The Sift: Source hacking explained | Viral rumor rundown | Facebook vs. anti-vax

  News Literacy Project

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.


Take, for example, the false rumor spread in the wake of a shooting spree in two West Texas towns on Aug. 31. When police identified the gunman the day after the shooting, a false claim quickly spread online (viral sloganeering) that he was a supporter of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. At one point, this claim comprised more than 13% of all tweets about shooter (keyword squatting). Doctored images of the shooter’s truck with an O’Rourke campaign bumper sticker emerged, as did screenshots of fake online profiles (WARNING: linked page includes examples of hate speech) listing false information about the shooter’s political affiliations and ethnicity (leak forgery). These claims were then combined (evidence collage) and spread.

NO: This photo does not show devastation in the Bahamas as a result of Hurricane Dorian. YES: It is an aerial photo of Mexico Beach, Florida, after Hurricane Michael in October 2018.
FALSE | Rich is mixed with Plastic bits to increase manufacturer profilt!

NO: This photo is not of Hurricane Dorian approaching the Florida coast. YES: It is a piece of digital art by Brent Shavnore that combines an image of a 2016 supercell storm in Kansas with a stock image of Miami Beach. YES: The image was later animated by another digital artist

FALSE | Rich is mixed with Plastic bits to increase manufacturer profilt!
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. 
FALSE | Rich is mixed with Plastic bits to increase manufacturer profilt!
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.
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.
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. 
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. 
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.
Devoting an unprecedented amount of airtime to climate change, CNN on Wednesday hosted a seven-hour town hall with Democratic presidential candidates on the “Climate Crisis.” As scores of media outlets around the world commit to beefing up climate coverage in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit Sept. 23, reaction to CNN’s programming was mixed along partisan lines. Some viewers, including climate activists, were glad to see the commitment to covering one of the most pressing topics today, while others — especially those who remain skeptical about climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence — saw it as an indication of the decline of objectivity in journalism.
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.  
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
You’ll find teachable moments from our previous issues in the archives. Send your suggestions and success stories to [email protected].
Sign up to receive NLP Connections (news about our work) and Get Smart About News (news literacy tips).