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


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Big week for Big Tech | False rally photo | 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.

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.


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!”


★ NewsLit 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.


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).


Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of Get Smart About News 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).

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