Activity: 50 Cigarettes a Day

New Twitter assignment. A claim is made here. Who is the source of it? What are their qualifications?

50 cigarettes a day

Link to tweet is here.

Bonus question: Can you find a better source for this comparison?

Comments closed. To answer, tweet me @holden on Twitter.


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



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


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:


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:


Yeah, he didn’t say that.


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.


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.


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.



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).


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.


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


Need I tell you this is not true?

Weird Stuff Plugging Into Some Belief System I Do Not Know


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.


And here’s the picture by itself:


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:


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.


  • 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