QAnon and Pinterest Is Just the Beginning

I have been talking about Pinterest as a disinformation platform for a long time, so this article on QAnon memes on Pinterest is not surprising at all:

Many of those users also pinned QAnon memes. The net effect is a community of middle-aged women, some with hundreds of followers, pinning style tips and parfait recipes alongside QAnon-inspired photoshops of Clinton aide John Podesta drinking a child’s blood. The Pinterest page for a San Francisco-based jewelry maker sells QAnon earrings alongside “best dad in the galaxy” money clips.

Pinterest’s algorithm automatically suggests tags with “ideas you might love,” based on the board currently being viewed. In a timely clash of Trumpist language and Pinterest-style relatable content, board that hosts the Podesta photoshop suggests viewers check out tags for “fake news” and “so true.”

The story is a bit more complex than that, of course. It’s not clear to me that the users noted here are not spammers (as we’ll see below). It’s quite possible many of these accounts are people mixing memes and merchandise as a marketing amplification strategy. We don’t know anything about real reach, either. There are no good numbers on this.

But the threat is real, because Pinterest’s recommendation engine is particularly prone to sucking users down conspiracy holes. Why? As far as I can tell, it’s a couple of things. The first problem is that Pinterest’s business model is in providing very niche and personalized content. It’s algorithm is designed to recognize stuff at the level of “I like pictures of salad in canning jars”, and as Zeynep Tufekci has demonstrated with YouTube, engines of personalization are also engines of radicalization.

But it’s more than that: it’s how it goes about recommendation. The worst piece of this, from a vulnerability perspective, is that it uses “boards” as a way to build its model of related things to push to you, and that spammers have developed ways to game these boards that both amplify radicalizing material and and provide a model for other bad actors to emulate.

How Spammers Use Pinterest Boards as Chumbuckets

The best explanation of how this works comes from Amy Collier at Middlebury,  whose post on Pinterest radicalization earlier this year is a must-read for those new to the issue. Drawing on earlier work on Pinterest manipulation, Collier walks through the almost assuredly fake account of  Sandra Whyte, a user who uses boards with extreme political material to catch the attention of users. Here’s her “American Politics” board:


These pins flow to other users’ home pages with no context, which is why the political incoherence of the board as a whole is not a problem for the user. People are more likely to see the pins through the feed than the board as a whole.

Once other users like that material, they are more likely to see links to TeeSpring T-shirts this user is likely selling:


The T-Shirts are print-on-demand through a third-party service, so hastily designed that the description can’t even be bothered to spell “Mother” right.


So two things happen here. When Moms like QAnon content, they get t-shirts, which provides the incentive for spammers to continue to make these boards capitalizing on inflammatory content. Interestingly, when Moms like the T-shirts, they get QAnon content. Fun, right?

How Pinterest’s Aggressive Recommendation Engine Makes This Worse

About a year ago I wrote an article on how Pinterest’s recommendation engine makes this situation far worse.  I showed how after just 14 minutes of browsing, a new user with some questions about vaccines could move from pins on “How to Make the Perfect Egg” to something out of the Infowarverse:


What was remarkable about this process was that we got from point A to B by only pinning two pins on a board called vaccination.

I sped up the 14 minute process into a two and a half minute explanatory video. I urge you to watch it, because no matter how cynical you are it will shock you.

I haven’t repeated this experiment since then, so I’m unable to comment on whether Pinterest has mitigated this in the past year. It’s something we should be asking them, however.

I should note as well that the UI-driven decontextualization that drove Facebook’s news crisis is actually worse here. Looking at a board, I have no idea why I am seeing these various bits of information at all, or any indication where they come from.


Facebook minimized provenance in the UI to disastrous results. Pinterest has completely stripped it. What could go wrong?

Pinterest Is a Major Platform and It’s Time to Talk About It That Way

Pinterest has only 175 million users, but 75 million of those users are in the United States. We can assume a number of spam accounts pad that number, but even accounting for that, this is still a major platform that may be reaching up to a fifth of the U. S. population.

So why don’t we talk about it? My guess is that its perceived as a woman’s platform, which means the legions of men in tech reporting ignore it. And the Silicon Valley philosopher-king class doesn’t bring it up either. It just sounds a bit girly, you know? Housewife-ish.

This then filters down to the general public. When I’ve talked about Pinterest’s vulnerability to disinformation,  the most common response is to assume I am  joking. Pinterest? Balsamic lamb chops and state-sponsored disinfo? White supremacy and summer spritzers?

Yup, I say.

I don’t know how compromised Pinterest is at this point. But everything I’ve seen indicates its structure makes it uniquely vulnerable to manipulation. I’d beg journalists to start including it in their beat, and researchers to throw more resources into its study.

A Provocation for the Open Pedagogy Community

Dave Winer has a great post today on the closing of These are sites run by Berkman, some dating back to 2003, which are being shut down.

My galaxy brain goes towards the idea of federation, of course. The idea that everything referencing something should store a copy of what it references connected by unique global identifiers (if permissions and author preferences permit), and that we need a web that makes as many copies of things as the print world did, otherwise old copies of the Tuscaloosa News will outlast anything you are reading today on a screen. Profligate copying, as Ward Cunningham has pointed out, is biology’s survival strategy and it should be ours as well.

(I know, nature is not teleological. It’s a metaphor.)

But my smaller provocation, perfectly engineered for Friday twitter outrage at me and my sellout-ness, is this:

All my former university hosted sites are gone. We built up a WPMU instance at Keene in 2010, and the lack of broad adoption meant when I left in 2013 we shut it down. I ran some wiki on university servers here and at Keene, and those are gone too.

All my self-hosted sites are corrupted from hacks or transfer errors in imports. Go back into this blog and you’ll find sparse posting schedule for some years between 2010 and 2012 and it’s because those posts got nuked in a 2012 hack. I had to go out to the Wayback Machine and reconstruct the important ones by hand.

Transfer errors, let me tell you:  Go back to 2007 and look at all the images that failed imports and moves on this blog when it was self hosted. There’s also this weird “” character that pops up in all of them like this:

Hold on, you say, these Metro signs look different! There’s no BRAND!

The entire Blue Hampshire community I co-founded, over 15,000 posts and 100,000 comments, originally self-hosted on SoapBlox and then WordPress? Gone. It’s probably OK, I said a lot of stupid stuff. But of course it was also a historically important site, one of the most successful state political blogging communities, one of the first communities to be syndicated by Newsweek, one of the first to feature news stories that cross-posted — as news stories — to Huffington Post. One of the first sites to get individual statements from all the Democratic presidential candidates in a weekly forum. Gone, gone, gone.

I know, this doesn’t seem to be provocative, but here’s the thing:

My Blogger sites from 2005 forward? They’re up and they are pristine.


I mean, I’m not sure that’s a great thing — it was where I put little experiments too little to be worth setting up another BlueHost domain. But it also did me a solid in Keene Scene, where the 12-year old images of Keene life have stayed up unmolested and without any maintenance. (I’d quite forgotten about it, really).


Same holds — as I’ve mentioned before — for projects students put up on Google Sites. The BlueHost server (and later the Rackspace account) was long ago shut down but Google Sites is still up.

I’m not making a specific case here. But I do want to point out a big reason I moved to self-hosted and institutional solutions was this idea that commercially hosted stuff was too fickle. In 2006, it seemed that every week a new site shut down. For better or worse (mostly worse) monopoly consolidation has changed that dynamic a bit. There are other good reasons for self-hosting or doing institutional hosting, but durability is more downside than upside of these options, and we might want to let our students know that if they want something to stay up, self-hosting may not be the best choice.

Newspapers On Wikipedia Update: Initial Wikidata Pass

Thanks to initial work by folks at Wellesley and Wikidata work from 9of99 on Wikipedia, the Newspapers on Wikipedia project has both created an initial Wikidata set of extant U.S. Newspapers and mapped that to needs for page and infobox creation.

The full set is here and can be queried in multiple ways:

Visually these maps overstate needs in high density areas, since the red dots (needs page) take precedent over blue dots (has page) in a conflict, and the data has a geolocation that is only as granular as the town (hence Chicago has one geolocation). And the data will need continued cleanup — I’ve spotted a few issues just screenshotting regions. But this initial data set will be developed alongside the rest of the project, and even when papers don’t make it into Wikipedia, we’ll make sure the Wikidata on them is accurate, and try to match them with other sets of data as we go forward.

According to the data here (which again, is imperfect) the current counts are:

  • Has Wikipedia page and Infobox: 957
  • Needs Infobox: 84
  • Needs Page: 3775

(We’ve already put a dent in some of the work before this, so we’ll go back and manually tally up a baseline.)

Anyway, some maps. Keep in mind this is very preliminary.

A Note about Cognitive Effort and Misinfo (Oh, and also I’m a Rita Allen Misinformation Solutions Forum Finalist)

So I forgot to report this, but I put together a team and submitted a proposal to the Rita Allen Misinformation Solutions Forum contest, and our project was chosen out of all the submissions as one of five finalists. I’ll be going to D.C. in October to pitch it in a competition for one of two prizes.

The project is named  Let me fact-check that for you”: a semi-automated, personalized guide generator for the “Wait! You’re wrong about that!” responder.

The tool is meant to empower current Snope-sers to not just post links to alternative articles, but to post short, customized guides that show how they went about fact-checking the particular link, story, or image. Too often when someone in a comment thread debunks or contextualizes something, it’s just dueling links. No one learns how to check things any better. Our hope is to make a website service where you plug in a URL or image and click through a couple decisions. Out the other end comes a sharable little five second, screenshot-based guide showing how you might check that specific link or image.

The idea is loosely (very loosely) inspired  by the old joke site “Let me Google that for you”, where you could plug in a question someone had asked you and it would create a little video of the process to Google the answer. The idea with LMGTFY was partially to shame people into checking Google before bother people, but the other piece of it was to demonstrate that the time cost of consulting Google first was minimal. People were overestimating the cost of consulting Google, the little links were reminders.

People outside misinfo may not be aware of this, but there is a critique of the “people won’t fact check because they love their own point of view” that posits that people — to some extent — aren’t just choosing things they agree with because they like being right, but because it just requires less effort than engaging in more accuracy-oriented behavior. Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, for instance, have an interesting paper on this idea, showing that people that score high on cognitive reflection (an appetite for effort) also show better headline discernment, even when headlines are ideologically aligned.

I’m not necessarily sold on the Pennycook and Rand version of this idea, but I’m interested in the broader insight. I know it doesn’t explain the worst offenders, but I’ve found with those I work with that cynicism (“Pick what you want, it’s all bullshit!”) is often driven by the cognitive exhaustion of sorting through conflicting information. This insight also aligns with Hannah Arendt’s work — totalitarianism wins the information war by deliberately overwhelming the capacity of a population to reconcile endless contradictions. The contradictions are a tool to increase the cost of pursuing truth relative to other options.

If this is the case, one approach might be to encourage people to be more effortful when looking at online media. (Meh.) But the approach I favor is to reduce both the real and perceived cost of sorting through the muck through finding cheap, good enough methods and popularizing them. Doing that — while fostering a culture that values accuracy — might cause a few more people to regard the cost of checking something to be worth it relative to other seemingly more economical options like partisan heuristics, conspiracy thinking, or cynical nihilism.

As such, the methods that our tool will demonstrate will be useful (at decreasing real cost, since our methods fall back on some cognitively inexpensive methods). But the bigger impact is just letting people see that they probably imagine the cost of weeding out the worst information as being much higher than it actually is. By resetting these expectations, we can influence the behavior they choose.

As they say, it’s a theory. Anyway, let me know if you’ll be at the forum in October. I’d love to meet up. And if you’re working on something similar, let me know.

Unintended Consequences to Google Context Cards on Conspiracy Videos?

I was putting together materials for my online media literacy class and I was about to pull this video, which has half a million views and proposes that AIDS is the “greatest lie of the 21st century.” According to the video, HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, retrovirals do (I think that was the point, I honestly began to tune out).

But then I noticed one of the touches that Google has added recently: a link to a respectable article on the subject of AIDS. This is a technique that has some merit: don’t censor, but show clear links to more authoritative sources that provide better information.

At least that’s what I thought before I saw it in practice. Now I’m not sure. Take a look at what this looks like:


I’m trying to imagine my students parsing this page, and I can’t help but think without a flag to indicate this video is dangerously wrong that students will see the encyclopedic annotation and assume (without reading it of course) that it makes this video more trustworthy.  It’s clean looking, it’s got a link to Encyclopedia Britannica, and what my own work with students and what Sam Wineburg’s research has shown is that these features may contribute to a “page gestalt” that causes the students to read this as more authoritative, not less — even if the text at the link directly contradicts the video. It’s quite possible that the easiness on the eyes and the presence of an authoritative link calms the mind, and opens it to the stream of bullshit coming from this guy’s mouth.

Maybe I’m wrong. It seems a fairly easy thing to test, and I assume they tested it. But it’s also possible that when these things get automated the things you thought were edge conditions turn out to be much more the norm than anticipated. In this case, the text that forms that paragraph from Britannica is on “AIDS”, not “AIDS denialism”, and as such the text rebuttal probably has less impact than the page gestalt.

I get the same feeling from this one about the Holocaust:


What a person probably needs to know here is not this summary of what the Holocaust was. The context card here functions, on a brief scan, like a label, and the relevant context of this video is not really the Holocaust, but Holocaust denialism, who promotes it, and why.

Again, I hope I’m wrong. Subtle differences in implementation can matter, and maybe my gut on this is just off. It really could be — my job involves watching a lot of people struggle with parsing web pages, and that might warp my perspective.

But it should be easy enough for a researcher to take these examples and see how it works in practice, right? Does anyone know if someone has done that?



Ways to Help the Newspapers On Wikipedia Project Without Setting Up a Wikipedia Account #1: Add a Resource

A lot of people support the Newspapers on Wikipedia Project, but only a tiny fraction of supporters participate. Why?

I know so many people in open pedagogy that have never edited Wikipedia. I know you live with secret shame. So why not address that? Why not make this your first Wikipedia project? We’ll make it super easy. It will literally take 5 minutes.

Today’s Task: Add a State-Level Resource

Pick a state from our state-level pages and comb through free Google Books to see if you can find histories that have any substantial coverage of the newspaper industry in that state. Add it to one of the state pages under resources.

Here’s how you do it.

Be a bit selective in what you choose — one reference to one paper doesn’t make it generally useful. But often county histories will talk quite a bit about the history of newspapers, and sometimes state university libraries have detailed bibliographic records or digital archives, all of which can be useful.

Here’s the list of state pages — just give us five minutes!

Create an Account (but only if you want to)

Should you create an account?

If the stress of creating an account is stopping you from contributing, then no. Just edit anonymously (though be aware your IP will be logged publicly).

However, creating an account is easy, and the only real stressor is coming up with a username.

I recommend students do not use their real name to start — you can always change your name to a real name later. There are some things you might want to do on Wikipedia — like jumping into heated political debates — where a pseudonym is better. You probably don’t want to do those things, but you might want to keep the option open at first.

Adults and teachers, on the other hand, may want to use their real name, so that their work is more easily attributable to them.

Here’s the link to create an account: Create an Account

If You Want a Pseudonym

People using direct variations on their own name have it easy. But choosing a pseudonym can be stressful.

So let me suggest you don’t need to be clever. Your username can literally be a string of letters with no meaning to anyone other than you.

Here’s one way of generating such a username:  think of a song you have a memory about — any memory. Something your parents played, a song you remember from a first date, a song that just struck you on a cross-country drive, a song that played constantly on the radio on your way to your first job.

Take the initials of the person/band who performed it, followed by the initials of the song, and the year of the memory. So:

  • David Bowie, Modern Love, heard in 1983 = dbml83
  • John Lennon, Watching the Wheels, 1981 = jlwtw81
  • Billy Bragg, A New England, heard in 1988 = bbane88
  • Neil Young, Broken Arrow, heard in 1990 = nyba90
  • Klugmaknotts. Water Color Sound, 1995 = kwcs95
  • Belle and Sebastian, Sleep the Clock Around, 1999 = basstca99

If you don’t like that or it’s not unique, play with it a bit. Or keep picking different music memories til you find one you like. Or if you’re not big on music memories, pick something else. The important thing is to make the name opaque to outsiders so you don’t stress about their interpretation.

You can always request renaming later, when you have a better idea. It’s just a login, don’t sweat it. Don’t start thinking it has to represent you — your work is what will represent you in the end.

Join the NOW Slack

If you do just one thing today, join the Newspapers on Wikipedia Slack. You can get all the information you want there. We have an “odd jobs” channel you can listen into that will feed you all sorts of small to medium-sized tasks, like finding a copyright-free picture of a newspaper office, adding awards to a Wikipedia page, adding notes on specific pages, help verify a date.

Here’s the link:

Newspapers on Wikipedia Project: A Quick and Current Project Summary and Some Heartfelt Thank Yous

The Newspapers on Wikipedia Project is moving forward. If you don’t know what the project is about, read the brief summary on the WikiProject page, and then maybe this short Poynter story which I think explains the project more concisely than I typically have.

If you’re not into clicking links, the best summary I can provide is this:

The Data Void Problem

Wikipedia and the array of information services that rely on it have a problem.

  • Wikipedia ends up providing important credibility signals in evaluating news sources, and in particular in telling if something is from a traditional news source or an imposter.
  • These signals are part of multiple algorithmic and media literacy solutions.
  • Wikipedia provides fairly good coverage of national news sources.
  • Wikipedia provides very poor coverage of local news sources, where less than half (and possibly *much* less than half) of local newspapers have a Wikipedia page.
  • This particular “data void” has been exploited before (remember the “Denver Guardian”?) and we expect it to be increasingly exploited until we fill it in.
  • There are signs that exploiting this gap is on the menu in the near future. See, most recently, Russians Created Twitter Accounts for Fake Local News Sources.

(for an explanation of a data void issue in medicine, read this Wired article)

The Student-Driven Solution

  • We’re having students and faculty fill the gap by writing small articles on local newspapers. We’re going to try to get 1,000 written.
  • In the process, the students will learn deep information literacy skills and understandings around search, sourcing, point of view, and Wikipedia processes.
  • They also learn about the importance of local news — the ways in which it has served communities in the past, for both better and for worse.

And we think that’s an amazing trifecta: improving the information environment, developing online research literacies, and understanding the importance of local news ecosystems.

Partners, Funders, and Advisers

We are benefiting from the help of lots of people.

Eni Mustafaraj and Emma Laurie at Wellesley wrote the research article on the impact of the local news data void on students’ ability to evaluate sources, and inspired the project. And they are putting together code and people at Wellesley to help track the progress of this project in closing that void, and organizing some fall editathons to get it done.

Paul Haahr and Susan Karp literally jumped in to personally support this project on day one. Besides funding some project tracking through Wellesley, they have made a matching donation “challenge” that we will be using to further motivate students. For each newspaper article created to some minimal specifications, they will donate $25 to Room to Read, a charity that teaches young girls in developing countries to read, up to $25,000.

I’m also just indebted to them for their immediate interest and faith in this project. Paul is actually Google’s top-ranked search engineer: the fact that he grokked this idea immediately helped inspire me to add yet another project onto my rather full dance card. (I don’t regret it).

Pete Forsyth is a well-known Wikipedian who makes a living showing clients how to navigate Wikipedia ethically, explaining sometimes byzantine rules and conflicting concerns to newbies. He’s advising this project for free, helping not just me, but the  students who have already started working on this.

Amy Collier, the “first follower” that any project leader would die to have in their camp, contacted me about twenty minutes after I proposed this and said she wanted in. Her team of students at Middlebury is already kicking ass and helping us to work out the kinks in our processes before our fall semester rollout.

Wiki Education, which has agreed as of this week to coordinate with us to support students  and faculty on this project. From here forward, if you want to get started on this you can email, let them know that you want to work on the Newspapers on Wikipedia project. They will get you set up to teach Wikipedia in your classroom, integrating some of the materials and tasks that we’re pursuing, and pass you back to us for help where appropriate. They’ve been supporting people using Wikipedia in the classroom for years, so we are extremely grateful for their participation and investment in our success.

If I missed you here, I’m sorry — but I wanted to say thanks to these folks sooner rather than later. This project is starting to pick up a head of steam, and I’m thankful for all the support.