Using Google News to Verify Claims

When you’re confronted with a news claim you want to verify, you have a lot of options. Generally, the first move of our four move method is to look for previous work. Find a fact-check or a reliable article from a local or well-resourced publication that’s already done the verification for you.

The easiest way to do that, especially with breaking news, is to use the select and search browser option. Select relevant text, right-click (or command-click) to get a context menu, and then select the “search” option.

When the search opens in a new tab, choose the news tab (available in both Google and Bing). This gives you a curated stream of news to choose from, and provides some markers of credibility as well, showing you what a local source is and marking in-depth treatments. Here’s a screencast to show how its done:

There are things to watch here. Google News provides a much higher quality set of news sources than general search, but not everything in Google News is trustworthy. Google News still indexes conspiracy sites such as World Net Daily, for instance. Additionally, when foreign newspapers report American stories (or when American papers report foreign stories) special care should be taken: cultural notions sometimes don’t transfer, and foreign press often misunderstand hoax sites as true American news, as in this case where an Indian newspaper repeats a hoax debunked by Snopes months ago:

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Users also have to be careful of opinion columns on traditional news sites. There are many reliable reporting sources that have opinion pages with little to no verification process in place. Here’s an example of what to be careful of:

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There’s two New York Times items here, but they are completely different in type, and for all intents and purposes from two different sources. The first one is an opinion column, and the second is a straight news item. In Google they look exactly the same. If you’re used to this stuff, you can get a good idea from the tone of the snippet which is which, but if you’re new to this you probably have to click through.

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A good traditional news source — such as the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post — will make clear which items are opinion and which are reporting. Many non-traditional sources will not (one benefit of using traditional sources for verification is the hard line they draw between editorial and news reporting).

All of these caveats might sound a bit distressing, but even with these caveats, using Google News to check news claims is going to filter out 95% of the junk. For many verification tasks it’s the best first move.

Using Google News to Verify Older Claims

Google News is a good place to verify older claims as well, or claims where you are unsure of the relevant time-frame.

As an example, here’s an item that floated into my Pinterest feed today:

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Is this true? Is it new?

If you go to Google, type in Katee Sackhoff, search then and hit the news tab, you’ll find out that it is at least true that Sackhoff *said* this in 2013:

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You can actually scan enough snippets here to get an idea of what happened. Reliable sources say Sackhoff said she lost half her followers, less reliable sources such as WorldNetDaily and Guns.com validate the “half” claim directly in their headlines, without stating Sackhoff was the source of the claim and the claim was not verified.

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This is why it’s still important to choose sources from the feed wisely, read the keyword-in-context snippets when available, and if necessary click through to the article.

In this particular case, the precision of words turns out to be important, since as Reason.com notes in an update to their erroneous story that Sackhoff appears to have been making a joke and did not lose many followers at all:

UPDATE: Looks like Sackhoff was kidding when she said she lost half her followers. Twitter stats show she didn’t take a net hit. She’s actually up a few followers today. A Sackhoff fan emails to say “Katee jokes a lot.”

(As a side note, one indicator of source reliability is whether they issue corrections after claims they made are discovered to be false. Seeing which outlets bothered to correct this story and which didn’t might make a good class activity.)

Using Google News to Verify a Source as “Real”

As noted, Google News contains some dubious sources, and a lot of unverified or weakly verified content in the form of opinion columns and slanted news. In Google News, you will find some conspiracy sites, many opinion columns, and lots of headlines that outright lie.  Google News does not, however, contain a lot of hoax sites; you won’t find a source claiming to be a local paper that isn’t, or publications making up stories out of nothing.

As such, You can use a Google News search for a baseline check on whether a publication is “real” or “fake”.

I show two examples of this in the video below:

Again, this is a quick and dirty check. A more detailed check might involve searching Snopes, following the story to the source, or looking up the publication in Wikipedia.

A Note on the Two Faces of Google News

The desktop version of Google news has two interfaces: an older “News Archives” version and a newer “Breaking News” interface. Here’s what they look like.

The “News Archive” view:

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The new “Reader” view, rolled out in July 2017:

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The big differences are the reduction is clutter, the use of a card-based interface, the better highlighting of local and in-depth coverage, and better paths to related content, whether through fact-checks or topical tags. For people browsing the news, the new interface does a better job of flagging expertise and exposing people to diverse perspectives.

While the “reader” interface provides a better reading and browsing experience it provides a bad experience for verification. There are no snippets of keywords in context, there’s no access to date filters, and old content is not available through the interface.

Here, for example, is what we get when we search for the DART officer story in the “News Reader” interface:

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This is because the event, which happened two weeks ago, is already is already too old for the “reader” view. If you click the Google News Archive link, it will take you to both the older interface and the older news articles.

The reader view also is missing a number of important tools for verification that we’ll talk about using later, like full date range filtering and keyword in context.

If you use the select-and-right-click method we show here, you should end up at the “news archive” view which is what you want. If you end up in the news reader by mistake, your best move is to go to google.com, make your search, and click the news tab. In general use the reader view for browsing recent news, but avoid it when using Google News for verification purposes.

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The Web Is Abundant. Find Another Source.

 

I do a lot of work that I don’t cover here — in particular, I’m slowly putting together curriculum for the American Democracy Project on what the Stanford History Education Group calls Civic Online Reasoning. (I don’t show a lot of this work here because anything I publish on this blog alters the search results for the exercises and makes them less authentic.)

But as I’ve put together the exercises and tried to refine the UbD-style understandings I’m trying to hit, I keep finding one of the biggest understandings is what I call the “Abundant Web” assumption. Put simply, the web is qualitatively different than most information environments because of its abundance, but our processes still tend to economize as if information on the web was scarce.

What do I mean by this? Look at something that came to me today via a Twitter link.

It shows a unique sort of sun halo that supposedly appeared in Sweden. People are filming it — at least it looks like they are. So it probably isn’t just some sort of fake produced by a weird filter, right?

So how do you check this? Your first thought might be “Who is Massimo?” Or maybe you click the link and trace it up to Facebook where you find it was posted on a page called Severe Weather Europe, and we should look into them. They credit the video to a Twitter user named @vemdalen, which is a design company in Sweden. Who is this vemdalen, and what do they…

But I actually don’t do any of this. I follow the first rule of our Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and I check for previous work:

And I find an article in the Independent about it. The Independent is not the best newspaper anymore — it’s been severely degraded with clickbait over the years. But it’s still a newspaper, and when we go there we find that they are reporting this as fact and that they have linked an article explaining the phenomenon from a science website.

If we were a reporter, and this was a story we were working on, this probably wouldn’t be enough for us. But for a citizen trying to not retweet lies, it’s enough. And we get there in 90 seconds partially because we assume that on an abundant web if this thing really happened someone somewhere probably already looked into it.

There’s also the question of how we choose the Independent as our source. I know the Independent because over time I’ve seen it as a source for things and built up a mental model of what it does well and what it does poorly. Eventually all students should start to know a few resources like this — dry land that they can swim to when looking for a source. (Or in the case of the Independent a moderately squishy bog).

But you don’t have to know the source to do this. One of the prime techniques I use is searching for stories in Google News versus general Google search. Why? Because Google News is curated — sources are selected based on qualifying as real news sites. So what we’re doing when we search on Vemdalen, Sweden and click on Google News is we’re saying “Let’s start over on this, and try to get a news source that has at least a modicum of vetting applied to it.” It’s not going to be perfect: Google News makes mistakes. Sometimes news publications also have non-news content (promos, editorials) which are not held to the same standard as the rest of the source. And some of the sources they include just plain shouldn’t be included. But it filters out 98% of the junk for us on a task like this.

Again, not the level of precision we’d want as a reporter or scholar. But for a citizen, it’s probably good enough, as long as they are taught to use it correctly.

And that’s the other side of “The Web Is Abundant”.  In a world with 100s of possible sources, so much of what you do is less about finding coverage than about limiting it through filters. Here we limit it by use of a curated news site. But because of the principle of abundance, we could be picky in other ways if we were looking at a different sort of story — we could filter by location, looking for local coverage. We could filter by date, either looking for the most recent developments, or the earliest possible reporting.

All of this is markedly different than what we tell students in our world of print scarcity. With print, there are few sources directly available to us, and to find and acquire new resources takes at least minutes and sometimes weeks. When you have a source in front of you you don’t throw it out, you interrogate it. The economics of this are different on the web, where lack of commitment to a source is a virtue, and we get to the truth more quickly by always assuming there’s a better source out there. We trade one resource for another without even bothering to read the first one. We need a media literacy that makes a virtue of this lack of commitment to initial resources rather than a fetish of investigative persistence with them.

 

 

Pictures from Pinterest

I’ve been looking at political culture on Pinterest. I pulled these images from my feed today. Apologies that there are so many from the right and none from the left — that’s just what came up today. Political culture on Pinterest tends towards the Republican side of things (I’m training another Pinterest account to feed me liberal memes).

Not all of these are false, though many are, and some are a bit horrifying. And for the record, I’m not saying that “debunking” these is the best approach to Pinterest propaganda (it’s probably not — ‘debunking’ is usually not the right tone or approach). I’m just putting them here to start a conversation, and maybe as an input into your lesson plans.

 

Let’s talk briefly about a few varieties of the memes people pin on Pinterest.

First, the general lizard brain access point for a lot of these is “Man, my opponents are so dumb”, which how a lot of memes get propagated. And they aren’t meant to persuade as much as demonstrate how they’ve been right all along. That said, there’s a couple categories to look at.

Fake Artifacts

 

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The above pieces were likely pulled from different pictures, but if you go to Snopes you’ll find that the Obama one is fake and the Clinton-Gore one did not originate from the campaign (and possibly never existed at that time). The other two did not appear in any contemporary coverage, which they almost certainly would have.

It feels weird to debunk this though, right? That worries me about this sort of image based disinfo, the way verification always seems beside the point.

Photoshopped/Falsely Labeled Events

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There’s a lot of this sort of thing. The photo above is actually from the 2009 riots in Greece, with the antifa logo photoshopped on:

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Questionable/Fake Quotes

A lot of effort to attribute things to people either out of context, or more usually, that they just didn’t say:

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Yeah, he didn’t say that.

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Hitler never said this and actually believed the opposite of it — for him, change came from violent and visible upheaval. But the idea, I think, is to somehow connect bans on guns, incandescent bulbs, and Kinder Eggs to creeping fascism. So someone wrote this to make it seem like an eerie parallel.

Incomplete, Deceptive, or Fictional Stats

This stat isn’t bad; it comes from a real academic paper, apparently. It doesn’t deal with the high natural variability of reported rapes in Orlando which doesn’t invalidate this point, but provides necessary context.

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In images like this the main problem is that the image floats around devoid of not only context, but of any pointers to context. It doesn’t invite contextualization the way that text does.

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That problem becomes a huge issue in cases like the above. This stat may be true, depending on the year to which it is referring. But the picture is provocative and the necessary context — people tend to shoot people local to them, and the black population is highly concentrated — is completely absent. There’s no context that the vast majority of deaths of white people are at the hands of other whites. It’s stats like this, incidentally, that radicalized Dylann Roof.

Conspiracy-Mongering

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Not much to say here. But it’s popular to do this. Hey, man, they’re “just asking questions”. (You can read more about “leading question technique” here).

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This one actually fooled a congresscritter or two. It reauthorizes powers that have been available to the president in a time of emergency since the 1950s. Every president has had these powers, and as a matter of fact, probably had these powers implicitly before, since FDR exercised broad control over resources in WWII. But paired with the Obama picture it feels ominous to a lot of people for reasons that we won’t go into here.

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I don’t even want to dignify this. But no, he was not a frontrunner, he was not running, and the crash was textbook inexperience and recklessness.

Fake Stories

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Need I tell you this is not true?

Weird Stuff Plugging Into Some Belief System I Do Not Know

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So this is actually a photo of a European fighting the Zulu in South Africa, not someone fighting Native Americans. For the life of me, though, I have no idea what weird point this is aiming to prove.

Anyway, that’s today’s batch. Sorry they were primarily far right memes, I’ll try to get a Pinterest account trained up to collect liberal stuff as well.

I have some deeper thoughts about the problems of media literacy and memes but maybe I’ll talk about that later.

Assignment: Knife-Carrying Odinga Supporter

There is currently unrest in Kenya over the Kenyan Supreme Court’s certification of results of a disputed election. A number of people have been killed in protests. There is some dispute around how many have died, but estimates range from five to eighteen. The police maintain that mobs in support of the opposition candidate have killed around five people; the opposition leader Raila Odinga has pointed to police shootings of over a dozen protesters as the main violence, part of a pattern of police force that Human Rights Watch claims has taken the lives of 67 people since the original August 8 election.

Now our task: this image circulated on Twitter recently among Kenyans.  It shows a man with bananas and a bloody knife, and describes it as a photograph of a Raila Odinga supporter who has stabbed a banana vendor in order to steal bananas. It does not indicate whether the banana vendor died.

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And here’s the picture by itself:

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The man is clearly wearing an orange Odinga shirt, marking him as a supporter of the opposition. Twitter users — including Odinga supporters — were justifiably disturbed by the photo in this context:

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Questions coming up downpage. But I am going to warn you before starting to look at this about four things:

  1. You’re entering an unknown media environment (Kenya) where it will be unclear which news sources to trust and which to not. You may wish to keep Wikipedia’s Newspapers in Kenya list open in a tab. Interestingly, this lack of media and cultural knowledge of party dynamics mimics what a lot of younger American students have in the American context: they don’t recognize the major papers or major names in politics.
  2. I’m going to tell you in advance that the results of this one may be fuzzy. Just try to get the best information you can.
  3. Because may be unfamiliar with the political context, this may take a little bit. Don’t expect to understand Kenya in 90 seconds.
  4. Final point: I worry that dipping into a political issue like this and learning one single fact about it might distort your understanding of Kenyan politics. So I highly encourage you to take twenty minutes after the activity and read up more generally on the current political conflict in Kenya.

Questions:

  • Where is the photograph from? Was it taken at the protests? Is it recent?
  • What is the best information we have on the story behind the photograph?

OK, go! Comments are closed here, but if you want to show you got the answer, DM me on Twitter @holden.

Traces #32: Hall of Mirrors

For some reason Tiny Letter’s archive is not showing the latest newsletter, so I am putting it here for safe-keeping. You can read other previous newsletters here, and also sign up to receive them by email.

Global Potemkin Village

A new NATO Stratcom report on social media-based disinformation is out. I haven’t finished it, but it starts out with an great (and needed) summary of various disinfo efforts around the world, with particular attention to how disinfo manifests differently in different countries and platforms. I think tracking this is important to media literacy efforts, not necessarily because our students will be fighting disinfo on Russia’s VKontakte or China’s Jinri Toutiao, but because by tracking these many different articulations of the same phenomenon we are more likely to see what is coming down the road next.

A piece on Mocha Uson, who is the social media face of Duerte’s regime in the Phillipines. Uson calls the press “press-titutes” (get it?) and has more recently pushed for the news source that published this to be reclassified and denied access to some Palace events. The piece lists the web sources she promotes which also forms a helpful index of junk news Filipino websites. Remember that in the Phillipines sharing fake news knowingly is a sin against charity, per the Catholic Church there, which maintains a list of websites to avoid.

China’s WeChat is rumored to be moving toward a more feed-like experience. Chinese citizens get the majority of their news from online sources, and given the ubiquity of WeChat these changes will increase those numbers. Of course, the Chinese government exerts heavy control on these platforms. I need a burner phone so I can play around with WeChat while not aiding the Chinese surveillance state.

Claire Wardle talks about the need for a coordinated global effort to fight information disorder. She also says we should treat “fake news” as a swear. Which will ding our SEO, but she’s probably right.

Shameless Self-Promotion

I made a short video showing how Pinterest can quickly pull a person into a web of medical misinformation. It’s quite shocking to watch. In two minutes you can watch a person go from antivax-curious to full-on medical conspiracist. A lot of this is driven by natural health sites, who push these pins into the system to up their reach, and to discredit traditional medicine as a marketing strategy. While it’s tempting to chalk that up to California liberalism, it’s worth noting that Pinterest as late as 2014 was the only major platform that had a much larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats. But watch the video and be shocked. Pinterest is also a major source of political misinfo, but more on that later.

1984, Inc.

From Molly Hackett: “We should be having a conversation, as a society, whether we want our moral emotions to be manipulated as a way of generating advertising for big tech companies.”

Fringe communities on Reddit and 4chan have an outsize impact on Twitter. Yeah, tell me something I don’t know, but there are some interesting details here besides that. Again, you have to look at this as a system — the surest sign of a noob in this space is someone that sees influence as only occurring in the platform things originated in. The truth is much more complex.

The Lawfare Podcast has Andrei Soldatov on Russian Intel Ops and Surveillance. Related: a 2015 Guardian article on the Hall of Mirrors approach to disinfo.

New report on Google and the 2016 elections finds that “up to 30% of … national candidates had their search results affected by potentially fake or biased content.”

Jonathan Albright on Instagram meme-seeding. Takeaway: “Instagram — a service larger than Twitter and Snapchat combined — should be seen as a major influence, targeting and engagement hub for the spread of political propaganda.”

You Are Being Gamed

Sharing pictures of missing children on your Facebook or Twitter feed must be good, right? Not so fast, say Canada’s Mounties. These pitures go around for a lot of reasons and you can do real harm in sharing them. Always make sure the child is truly missing by checking news reports before you share.

Disinformation campaigns target tech-enabled citizen journalists” from Brookings.

Amanda Hess has an utterly engaging short video on conspiracy theories and the Internet. There’s not much new here, it’s just really well done. I look at it more as an example of the sort of idiom we might want to talk in to correct misconceptions.

Alternative Facts and Alternative Medicine

A good interview with Emily Thorson who is much more concerned with medical misinformation than with political misinformation in high-profle races. Again, the main takeaway is that this is a complex problem that does not benefit from band-aid or single-pronged solutions.

A bonus old article on Pinterest and health disinfo.

You’ve seen those web ads where Jennifer Aniston endorses some unheard of product by describing one weird trick, right? Fake, of course. But incredibly profitable, according to Stephanie Lee at Buzzfeed. Profitable to the tune of $179 million. Seriously. If we want to reduce medical misinfo where going to have to a lot better job at making it unprofitable.

Free Speech is like Free Markets. Broken.

Here’s a good case that “No Platform for Fascists” makes sense, but that expanding it much further may not. Also a good presentation of the case that the real threats to free speech on campus are not coming from the students. Something I didn’t know — “No Platform for Fascists” as a stance in student movements dates back to 1973 Britain.

Department of Being a Better Person

Drake calls out a groper in the crowd. Honestly, they should have kicked the guy out of the club, but Drake is still the hero we need right now. Rock and rap shows are often gropefests. It’s disgusting, and artists need to speak up