An ongoing blockbuster investigative series by The Wall Street Journal called “The Facebook Files” shows how the company internally acknowledges problems that it publicly denies or downplays — and is hesitant to address. Based on internal Facebook documents, the series exposes a program at the company that gives prominent, influential users broad latitude or exemption from its rules. It also shows that Facebook has substantial internal research showing that Instagram (which it owns) causes teens — and especially teen girls — to feel worse about themselves, and increases anxiety, depression and harmful behaviors. The investigation also explores the way a 2018 algorithm change rewarded polarizing content, prompting publishers and even political parties to tailor their content for outrage, and how the company failed to rein in criminal activity and widespread anti-vaccine rhetoric.
Idea: Use this column by Filippo Menczer, a computer scientist and professor at Indiana University, to spark a discussion among students about Facebook’s efforts to reduce political content on its platform and how social media algorithms often prioritize content that gets re-shares, reactions and comments. What kinds of posts tend to become most prominent? Why? What are the effects of this?
Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to guide students through a close reading of Menczer’s argument, including how cognitive biases like the “bandwagon effect” and “popularity bias” can reduce the quality of information shared on social platforms and fuel polarization and anger.
A new report from New York University finds that although social media platforms are not the primary cause of growing political polarization in the United States, they do intensify and exacerbate these divides — with dangerous consequences. The report also outlines recommendations for reducing social media’s role in stoking polarization, including government intervention and social media companies modifying their algorithms to “depolarize platforms.”
Discuss: The report notes, “Democracy entails disagreement.” But what separates democratic disagreement from the kind of hostility and “partisan hatred” spotlighted in the report? How does social media contribute to partisan divisiveness? How might online polarization erode trust in democracy and fuel real-world violence, including the Jan. 6 insurrection?
Idea: As a class, brainstorm ground rules for respectful discussions and civic discourse. Help students reflect on ways they can disagree about controversial topics without heightening polarization. Then, share their ideas with the community in some way (by making an infographic as a class project, for example).
Research into the effectiveness of fact-checking is often focused on “WEIRD” — Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic — countries, raising questions about whether debunking false claims works in more global contexts. A new study finds it does.
Discuss: Why do you think some people attack and dismiss fact-checks, even when they provide strong, irrefutable evidence about a false claim? Do you think fact-checking has a greater impact on some people than they would admit? How can you share or draw attention to fact-checkers’ work to help debunk misinformation online?
Viral rumor rundown
No, an anti-vax protester didn’t create a sign saying he knows more than “the scietists”
NO: This man is not an anti-vaccine protester. NO: The sign he is holding doesn’t contain a sincere message. YES: He is a counter-protester who created the sign — which includes “I demand my right to be ignarant [sic] & selfish” on the other side — to satirically oppose an anti-vaccine demonstration outside of a Toronto hospital on Sept. 13.
NewsLit takeaway: Satire is notoriously difficult to recognize online. In fact, as this TruthorFiction.com fact-check about the “scietists” counter-protester points out, it’s an example of an internet axiom called Poe’s Law which holds that “a parody of something extreme can be mistaken for the real thing, and if a real thing sounds extreme enough, it can be mistaken for a parody.” Also, while this sign is authentic, it’s good to keep in mind that protest signs are easy targets for photo manipulation that misrepresents a group or cause.
Discuss: How is satire spread out of context online? How do trolls and purveyors of disinformation use disingenuous claims of satire as a tactic to deflect responsibility for what they post?
A 2015 Nobel Prize doesn’t mean ivermectin is effective to treat COVID-19
NO: Ivermectin itself didn’t win a Nobel Prize in 2015. YES: Two researchers who in the late 1970s discovered that avermectin, a precursor to ivermectin, was effective in treating diseases caused by parasites, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015. NO: This is not evidence that ivermectin is effective in treating COVID-19. YES: Clinical trials for ivermectin are ongoing to evaluate its efficacy against COVID-19 after some small, observational studies suggested it might be. NO: Available data does not show that ivermectin is effective against COVID-19, and the FDA is urging people not to use it for this purpose.
NewsLit takeaway: It can be easy to get swept up in partisan rhetoric online and mistake something that feels substantive as evidence for an unrelated claim. Cut through the emotion and misleading hyperbole surrounding the debate over ivermectin by monitoring its progress through clinical trials, talking with your doctor and awaiting word from health authorities like the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Actor Chris Evans didn’t wear a “Keep America Trumpless” t-shirt
NO: The actor Chris Evans did not wear a shirt that says “Keep America Trumpless.” YES: This is a doctored photo with text on Evans’ shirt that was changed. YES: Fan accounts on Instagram and Twitter shared the authentic photo, which shows that the design on Evans’ t-shirt was actually the emblem from the Oregon state flag. YES: Evans has beenpubliclycritical of former President Donald Trump in the past.
The original photo shows that Evans was wearing a “State of Oregon” shirt.
NewsLit takeaway: Printed messages, including those on t-shirts, are easy to doctor and should always be verified before being shared. As Dan Evon points out in his fact-check of this photo for Snopes, doctored t-shirt rumors featuring celebrities are common — and sometimes feature shirts for sale online, which underscores one possible motivation for their creation and circulation.
Discuss: Why might partisans and other people with ideological agendas want to put specific messages on celebrities’ shirts? Could this kind of misinformation be harmful? Why or why not?