How the Independent created a fake news Facebook card out of a real story

Here’s a thing going around Facebook today: Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel banned Trump from Chicago!

So did Rahm just go Rahm-bo? Did he ban Trump from the city? Clicking through and seeing the headline on the actual article suggests a less dramatic story:

And the quote in context?

[Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel] added: “Chicago, our schools, our neighborhoods, our city, as it relates to what President Trump said, will be a Trump-free zone. You have nothing to worry about. And I want you to know this, and I want your families to know this. And rest assured, I want you to come to school … and pursue your dreams.” [italics mine]

So in other words, the Facebook headline is a complete lie. Emmanuel was simply saying he was not going to spend resources to enforce federal law in Chicago. Trump himself has not been banned from anything at all.

So where did that initial headline come from? The clickbait one on Facebook which tells a flat-out lie? Was it made by Facebook? Or added by a deceitful user?

Nope. It was written by the Independent.

Let me repeat that. The Independent wrote the fake headline.

So why do we not see it on the Independent site? Well, a little known fact about newspapers and other websites is they embed code in invisible HTML “meta” tags that provide different headlines to different platforms, when the content is shared. And if we look in those meta tags we see that someone at the Independent coded the false headline in the meta tags, even though they would never dare publish such a headline on their web site.

Here’s the title you’ll see in your browser bar or tab (and the title that used to be shared with sharing services) as it appears in the HTML:

<title>Chicago mayor declares city ‘Trump-free zone’ after US President declares he will scrap DACA immigration programme | The Independent</title>

Here’s the title that people see, again, as it sits in the HTML on the actual page:

<h1 itemprop=”headline” class=” “>Chicago mayor declares city ‘Trump-free zone’ after US President declares he will scrap DACA immigration programme</h1>

And here is where the HTML tells Twitter and Facebook what to use:

<meta property=”og:title” content=”Chicago just banned Donald Trump from the city” />

<meta name=”twitter:title” content=”Chicago just banned Donald Trump from the city” />

The only places in that code where the Independent even mentions a “ban” are visible in Facebook and Twitter but not on the site, so the site can publish clickbait into social platforms while still retaining a shred of respectability on its website. And if people complain about the Facebook headline, they can always point to the headline on their site as being more or less valid (although it’s still horrible, tbh).

Does this sort of deception work? Why, yes it does. This story has been shared on Facebook almost half a million times in 24 hours. That likely makes it one of the top shares, if not the top share of the day. And they accomplish this by abuse of the platform-specific headline codes. The whole thing is shameful, and an insult to the good work that the Independent’s reporters do. And it’s time for it to stop.


Normally I don’t offer bullet-pointed solutions to things. But the solutions are almost ridiculously simple here. It’s just a matter of will, ethics, and incentives to get them done:

  • Papers: stop doing this. Apply procedures and oversight to meta tags.
  • Facebook: stop tolerating it. Scanning the semantic difference between og:title and <h1> title is an easy fact check. Write code to do that and flag offenders. This is Spam 101.
  • People: Click through before you share. Always. And demand better from established papers. The “reverse mullet” headline (party in the front, business in the back) must die, once and for all.




HIV “Dissidents” and Demand-Side Conspiracy

“HIV dissidents” or “denialists” are people who doubt or reject the fact that AIDS is caused by HIV. This view often results in the death or illness of its believers, and occasionally in the deaths of children who have no say in the matter.

One of the fascinating things about HIV denialism is that the primary cause is not irrationality, or rhetoric, or fear of institutions. When researchers looked at why people deny, the overwhelming reason was that people didn’t want to accept the personal implications of the truth. The other stuff – global conspiracy, corrupt medical industry, etc. comes as a result of needing to do or believe something else that is incompatible with the truth.

An example? Well, there are a lot of people that have HIV and have had unprotected sex with others, sometimes partners. HIV is less contagious than we originally thought, but it is still contagious, and to believe HIV is the cause is to come to terms you have put people you love at risk — even if you are being safe now. Similarly, some people don’t want to undergo retroviral treatment because of side effects and so need to convince themselves that they don’t really need to go on meds; they tell themselves that being HIV-positive means nothing.

You’ll see this pattern in a lot of places. My wife’s stepdad passed away recently. He was a smoker, and he believed in all these crazy supplements. Why? Because he wanted to believe there was a way to counteract the ill effects of smoking without quitting smoking. Vaccine denial comes easy to parents who worry that they may have done something wrong during pregnancy or early life that triggered autism, or that the genetics of one of the parents may have played a role – a vaccine link calms that fear and puts it on the medical industry. I’m even willing to bet that some of the Sandy Hook deniers were moved deeply by those class photos of smiling and now dead kids over those horrible days (even now, typing this, I still shudder and tear up, remembering). But that emotion is perceived as incompatible with a belief in looser gun control laws, so something has to go.

Once you adopt a tenuous belief for pragmatic reasons, conspiracy quickly follows. Here’s an old testimonial from an “HIV Dissident” from the turn of the 20th century:

I can still remember the night (these things always seem to happen when it’s dark out) when I realized that if I, a regular person with no particular scientific training, could figure out there was something terribly wrong with the HIV-AIDS paradigm, then the people at the top had to know, too. I mean the people that fudge the numbers so it seems like the problem is always growing, the people who know that the antibody tests are not specific and that scientists have never used actual isolation to affirm their accuracy, the people who obscure the side effects of the drugs…

Take a look at the order of operations there. A person is diagnosed with HIV, and doesn’t want to get on the drugs (demand). They look online and find communities (even then) that say this is a myth (supply). That’s the rationale they need. The adoption of the conspiracy comes last, as they realize their newfound belief requires a conspiracy to stand up.

This isn’t a total narrative of the way people come to these things, of course. Not hardly. There are many reasons why people come to conspiracies, and why people stay in them. And it is the case that people with a lot to lose engage in online activism that impacts people with very little to lose (e.g. parents with autistic kids pull parents of non-autistic kids into the anti-vax community). I’ve talked about some of those other reasons before. So I don’t want to overemphasize. But the truth is that many people believe in conspiracies because the truth of the matter has a big, not small, impact on their life. They adopt these because the outcome is more personal to them, not less. And what the researchers found with HIV dissidents is as soon as that route of action they were defending became untenable (their symptoms got too bad, and retrovirals were necessary) the conspiracy fell away. The conspiracy died when you killed demand by making peace with the outcomes.

What does this tell us here? Eh. I don’t know. But its a reminder that the demand side of conspiracies is worth looking at. People believe in global warming conspiracies because they don’t want to give up their SUVs, health conspiracies because they don’t want to give up smoking, Sandy Hook conspiracies because they don’t want to see that a gun culture that they love can have terrible consequences on people for which they feel a deep and painful empathy. The conspiracy for these people is an attempt to be rational while making a pretty heavy lift against the science or inconvenient facts.

What the research into HIV denialism suggests, in part, is that to prevent conspiracy adoption, you have to deal with people’s fear of change and their guilt. Tell people that most people on retrovirals are actually quite happy. Put them in contact with happy people on retrovirals so they can see that. Minimize the fear of the impact. Tell people who may have infected others that it wasn’t the smartest thing, but it happens, and what’s important is what you do today. Reduce demand for the conspiracy by showing the other options are more palatable.

I’ll say that while I was a smoker, I was very prone to denialism myself. I had to be. So for a while I believed that smoking wasn’t as bad as it was said to be, that secondhand smoke didn’t harm my wife, and those secondhand smoke studies were cooked up, and that smoking cigarettes without chemical additives (Natural Spirit) dramatically reduced chances of cancer compared to other cigarettes. That was the demand. On the supply side, Big Tobacco supplied me with enough media stories and research showing doubt that I could continue to not come to terms with my actions. The biggest thing that turned me around was the birth of my first daughter, but the rhetoric that helped me the most was those commercials which said things like “One year after smoking, your heart attack risk is almost back to normal” etc. (I can’t remember the exact claims). It allowed me, for a period of time, to embrace change rather than fall into depression about what I had done to my body for ten years. And once I quit, all the denialism fell away within a year or two (though interestingly, not immediately).

Similarly, allowing a lot of people to say they were “duped” by the government on Iraq’s WMDs allowed people to accept the fact those weapons weren’t there, even though that route was a bit of a cop-out. Many people guessed right on the WMD issue of course; if you were duped, you partially duped yourself. But if what matters is going forward, letting go of the guilt, temporarily, can be useful. Years after I quit smoking, I could finally say that I had been an idiot. But it took time to accept that guilt.

It’s something to think about with other forms of conspiracy. Supply-side is incredibly important. But address the fear of change or the guilt, and you cut the demand side of the equation as well.

“Students as Creators” and the Theology of the Attention Economy

I was struck this week by Benjamin Doxtdator’s latest post on showing students how to engage with social media in a way that subverts its purposes. On listening as an act of resistance. Of getting past glorifying connection as an end to that important question of purpose.  I wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts it brought to mind, all of them far less organized and insightful than Benjamin’s work. It also draws on work by Chris Gilliard and Amy Collier. I hope to offer it as just a piece of what I hope is an emerging critique of how connectivism and constructivism has been practiced and sold in past years, and how we might reorient and reposition it knowing what we know now.

The particular brick I want to hammer at today is our decade-long infatuation with “students as creators”.

I have become deeply skeptical over the past four or five years about the “students as creators” rhetoric. It’s not that I don’t believe that students shouldn’t create – my best and most rewarding projects have always been about students creating public work on the web that makes the lives of others better. I’ve also seen the immense joy and motivation that a maker lab can provide students. And my new push for info-environmentalism is centered in producing things that make the web a better place. I believe in making stuff, and still align myself with constructivism as a philosophy, most days of the week.

But the rhetoric around “students as creators” is unbelievably bad. It parrots all of capitalism’s worst theology: we want to make “makers, not takers”, we value “doers, not thinkers.” As I said a few years back, the idea that universities should value “producers” and push our students towards “production” is actually the least subversive idea you could possibly have at a university. The most subversive idea you could have at a university these days is that you might think a few connected thoughts without throwing them into either publication or the attention economy. That you might think about things for the purpose of being a better human, without an aim to produce anything at all.

Likewise, I sometimes think we’ve convinced ourselves that the attention economy, when implemented on top of open source, is liberating. And so we celebrate with the class when students get comments from outsiders, or have had their posts go viral. We talk about building identity, portfolios, public persona, getting noticed. We don’t realize that we begin to sound more and more like a LinkedIn marketing drone.

And I’ve come to think that, in today’s world, one of the most valuable lessons we can give to students is not “how to build their identity on the web,” but how to selectively obscure it. How to transcend it. How to personally track it. How to make a difference in the world while not being fully public. To teach students not just to avoid Google, but to use Google safely (or as safely as possible). To have them look at their information environments not as vehicles of just self-expression, but as ways to transcend their own prejudices. To read and listen much much more than we speak. And to see what is needed through the lens of privilege – teaching the beauty of deference to the students with self-confidence and social capital, while teaching marginalized students to find communities that can provide them with the self-confidence they need.

And in different contexts, of course, the same student may need both types of instruction.

This post is a bit stream of consciousness, and so I want to pose a question here. Which experience do you think is more educational:

  • A student runs a blog on open source software that expresses their opinions on selected chapters of Ready Player One – and gets a comment by author Ernest Cline!!!
  • A heterosexual cis student resolves (individually) to follow 20 trans leaders on Twitter and retweet two things they say a week (with the student possibly using a pseudonymous account not tied to their identity). Other students examine their own bubbles and do similar things.

Story number one is the sort of story I used to tell ten years ago at conferences (albeit about different books). But that was before the attention economy swallowed democracy and everything else. Today I’m far more interested in story two, a story that is about not producing, and staying relatively invisible.

Attention (and knowledge of how to get that attention) is still important, of course. But attention for what? For what purpose? I’ve moved from the question of “How do we express ourselves on the internet?” to “How do we be better people on the internet?”  Or maybe most importantly, “How do we use the internet to become better people?” Sometimes that involves creating, of course. But if we wish to do more than reinforce the rhetoric of the attention economy, we have to stop seeing that as some sort of peak activity. These skills aren’t a pyramid you climb, and creation is not a destination. Graduating a few more students who understand that will likely make the world a better place for everyone.


The Fake Headlines (September 1, 2017)

I still don’t know quite what I’m doing with my newsletter, twenty weeks in. I’ve been writing quite a bit there. But should I also put that stuff on the web?

Usually I do a series of long pieces and quick hits for it. But yesterday I did a quick round up of news from the past few days and sent it out. I figured I’d put it here and see if it’s worth publishing here as well.

The headlines below aren’t “fake” — it’s a reference to a New Pornographers song from 2000. Andrew Bird covers it here.  It ends: “I filled the whole front page / With the catchiest words I could find / Fake headlines, believe me come back / Fake headlines, believe them come back.”

Now our stories.

Fake polls are a real problem. We’re on the road to fake everything, apparently.

Corporate-funded medical journals are leading innovators in fake research.

Bot armies may (stress on “may”) be targeting journalists, trying to knock them off Twitter, by using openly bot-like behavior in support of them that gets the journalists banned. The bot behavior triggers spam protections in Twitter, locking the journalist out of their account. This isn’t proven, and is highly speculative but is something to watch.

Citing a need to build a team with a “digital first” mindset, the L.A. Times ousted its only person of color on the masthead, as well as a number of other veterans. Here’s hoping that new digital-first team will also be a diversity-first team.

WhatsApp has rolled out verified badges. We need to start thinking about media literacy with WhatsApp, which is going to ultimately touch more people than Twitter, at least directly. WhatsApp is already a source of misinformation and hoaxes in IndiaMalaysiaHaitiKenyaSpain, and Indonesia. In the U.S. WhatsApp could be a vector of disinformation for a segment of teens and emerging adults who have started to abandon daily reading of Facebook. Maybe in 2018?

Speaking of fake news in other countries, AltNews tracks and debunks fake news in India. Follow them to get a more global perspective.

Why doesn’t Instagram get flooded with fake news? Well, there’s no groups, and reposting is not part of the basic interface. Some people think that was intentional. There are lessons here.

Headline from 2010: Facebook Introduces Community Pages, Hopes To Make Them “Best Collections Of Shared Knowledge. What happened to this vision? Anyone know?

You need to read the Unleashed article by Cass Sunstein. More on this later but read it now.

Researcher Kate Starbird notes that FEMA is dealing with Harvey rumors on their front page, and asking people to correct them online. This is important because rumors in crisis events quite literally get people killed.

Robert Fanney is a great follow on climate change on Twitter, and recently expressed frustration with the idea that we can’t discuss the cause of disasters in the wake of them, the “now is not the time to say I-told-you-so about climate change” Harvey argument. A holistic treatment of disinformation needs not only to look at how misinformation spreads, but also how good information is suppressed. Tragedy policing is one of the ways that is accomplished and deserves serious study and attention.

Kris Shaffer runs the Disinformer newsletter, which combines a focus on misinformation and propaganda with digital humanities. Read it.

I wrote this post on teaching students to read Google searches. Its big contribution is probably my 300+ item Google question bank. These are questions you can plug into Google, and have students evaluate the results.

Also I should mention – we’re running 10 sections using Digipo at WSU Vancouver alone. This has taken off like wildfire, with the controlling idea now info-environmentalism.

So does this stuff belong in the newsletter or on the site or both? Let me know.