Web Literacy For Student Fact-Checkers Wins MERLOT 2018 Classics Award

Just a short note to say thank you to MERLOT’s review committee on ICT Literacy which awarded Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers the 2018 MERLOT Classics award in that category this past Thursday.


It’s one of eight MERLOT Classics awards given out this year, with other awards in the areas of Biology, Teacher Education, Psychology, Sociology — and three other subjects I forget. (I’l update this when the awards are published to the MERLOT web site). Works are reviewed by a panel of experts in the subject, who determine what new OER resource in the subject deserves recognition.

It’s been a wild journey with this book. As I was telling faculty at SUNY Oneonta a few weeks ago, the book started out as a Google doc I worked on over Christmas 2016 (with Jon Udell and Catherine Yang providing some editing help). It was originally meant to be a simple handout for the courses I was building but it kept growing, and by the end of Christmas break it was clear it had become a short textbook, and I shifted the name on January 1st to a broader target:



put it up on Hugh McGuire’s excellent Pressbooks site, which allows the generation of PDFs and ePubs from the book, as well as providing a book-like WordPress theme.


The LibGuides community picked it up, and started listing as a top resource on their information literacy pages:


Which led to weird moments, like finding out it was one of the suggested resources of Oxford’s Bodliean library (as well as Princeton’s, Tufts, etc.)


A host of other people promoted it as well, making up their own infographics, and even applying it across other domains.

I still get emails every week from people who just want to express gratitude for the text. Saying that it’s been a life saver, that it’s changed their teaching, or that it finally said what they had been feeling all these years but just couldn’t verbalize. High school teachers, librarians, college professors, parents. Taking the time to write a thank you note and asking for nothing.

It’s weird, because I’ve spent so much my life building software, writing blog posts, and being a generally digitally minded person, swimming in overtly digital forms. Yet my biggest impact on the world so far may end up being this little course-guide-turned-book.  There’s probably some deeper thinking to be done on that point later, but for the moment I’m going to push hard against the “No one’s life was ever changed by a textbook” rhetoric I sometimes hear, because I get emails from people every week who say just the opposite. And it’s probably time to start listening to that. 🙂

We Should Put Fact-Checking Tools In the Core Browser

Years ago when the web was young, Netscape (Google it, noobs!) decided on its metaphor for the browser: it was a “navigator”.


The logo and imagery borrowed heavily from the metaphor of navigation, really coming to the fore with the release of Navigator 2.0, but continuing — with some brief interruptions — late into its product life.

I’m not a sailor, but I always took the lines in the various logos to be a reference to the craft of navigating by star charts. Images of maps and lighthouses also made appearances. I know the name and the brand was likely the work of some ad exec, but I’ve always liked this idea — the browser was supposed to make uncharted waters navigable.  It wasn’t just a viewer, but an instrumented craft, guiding you through a sometimes confusing seascape.

So what happened? It’s a serious question. Early in the history of the browser various features were introduced that helped with navigation: bookmarks, bookmark organization, browsable history, omnibar search, URL autocomplete (which ended  up eroding bookmark use). Icons showing when a connection was secure. Malicious site blocking. But as the web developed, the main focus of the browser wars ended up being less the browser as a navigation device and more the browser as an application platform. The interaction designs and renderings browsers support still advance year over year but the browser as a piece of user-focused software stalled decades ago. Mobile use, with it’s thin, crippled UI, just compounded that trend. Extensions were proposed as a solution for extensibility, but the nature of them just served to further impoverish core development. (Hat tip to TS Waterman who has been exploring extension-based solutions to this stuff, but it needs to be in core).

I think it’s time for the browser to put navigation of the information environment back at the center of its mission. Here’s some simple things that could be offered through the interface:

Hover for the original photo source. One of the most useful tricks in Chrome and Firefox is the right-click search for photo, which allows users to find original versions of photos fairly quickly and see if they have been modified. It’s a clunky process but it works. A hover function over a photo that tuned search to find the original (and not just “related photos”) could bring this practice into broader use.

Site info: Browsers expose some site info, but it’s ridiculously limited. Here’s some site info that you could easily provide users: date domain first purchased, first crawl of URL by Google or archive.org, related Wikipedia article on organization (and please financially support Wikipedia if doing this), any IFCN or press certification. Journal impact factor. Date last updated. Even better: provide some subset of this info when hovering over links.

Likely original reporting source: For a news story that is being re-re-re-reported by a thousand clickbait artists, use network and content analysis to find what the likely original reporting source is and suggest people take a look at that.

Likely original research source: For a scientific finding that is being shipped all over the internet with a thousand explosive and absolutely wrong hot takes, surface what looks like the original journal source. If an article talks about many findings, produce the best possible list of sources referred to in the article by looking at links, quotes, and names of quoted experts.

Likely original data source: when you see a statistic, where’s it from? What’s the original context? What public stores of data are available?

OCR images, and do all this for images too: A lot of disinfo is now in the form of images.


OCR that text on the image, and make the same features available. What is the “Possible research source” of this? And if it tells me “Research source not found” is that a problem?

Related Sites: In what universe does this site reside? Alternet, Breitbart, or National Geographic? What links into this page, and do those links in confer authority or suggest bias?

There’s actually a lot more they could do as well. If you want, you can read the newly award-winning book Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, look at each verification process described, and ask “How could the browser make that easier?” Most of the things in there can be relatively easily automated.

Boost the Antibodies

I get that such features will often break, and sometimes expose wrong information about source. Basically, the Google snippets problem. And I get that most people won’t use these tools. But my model of how this impacts society is not that everyone makes use of these tools, but that the five percent of people who do create a herd immunity that helps protect others from the worst nonsense. We can’t make every cell invulnerable, but we can boost the antibodies that are already in the system.

It’s also true that his should be done at the social media platform level as well. And in apps. I’ll take it anywhere. But it seems to me that browser providers are in a unique position to set user expectations around capabilities, and provide an interface that can deal with misinformation across its life cycle. It could also push these tools into social platforms that have been reluctant to provide this sort of functionality, for fear of dampening “virality” and “engagement”.  Plus, the sort of users likely to fight disinfo already hover over links, look for SSL indicators, and use omnibar search. Giving them more tools to make their community better could have an outsized impact on the information environments we all inhabit. My work has shown me there are plenty of people out there that want to improve the information environment of the web. Isn’t it time we built a browser to help them do that?



False Positives and Fake News

I keep losing this information, so I thought I’d put it here on the blog. Some notes to thinking about disinfo in a different way. I realize this is a lot of stuff from everywhere and nothing is directly comparable. But some trends emerge.

First from Pew most people think they are good or pretty good at spotting fake news:


That’s partially because people tend to believe they are slightly above average at almost everything, but there you go.

From that same report (late 2016) many people tended to overestimate how often they saw fake news. A reasonable answer for most people would be sometimes given what we know about overall frequency. Again, maybe this is just a difference in definitions or psychological salience:


Ok, and then there’s this from Harvard’s IOP, on 18-29 year-olds, from March of 2017. I don’t like the term “fake news” here, because it could also trigger Trump identification and responses based on that (e.g. CNN shows up in feed, that’s fake news, right?). But fascinating, right? The average answer to what percentage is fake is about 50%! (h/t Joshua Benton for pointing me here):


Then there’s this from a Politico poll from October 2017.


Followed by this chilling result:


And this from September 2016:


Anyway, all this leads me wonder if most people who think they are very good at spotting fake news are actually generating a lot of false positives. Again, this isn’t meant to argue that point necessarily — just wanted to collect these charts in one place.

300+ Web Searches for Your Online Literacy Class

Sometimes in online media literacy we need a Google search that will turn up a mixture of high quality and low quality information for students to sort through. But it’s surprisingly hard to come up with a large array of unique queries on the spot.

I generated this list of questions to ask Google, Bing, or whatever from a combination of Buzzsumo results and Google autocomplete suggestions. Quality and complexity of results may vary, and what Google returns is ever-shifting. So please check the search results before assigning them to your students as mini research projects to make sure the difficulty is right for your purpose.

Here we go:

  1. Are “Hail Satan” license plates now available in Tennessee?
  2. Are Americans flocking to Mexico for dental care?
  3. Are President Trump’s vacations bankrupting the Secret Service?
  4. Are Tasmanian tigers extinct?
  5. Are baby boomers squeezing millennials out of the housing market?
  6. Are birth control pills in our water supply causing “transgender” fish?
  7. Are children of divorce more likely to fail exams?
  8. Are children of divorced parents more likely to divorce?
  9. Are children of divorced parents more likely to leave religion?
  10. Are children reading less?
  11. Are e-cigarettes as bad for people as smoking?
  12. Are earth temperatures cooler than when Al Gore won the Nobel Prize?
  13. Are illegal aliens in Canada complaining about a lack of free housing?
  14. Are learning styles real?
  15. Are men who marry “chubby” women happier?
  16. Are millennials finding it hard to transition into adulthood?
  17. Are more terrorists right wing or left wing?
  18. Are most convicted terrorists in the U.S. citizens?
  19. Are opioids killing more people than AIDS at its peak?
  20. Are people who are late more likely to live longer?
  21. Are people who are late more successful?
  22. Can a “raw diet” cure eczema?
  23. Can adding water to whisky increase its flavor?
  24. Can an algorithm be racist?
  25. Can an algorithm catch a serial killer?
  26. Can an algorithm predict risk of suicide with 92 percent accuracy?
  27. Can baking soda cure cancer?
  28. Can cannabis cure opioid addiction?
  29. Can celery prevent chronic inflammation?
  30. Can colloidal silver cure cancer?
  31. Can dandelion weed cure cancer?
  32. Can embracing your darkest emotions improve mental health?
  33. Can magnets be used to retrieve short and long term memories?
  34. Can magnets cure cancer?
  35. Can water bottles set things on fire?
  36. Could a recent sperm count drop make humans extinct?
  37. Does happiness reduce stress?
  38. Did 2,000 old seeds grow into an extinct biblical tree?
  39. Did 200 hundred protestors demand that New York City take down a statue of Teddy Roosevelt?
  40. Did Belgium ban halal butchers?
  41. Did Belgium ban the kosher slaughter of animals?
  42. Did Black Lives Matter activists interrupt a Montreal Pride parade?
  43. Did China buy Volvo?
  44. Did China buy Walmart?
  45. Did China hack the U.S. Seventh Fleet?
  46. Did Common Core kill music programs?
  47. Did Donald Trump pay actors to cheer during his announcement he would run for president?
  48. Did France ban plastic plates and cups?
  49. Did France ban the use of Gardasil?
  50. Did George Clooney donate millions to tear down Confederate statues?
  51. Did German schools ban pork to accommodate Muslim students?
  52. Did Harvard researchers find Exxon misled public on climate science?
  53. Did Hitler execute “fake news” journalists that were telling the truth?
  54. Did Idaho health premiums spike 81 percent?
  55. Did Illinois ban travelling elephant acts?
  56. Did Iran ban Zumba?
  57. Did John McCain approach Russia for a campaign contribution?
  58. Did Joy Ann Reid retweet a hoax about President Trump hiring black actors for a Phoenix rally?
  59. Did Millennials kill Applebee’s?
  60. Did NASA predict earth will experience 15 days of darkness in November 2017?
  61. Did Nancy Pelosi’s father dedicate confederate statues?
  62. Did Obama deport more people than any president before him?
  63. Did Obama pardon 1970s terrorist Elizabeth Anna Duke?
  64. Did Obama pardon a Puerto Rican domestic terrorist?
  65. Did Obama pardon a crack dealer who went on to brutally murder a family?
  66. Did Obama refuse to pardon and army officer who killed jihadists?
  67. Did Oberlin, Ohio replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day?
  68. Did President Trump eliminate a plastic bottle ban in National Parks?
  69. Did Putin ban fluoride in Russia?
  70. Did Robert E. Lee’s descendant denounce white supremacy at the VMAs?
  71. Did Russia ban cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin)?
  72. Did Russia ban the Neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer?
  73. Did Russia ban the use of VPNs?
  74. Did Russia classify Jehovah’s Witnesses as dangerous extremists?
  75. Did Salt Lake City’s Mayor go undercover as a homeless man?
  76. Did Secretary Devos end Common Core?
  77. Did Switzerland ban animal tested cosmetics?
  78. Did Switzerland ban the import of halal meat?
  79. Did Switzerland ban the import of kosher meat?
  80. Did Switzerland ban the wearing of the burqa?
  81. Did Switzerland band certain deodorants due to cancer risk?
  82. Did Sylvia Plath not return to America because of the lack of affordable health care?
  83. Did Trump rescind Obama’s flood risk rules weeks before Harvey?
  84. Did U.S. GDP set a new record under Donald Trump?
  85. Did Wikileaks turn down leaks on Russia during the 2016 campaign?
  86. Did a Facebook AI invent its own language?
  87. Did a London police chief say that non-English speakers would get priority treatment?
  88. Did a Memphis theater stop showing Gone With the Wind due to racial insensitivity?
  89. Did a Nigerian student develop a cure for breast cancer?
  90. Did a cargo ship cross the arctic without an icebreaker for the first time ever?
  91. Did a reporter who exposed a BBC pedophilia cover-up die under suspicious circumstances?
  92. Did a severely mentally ill sperm donor father 36 kids after lying on application?
  93. Did an ancient map show Antarctica without its ice cap?
  94. Did an op-ed in the New York Times argue that raping children shouldn’t be a crime?
  95. Did hackers breach dozens of voting machines brought to a conference?
  96. Did illegal border crossings decrease by 40% in Trump’s first month as President?
  97. Did over 500 Android apps contain spyware?
  98. Did people in Baltimore vandalize a Christopher Columbus monument?
  99. Did police in Seattle bust a Satanic pedophile ring in August 2017?
  100. Did protestors in Atlanta tear down a “Peace Monument” after mistaking it for Confederate Statue?
  101. Did representative John Conyers introduce a bill for reparations?
  102. Did scientists just successfully “edit” the first human embryo ever in the U.S.?
  103. Did teens in Hawaii kill albatrosses, setting conservation efforts back 10 years?
  104. Did the Australia Weather Bureau tamper with climate numbers?
  105. Did the American Cancer Society cancel a Mar-a-Lago event?
  106. Did the Catholic Church claim child sex abuse victims ‘consented’?
  107. Did the Every Student Succeeds Act end Common Core?
  108. Did the National Cancer Institute confirm that cannibis cures cancer?
  109. Did the University of Southern California misspell Shakespeare’s name on a new statue?
  110. Did the first-ever “Customized Lipstick” store open in downtown Montreal?
  111. Did the head of Starbucks say it was OK to commit violence against whites?
  112. Did the two day care workers spend 21 years in prison over fake Satanic ritual charges?
  113. Did two Douglas County men get 33 years in prison for flying Confederate flag?
  114. Did waitress Brianna Siegel receive a $1,200 tip on a $20 bill?
  115. Do 11 California counties have more registered voters than voting age citizens?
  116. Do 96% of Trump voters stand by their decision?
  117. Do Concord grapes improve your memory?
  118. Do DNA test results change health habits?
  119. Do acts by Muslim terrorists get less press attention?
  120. Do bilingual speakers experience time differently?
  121. Do birth control pills cause brain tumors?
  122. Do changes in the sun have influence on global temperature?
  123. Do children of divorce have higher stroke risk?
  124. Do cleanses work?
  125. Do detox diets work?
  126. Do drugs kill more people than guns?
  127. Do lemons cure cancer?
  128. Do men who eat more vegetables smell sexier to women?
  129. Do nitrates cause cancer?
  130. Do nitrates cause heart attacks?
  131. Do people with an X on both palms make better leaders?
  132. Do people with blood type O get bit more by mosquitoes than blood type A?
  133. Do police arrest more people for marijuana use than all violent crimes combined?
  134. Do sanctions work?
  135. Do sanctuary cities have significantly higher crime rates?
  136. Do sanctuary cities violate federal law?
  137. Do six Baltimore schools have zero students who are proficient in math and English?
  138. Do unattractive people out earn average looking people?
  139. Do vaccines cause autism?
  140. Do vegetables have more nitrates than hot dogs?
  141. Do video games improve your memory?
  142. Do vinegar baths cure fevers?
  143. Do women have more stamina than men?
  144. Does “science say” it’s in our nature to social media “creep”?
  145. Does Facebook keep deleted posts?
  146. Does Facebook now allow users to flag things as “Literally Hitler”?
  147. Does fracking cause air pollution?
  148. Does Russia have more prostitutes than doctors, farmers, and firemen combined?
  149. Does SPAM cause cancer?
  150. Does Social Security add to the national debt?
  151. Does Social Security have a surplus?
  152. Does U.S. solar power employ more people than oil, coal, and gas combined?
  153. Does aerobic exercise increase oxygen levels?
  154. Does alcohol cure cancer?
  155. Does avocado cure eczema?
  156. Does bad weather make us horny?
  157. Does being near the ocean “change your brain”?
  158. Does caffeine trigger a taste for sweets?
  159. Does climate change cause earthquakes?
  160. Does climate change cost India $10 billion per year?
  161. Does diet soda cause heart attacks?
  162. Does dietary fiber affect blood sugar?
  163. Does dietary fiber have calories?
  164. Does drinking alcohol improve memory?
  165. Does drinking champagne prevent Alzheimers?
  166. Does eating soy cause cancer?
  167. Does exercise improve COPD?
  168. Does exercise improve your memory?
  169. Does fracking cause cancer?
  170. Does fracking cause climate change?
  171. Does fracking cause droughts?
  172. Does fracking cause earthquakes?
  173. Does franking cause sinkholes?
  174. Does lipstick cause cancer?
  175. Does loneliness cause dementia?
  176. Does loneliness cause heart disease?
  177. Does loneliness kill you?
  178. Does one child in the U.S. disappear every 40 seconds?
  179. Does oregano oil kill warts?
  180. Does oxytocin cure xenophobia?
  181. Does peanut oral immunotherapy work?
  182. Does physical activity reduce stress?
  183. Does smoking reduce obesity?
  184. Does smoking weed improve your memory?
  185. Does sniffing rosemary improve your memory?
  186. Does soda kill hundreds of thousands of people a year?
  187. Does stevia improve focus?
  188. Does stevia improve memory?
  189. Does sugar kill more people than cigarettes?
  190. Does swearing improve stamina?
  191. Does taking birth control pills increase your risk of death?
  192. Does the U.S. Navy see climate change as a threat?
  193. Does the creator of Minecraft believe Pizzagate is real?
  194. Does the president of France spend $30,000 on makeup?
  195. Does toothpaste cure acne?
  196. Does toothpaste help a burn?
  197. Does visiting the beach change your brain?
  198. Has Cuba found a cancer vaccine?
  199. Has Melania Trump issued a ban on Monsanto products in White House?
  200. Has a one trillion dollar lawsuit been filed against media for “staging” Sandy Hook?
  201. Has chlorpyrifos, a pesticide, been linked to autism?
  202. Has the U.S. killed more than 20 million people in “victim nations” since World War II?
  203. Have 59% of Millennials raised in a church dropped out?
  204. Have Greenland’s polar ice caps melted past the point of no return?
  205. Have Monarch butterfly numbers been dropping?
  206. Have anti-white hate crimes in LA nearly doubled from the previous year?
  207. Have neuroscientists discovered a song that reduces anxiety by 65 percent?
  208. How dangerous is Cancun right now?
  209. How dangerous is mold?
  210. How does childhood poverty in the U.S. compare to other nations?
  211. How have American views of Nazis changed over time?
  212. How many Indians are at risk from rising sea levels?
  213. How many Indians are in the U.S.?
  214. How many black slaves were there in 1850?
  215. How many people does air pollution kill each year?
  216. How much does U.S. life expectancy vary by county?
  217. How much more do white men make than black women?
  218. How much more expensive are elections now than the late 1800s?
  219. In June 2017, was a first grader’s artwork hung at the Met?
  220. Is Alaska’s permafrost thawing?
  221. Is America’s biggest bank stealing land from indigenous tribes?
  222. Is California about to tax clean drinking water?
  223. Is China ahead of the U.S. in robots?
  224. Is China ahead of the U.S. in solar?
  225. Is China now a majority stockholder in Walmart?
  226. Is China working on climate change?
  227. Is FIFA considering banning players from making “cross” sign?
  228. Is Fukushima dumping hundreds of tons of dangerous water into the Pacific?
  229. Is Osama Bin Laden’s son about to take over Al Qaeda?
  230. Is Sweden safe to visit?
  231. Is Vladmir Putin richer than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos combined?
  232. Is a Kentucky coal company planning to build the state’s largest solar farm?
  233. Is alcohol a carcinogen?
  234. Is being annoyed at others chewing a sign of genius?
  235. Is being jobless better for your health than a bad job?
  236. Is cancer a fungus?
  237. Is cigar smoking safer than cigarette smoking?
  238. Is dietary fat linked to a low sperm count?
  239. Is divorce contagious?
  240. Is sitting the new smoking?
  241. Is sodium glutamate dangerous?
  242. Is sodium glutamate gluten free?
  243. Is the Spix’s macaw extinct?
  244. Is the earth flat?
  245. Should kids get anesthesia for dental work?
  246. Was Common Core a part of No Child Left Behind?
  247. Was Common Core passed by Congress?
  248. Was Common Core repealed?
  249. Was Common Core started by Obama?
  250. Was Dr. Phil cancelled in Denmark for exposing a pedophile ring?
  251. Was Hitler financed by the Federal Reserve?
  252. Was Huma Abedin’s family business owned by a violent extremist group?
  253. Was a Las Vegas school counselor caught on camera kicking an ADHD student?
  254. Was a Maryland teen barred from graduation due to “immoral” pregnancy?
  255. Was a border patrol vehicle sprayed with manure after an argument?
  256. Was a first grade student punished for “misgendering” transgender classmate?
  257. Was an Egyptian academic accused of ‘glorifying Satan’ after teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost?
  258. Was celery the “avocado toast” of the Victorian era?
  259. Were HPV vaccine deaths hidden deliberately by researchers?
  260. Were Samuel L. Jackson and Magic Johnson mistaken for ‘lazy migrants’ in Italy?
  261. Were there early democratic societies in the Americas?
  262. Were two Indian engineers recently shot in Kansas as part of a suspected hate crime?
  263. What country has the highest STD rate?
  264. What county has the highest STD rate?
  265. What county has the highest crime rate in Florida?
  266. What county in the U.S. has the highest life expectancy?
  267. What county in the U.S. has the lowest life expectancy?
  268. What happened to Sylvia Plath’s missing novel?
  269. What is the chance of an asteroid killing most human life on earth?
  270. What is the lowest approval rating a President has had?
  271. What is the most spoken language in Africa?
  272. What percentage of America’s wealth do the richest one percent hold?
  273. What percentage of American children live in poverty?
  274. What percentage of French children live in poverty?
  275. What percentage of India’s wealth do the richest one percent hold?
  276. What percentage of Japanese children live in poverty?
  277. What percentage of motorists use a mobile phone when driving?
  278. What percentage of teen cases of HIV involve gay teens?
  279. What percentage of worldwide terrorism deaths occur in Europe and America?
  280. What percentage of San Franciscans can’t afford rent?
  281. Which state had the most slaves per captia in 1850?
  282. Who runs CNN?
  283. How many people does coal kill each year?
  284. Who runs FEMA?
  285. Who runs the inquirer.net site?
  286. Why are so many Millennials living with their parents?
  287. Why has the Japanese birth rate plummeted?
  288. Will eating more salt make you healthier?
  289. Will troops be deployed to halt illegal immigration?
  290. Would 36% of Brits consider having sex with a robot?
  291. Did Black Lives Matter block emergency crews from reaching Harvey victims?
  292. Did Oregon’s Governor sign a “gun confiscation” law?
  293. Were confederate soldiers considered U.S. veterans under law?
  294. Were pyramids discovered in Antarctica?
  295. Did John McCain admit to being a “war criminal”?
  296. Did a Johns Hopkins Scientist expose risks of flu vaccine?
  297. Was Bill Clinton expelled from Oxford over a rape incident?
  298. Was Robert E. Lee opposed to Confederate monuments?
  299. Is an Ohio cemetery exhuming bodies of Confederate soldiers?
  300. Were significant numbers of Irish slaves in America?
  301. Was a cop who arrested Malia Obama found dead?
  302. Is collecting rainwater illegal in some states?
  303. Will House Bill 610 defund education?
  304. Did an elementary school in California force students to cross dress for LGBT Week?
  305. Were 98 million Americans given cancer through Polio shots?
  306. Is wrapping string around a baby’s toes dangerous?
  307. Does eating carrots improve you vision?
  308. Do Ramen noodles use a wax that causes cancer?
  309. Was the body of missing White House intern Margaret Sanguay found?
  310. Did 179 kids go missing in Indiana in the first 100 days of 2017?
  311. Is a Facebook Drug Task Force now monitoring all Facebook posts?
  312. Have crime rates in Australia increased since its gun ban?
  313. Is high salt intake associated with double the risk of heart failure?
  314. Will there be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050?
  315. Does lemon aroma reduce blood pressure?
  316. Does lemon scent improve concentration?
  317. Do lemons reduce blood sugar?
  318. Do lemons help diabetes?
  319. Why do so many millennials have tattoos?
  320. What percentage of millennials have tattoos?
  321. Did German almost become the official language of the U.S.?
  322. Would America have won the Revolutionary War without French support?
  323. Can vigorous coughing prevent a heart attack?
  324. Did 234 people die eating contaminated Patti Labelle sweet potato pies?
  325. Does a single volcanic eruption contribute more to global warming than 100 years of humans?
  326. Are polar bears going extinct?
  327. Is the rainforest in danger?
  328. Can wrapping yourself in plastic wrap increase weight loss?
  329. Can robots have emotions?












Publishers and Platforms Need to Label Genres. Now, Please.

Today, from Medium. News about Trump!


See down there at the bottom? The headline about Trump? It’s yet another satirical headline showing up as like hard news. In 2018. A year and a half after we were supposed to fix this sort of thing. What’s going on?

So here’s a way to think about this. Think about my blog.

People have been coming to this blog for over a decade now, and the return visitors know what this blog is about. It’s analysis and opinion. It’s commentary. It’s not original research, it’s not hard news. It’s not satire.

For most of publishing history if you read an article you’d have a pretty good expectation of what genre to expect. If you picked up MAD Magazine you didn’t expect hard news. If you picked up the Washington Post, you could find various things in it, but they were mostly labeled to distinguish them and put in separate sections where possible.

Platforms tore away that context by taking everything and throwing it into one big bucket of content, platformatized and monetized. So now you get pieces in an endless feed from places you don’t even know; and where they are from places you know you don’t know *where* in the publication they are from or have any expectations about them. Which is why the avante garde of our current hoax and disinformation cycle was a bunch of liberals sharing unfunny Andy Borowitz columns they had had mistaken for New Yorker reporting. Again, if you had a subscription to the New Yorker, you’d know that section as the unfunny joke section towards the back. And on the site, it is clearly marked as satire, right up top:



But in Facebook’s endless homogenized feed, Borowitz looks like this:


I imagine it’s something similar with Medium above. The aggregation and recommendation tools strip this context out and repeatedly cause confusion.

It’s true that people do like having a standard interface for the feed, but the feed needs to figure out ways to parse this information and add the genre labels and indicators back in.

Sometimes you hear platforms companies complaining “Well, what do you want us to do?” Adding genre labels — and ideally then letting people the set the desired genre mix for their feed — is a simple solution that should have been done in 2014. The fact that it is 2018 and we’re still having this conversation is bizarre. Why not just get it done?

How To Read Laterally: A Lesson for New York Times Columnists Including But Not Limited to Bari Weiss

Today in the New York Times, a Bari Weiss column links to an OFFICIAL ANTIFA ACCOUNT that calls gay man Dave Rubin an anti-LGBT fascist. This is supposed to prove, according to Weiss, that the Left is out of control:

Dave Rubin, a liberal commentator who favors abortion rights, opposes the death penalty and is married to a man, yet is denounced as an “Anti-L.G.B.T. fascist” and a “fascist lieutenant” for criticizing identity politics.

This links to explosive tweets that show how civility has declined and — as she points out — everyone is being called a fascist now by liberals. Shocking example cited:


And …


Linking to things people said on Twitter to prove a broad sociological point is pretty 2016, but the bigger problem is that the account she links to — from the pages of the New York Times — is a troll/hoax account. It’s a fake account designed to take in gullible readers and outrage them into spreading classic disinformation, stirring up hate against real antifa, either for political reasons or lulz or some combination of the two.

There are numerous ways you can guess that fact — the name “Official Antifa” being the first hint — but there is also a simple way to check this one: read laterally. So let me show NYT columnists visiting this blog a thirty-second maneuver that can prevent further ridicule and degradation of public discourse by hoax accounts. Here we go. It takes less than thirty seconds so pop your headphones in from the start or you’ll miss it:


In this case, we select the Twitter handle, right-click to search on it, click the Google News tab to get a curated set of links/sources, and…

Actually that’s it. We’re done.


Now it’s not always this easy. Sometimes it takes a full minute, or 90 seconds. Occasionally it takes more than that and you have to use different, more complex methods. But it’s a pretty short process overall and one that you should be doing with every tweet you share, never mind ones you link to in the national newspaper of record.

We follow Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew’s groundbreaking media literacy research and call this technique reading laterally. It’s one of the four moves in the free eTextbook Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and a core technique in the online media literacy project we’re rolling out with the American Democracy Project, the Digital Polarization Initiative. Ninety-second fact-checks, based on new principles, that help students quickly verify and contextualize information.

I know I’ve written this glibly. Believe me, it’s because if I am not glib I’ll just get angry. This is work from the major national newspaper of record, not a gullible uncle posting on Facebook. And while Weiss claims to care about the disintegration of public discourse, she demonstrates the exact lack of care and skill that had led to it, allowing herself to be used, easily and fruitfully, by the crudest sort of manipulation.

The book is free. It’s about a two hour read. Please read it and stop linking to trolls.




Media Literacy Is About Where To Spend Your Trust. But You Have To Spend It Somewhere.

A lot of past approaches to online media literacy have highlighted “debunking” and present a large a portion of cases where students debunk tree octopuses and verifiably false things. And show students how they are manipulated, etc.

And this is good in the right amounts. There’s a place for it. It should comprise much of your curriculum.

But the core of media literacy for me is this question of “where you spend your trust.” And everything has to be evaluated in that framework.

There’s not an option to not trust anyone, at least not an option that is socially viable. And societies without trust come to bad ends. Students are various, of course, but what I find with many students is they are trust misers — they don’t want to spend their trust anywhere, and they think many things are equally untrustworthy. And somehow they have been trained to think this makes them smarter than the average bear.

A couple stories will illustrate the problem. I was once working with a bunch of students and comparing Natural News (a health supplements site which specializes in junk science claims) and the Mayo Clinic, one of the most respected outfits out there. OK, I say, so what’s the problem with taking advice from Natural News?

Well, says a student, they make their money selling supplements, and so they have an incentive to talk down traditional medicine.

I beam like a proud papa. Good analysis!

“And,” the student continues, “the Mayo Clinic is the same way. They make money off of patients so they want to portray regular hospitals as working.”

Houston, we have a problem.

I was in an upper division class another time and we were looking at an expert in a newspaper cited for his background in the ethnobiology of issues around the study of birds. I did what I encourage students to do in such cases: as a sanity check, make sure that the person being quoted as an academic expert has a publication record in the relevant area, preferably with a cite or two. (There are other varieties of expertise, of course, but in this case the claimed expertise was academic).

The record comes up. This guy’s top article on birds, biologists, and indigenous knowledge has something like 34 citations in Google Scholar. “So what do you think?” I ask them.

“Eh,” they say. “Not great.”

This was, mind you, not a room full of published ethnobiologists. And the ethnobiologist quoted in the article was not claiming to overturn the fundamental insights of ethnobiology, or anything requiring extraordinary evidence.

So 34 other experts had considered this person’s niche work worth talking about but hey, we’re still not sure this guy’s worth listening to on a subject we know nothing about and in which he is making rather moderate claims…


Another class, looking at Canadian paper the National Post, noted that while it was a “real” paper with a real staff, the Wikipedia page on it noted a controversy about some wrong information they published in 2006, where the editor had to actually pen an apology. “So kind of half-and-half, right?”

I’ve referred to this before as trust compression, the tendency for students to view vastly different levels of credibility of sources all as moderately or severely compromised. Breitbart is funded by the Mercers, who are using it directly to influence political debate, but the Washington Post is also owned by Jeff Bezos who donated to Democrats. So it’s a wash. And yes, we have the word of an expert in a subject where she has multiple cites against the word of a lobbying group but neither one is perfect really. Everyone’s got an agenda, nobody knows everything, and there’s not 100% agreement on anything anyway.

You see this in areas outside of expertise as well, incidentally. With quotes I often ask students (and faculty!) to source the quote and then say if the quote was taken out of context. The answer? You’ll always get a range from “completely taken out of context” to “somewhat taken out of context”. That upper register of “Nope, that quote was used correctly” is something you really have to coax the students into.

I don’t quite know how to square this with the gullibility often on display, except to say that very often that gullibility is about not being able (or willing) to distinguish gradations of credibility.

This should scare you, and it has to be at the core of what we teach — to teach students they need to decompress their trust, get out of that mushy middle, and make real distinctions. And ultimately, put their trust somewhere. Otherwise we end up with what Hannah Arendt so accurately described as the breeding ground of totalitarianism:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass Propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow…

I do believe this insight — that trust has to be spent somewhere and that our problem is not gullibility, but rather the gullibility of cynics — has to be at the core of what we teach and how we teach it. You have some trust, and you have to be willing to spend it somewhere. So enough of the “this isn’t great either”, enough of the “eh”. What’s your best option for spending that trust? Why?

If everything is compromised, then everything can be ignored, and filtering is simply a matter of choosing what you want to hear. And students will economize that lesson in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m worried they already have, and it’s up to us to change that.