeted digital advertising was on the rise. Targeted online ads have decimated the demand for — and revenue from — traditional ads in print publications. While quality news outlets enforce a strict firewall between staff who create branded content and journalists in the newsroom, and use a variety of methods to label ads for their audiences, this content could still deceive readers and may erode trust, according to the report.
Discuss: Does native advertising from a news organization affect how much you trust that outlet to provide fair, accurate reporting? Are native ads deceptive by nature, or are they a smarter, more relevant form of advertising?
Idea: Have students review the way branded content is labeled at a variety of news outlets and ask them to decide which is most effective and why? Then ask them to pretend they are editors at a news outlet tasked with creating a branded content labelling policy. What would it include and why?