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 #33: Pizza Laundering

Originally sent on Nov 21, 2017 via Tinyletter.

Your Autocracy Will Be Laundered

Pizzagate: Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal. I’ve talked before about how most discussion of free speech and disinformation is stuck in a centralized model that ignores the current multi-agent process by which the fake is laundered into the real. This article is long, but will show you how it is done.

Keanu Reeves Did NOT Say Hollywood Elites Use “Blood Of Babies To Get High” It’s worth understanding that stories like Pizzagate tapped into a long running tradition of conspiracies about elite satanic child abuse rings. Some of these frameworks are derived from old anti-Semitic models. Here’s an example.

Russia used hundreds of fake accounts to tweet about Brexit, data shows. To be clear, these are small numbers, but they are very incomplete, and the real story is how small amounts of paid activity can leverage broader platforms through the laundering of falsehood. Note that it’s the press, unsurprisingly, that amplify the influence of these fake accounts. 

Adventures in Generic “Community”

The Education of Mark Zuckerberg. “The new Facebook will be rebuilt inside the carcass of the old.” Mark Zuckerberg continues to evolve his notion of community, but it is still impoverished.

A notorious Russian Twitter troll claims to be back, and Twitter has not stopped it. Real communities have implicit missions and values and by-laws and well-funded mechanisms for enforcement. Twitter has a revenue model.

Free Speech is Like Free Markets. Broken.

Political correctness isn’t the problem. “Indeed, a recent much-publicized poll purporting to show creeping authoritarianism among young people was funded with Koch money, and the best academic research proves the poll’s findings wrong.”

Related, the recent Stanford walkout on Jihad Watch speaker Robert Spencer looks different when you see who funds these speeches.

Disruption games: why are libertarians lining up with autocrats to undermine democracy? Interesting question, but it needs to go deeper into the Silicon Valley myths of meritocratic dictatorships that propel this trend.

Gamergate: The Dry Run for the Apocalypse

In chatlogs, celebrated hacker and activist confesses countless sexual assaults This horrifying story of a privacy activist and Intercept reporter who raped multiple women with impunity doesn’t belong to a single section, but putting it here because of this: “Throughout The Verge’s investigation, sources expressed fear that Marquis-Boire, a lauded security expert, could hack them in retaliation…One alleged victim told us that he had apologized to her, but had done it — either coincidentally or on purpose — through an ephemeral messaging app, one of the very technologies he had advocated for as an activist.”

Your company’s Slack is probably sexist Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t (it probably is). The important point is all technology is designed in a way that favors some interactions and styles of engagement over others and that favors certain people. The best hedge against that to have diverse teams involved in the build process.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Winning the Information War Techniques and Counter-strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe “Modern Russian propaganda is cleverly targeted, technically adept and cynically fact-free. It is also enjoyable.” Old CEPA Stratcom report I skimmed over the weekend. Co-published with Legatum, which has brought up this idea that we must make disinfo countermeasures as enjoyable as disinfo in several contexts. See also Factual Entertainment. Mostly a review of current state of the info war in Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

In our Digipo info-environmentalism projects we will be looking at the broad array of emotional/psychological reasons why people spread disinformation. In addition to disinfo being fun, I’d add it’s nice to feel smarter than other people, and it’s good to be seen as a person who knows things first. And that’s just scratching the surface. I’ll talk more about this in a post eventually.

I’m a Deleter

No, Facebook Didn’t Remove the Ability to Delete Posts—But It Did Hide It From Some Users. It is completely possible that Facebook may make it harder to delete posts at some point. Today is not that day, but watch for it.

Polarization Is an Elite-Driven Phenomenon

Republicans’ beliefs are bending to Trump. Here’s why they might not even notice. People forget what they formerly believed, which allows them to maintain an illusion of ideological consistency even when belief changes are massive. And so you have a situation where a lot of people think they support Trump because he is anti-globalist, but the truth is weirder – they latched onto the leader, switched beliefs, and then attributed their support of the leader to their beliefs retroactively. The same is true to some extent, of course, on the Democratic side.

Which is to say, for the umpteenth time, that while dissatisfaction may be grassroots, the nature and extent of subsequent polarization is elite driven. Solutions must address that.

Rethinking Online Media Literacy

The Civic Online Reasoning site from the Stanford History Education Group has launched. It’s focused more on K-12, but it’s really good. Check it out.

1984, Inc.

Tech Leaders Dismayed by Weaponization of Social Media. I mean, great. Welcome to the club. What next?

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

Digital Polarization on Pinterest Is Scary Aggressive

The speed with which Pinterest radicalizes your feed with conspiracy-based disinfo is shocking. I speed up this video by 400% but the entire process takes less than 13 minutes I think. Here’s the final frame. I got here without taking a single explicit antivax action (e.g. I didn’t follow any antivax boards):


Please watch the whole video. It may even shock the cynical.

Traces #31: Mobile Misinformation

First published Nov. 10, 2017 at TinyLetter

Free Speech Is Like Free Markets. Broken.

A New York courtroom gave every detained immigrant a lawyer. The results were staggering. This piece from Vox is about the sixth amendment of the U.S. constitution (the right to a lawyer) but is a good lens for the first amendment as well. In the U.S., all people have the right to a lawyer, but for a long time people didn’t have access to a lawyer due to monetary reasons. We’ve rectified that bit by bit, and this article shows the massive and shocking impacts that access provides.

Free speech (the first amendment right of Americans) can be read the same way. People have theoretical rights to free speech, but it is ridiculously easy for people with money to render that right worthless. I’m not arguing here for any specific intervention, but for us to enlarge our thinking about free speech the way we enlarged our thinking about legal representation. Stop freaking out about “slippery slopes” long enough to think about what concern about actual access to free speech might look like, both in terms of running a place like Twitter and in regulating the influence of money in media. (Start by looking at politibots which suppress the speech of actual humans but are often defended by free speech libertarians.)

1984, Inc.

Amy Collier writes on the why and how of tweet deletion. I’m happy for she’s joined the deletionists (we’re showing her the secret handshake this afternoon!). There are so many good reasons to delete old tweets that I won’t go into here, but one on the big ones for me is everything in the Twitter UI tries to prevent you from doing so, so screw that. When you notice all the exits are locked, start looking for a way out. Click the link to learn how to become a deletionist, and remember that there’s a job open at Middlebury working with Amy you should look at.

As others have noted there’s nothing surprising about Facebook founder Sean Parker saying that Facebook was designed to do exactly what it’s doing to our attention and society and democracy. The point of Facebook is to create an addiction to reckless sharing and inefficient engagement. That’s its core business model. We talked about this in Traces #3, under the name Webo-plasmosis.

You saw this on display, BTW, during the recent Twitter change to 280. Wait a second, 280 defenders said, people were all angry about the hearts, but they increased likes by a billion!

This (“increased likes by a billion!”) is said by an actual employee of Twitter as if it means something, but it means nothing. Clicking on a heart is not some inherent good like increasing exercise, or upping the amount of fiber in your diet, or decreasing poverty. It’s a decision to provide Twitter with more data. That’s it.

The truth is many people working these jobs are so far into the machine they don’t see the difference between platform engagement (clicking on hearts) and civic and personal engagement (enjoying life more fully, thinking about things more deeply, empathizing more broadly, imagining and building a better world). They upped the click rate on a heart which is good for marketing. They are food scientists trying to tweak a flavor profile to get people to consume thirteen more Doritos a day. And in their branded world they never think about whether people are well served by Doritos engineered to make you binge. More Doritos eqauls more happiness, right? Everything that has happened, EVERYTHING, is pretty much predictable given just this orientation toward engagement and data.

Your Autocracy Will Be Laundered

InfoWars isn’t a Russian front, it just republishes hundreds of RT articles verbatim. I’ve looked at user perceptions around syndication in my media literacy work, and the fact is that almost nobody spots syndication indicators, which means that people on the site were consuming Russian state media with no awareness they were doing so. (h/t Audrey Watters)

Shameless Self-Promotion

I put together a proposal for an Amazon Catalyst project to produce online materials and activities around our “web literacy for fact-checkers” model. Here’s the seven minute video pitch. I work on this issues of online information literacy using a small portion of work time and a larger portion of free time (this letter, for example, is how I am spending Veteran’s Day off. But I think my Vietnam Vet of a father would have approved). In any case, I mention this because if you think we should submit to somewhere other grant program let me know. WSU and AASCU/ADP would like to get the funding to be able to make this work more of a full-time project. I think with the right funding we could benefit our WSU students while making our model sustainable in the broader community.

Global Potemkin Village

The Columbia Journalism Review outlines how WeChat, a large social network popular in China, is structured, and in particular how Official Accounts (a sort of Facebook page-ish platfrom that anyone can start) distribute news. Because public feed-based publishing is minimized, the dissemination of news sounds more similar to the email-based forwarding chains of the 1990s and early 2000s with some extra social affordances. The brief article also examines how misinformation and politically undesirable speech are handled. The upshot is without transparency we don’t really know, which is of course disturbing in a country with China’s free speech record.

A fabulous podcast by Storyful on the information disorder issues in India. Worth 30 minutes of your time. But one big takeaway is this: India suffers from being a country which consumes much of its information through cheap mobile phones instead of laptops or high-end phones. This gives people tools to consume massive amounts of information but no tools to investigate what they are fed.

I have talked about this dozens of times, but mobile phones are bad for learning, bad for investigation, bad for synthesis and critical analysis. The 2013 social media misinformation explosion in the U.S. corresponds with the addition of the share button on mobile. And let me point out – they knew at the time that this might lead to deleterious effects, but did it anyway.

And it gets worse – this model of cheap phones and crippled access to the Internet is the model behind neo-colonial initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics program. It’s a marketer’s dream, but a social nightmare. And we are pushing it into countries that often have weaker social institutions than our own. It’s not right, and it will end in tragedy.