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.


Climate-based Web Literacy Activity

Some materials here for a web literacy presentation to students dealing with climate.

The Stream


Evaluating Search Results

Here’s some searches. As usual, we use questions, while noting questions are not a great way to search the web. These searches have been chosen because they are at least partially problematic.

  1. Will the Thames freeze over in 2020?
  2. Is the Sun “going to sleep” in 2020?
  3. Has the new little ice age started?

For this part of the activity, try each of these searches, then rate the quality of the search results without going to the pages yet.

What is the least promising result in your search result set? What is the least promising? What clues do you use to determine that?

Look for Previous Work

Pick one of the articles you you think may be substandard. Skim it to understand what it is claiming. Check to see if Snopes, Politifact, or some other organization has already fact-checked it.

Going Upstream to the Source

If it hasn’t been fact-checked try to go upstream to the source. Skim it to see if the information here came from a better or more reliable source. Go to that source and skim that source to see where it got it until you end up at the original source.

Read Laterally

Once you are to the source, figure out whether that source has expertise, authority and trustworthiness.

Other Questions

Here’s some questions. The answer to them might be yes, no, or maybe. Could we improve the search results with better answers?

  • Are global temperatures plunging?
  • Did the Australian weather bureau tamper with climate numbers?
  • Could a sperm count drop make humans extinct?
  • Are cheetahs on a fast track to extinction?
  • Has global warming triggered a moss explosion on Antarctica?
  • Does climate change make polar bears healthier?
  • Will the earth’s atmosphere collapse due to a solar minimum?

The Book and Template

  1. Here’s the book.
  2. Here’s a list of 300+ questions, but we haven’t checked to see if they get good results and they are mostly not climate.
  3. Here’s the  Microsoft Word template for the activity.


Traces Newsletter #23: The Mobilization State

Last night’s newsletter today. If you like the newsletter you should sign up here, as sometimes I post these here and sometimes I don’t.

No main story this time. Please note a new edition to our format — some stories are marked “evolving”. These are stories which have caught my interest, but where the story is nascent enough that I haven’t seen it reported on a solid site yet. I’ve struggled with these stories, because one of the things I like to do is share early-stage stories here: this tag is my compromise. “Evolving” means simply “There’s a story out there that were keeping an eye on, treat with caution.”

Killing the town square to “save” it

Apple calls its stores town squares, which makes us all throw up in our mouths a little.

Uber won’t be fined by Portland for flagrant violations of the law.

YouTube may be banning LGBTQ+ gaming videos from making money on the platform, just for mentioning bad words like “lesbian”. [evolving]

Paleofake Persistence

Warm water doesn’t help clean your hands, but no one can kill zombie advice, so we pour tons of carbon into the atmosphere just because.

Global Potemkin Village

Fighting fake news in Germany (with success, actually).

An alt-right emerges online in South Korea.

BBC sorts out the “fake news” issues in the Myanmar conflict – short answer: yes, there is some exageration and fakery, but when journalists are banned what do you expect?

Blue Whale hysteria hits India

Kenya continues to investigate fake news aimed at stirring ethnic tensions, with an eye toward prosecution.

1984, Inc.

According to a new-ish report, Vladmir Putin doesn’t so much oversee a totalitarian state as a “mobilization state” – private, individual actors are mobilized for state purposes, without being directly controlled by the state. “The government is willing – within certain bounds – to accept the presence of civil society, a free press, independent economic activity, and even some political pluralism. However, in keeping with its general philosophical belief that it is at (political) war and faces an existential cultural and political threat from the West, it reserves to itself the right to co-opt any individual or organisation when it feels the need.” This is the new face of authoritarianism.

ACLU is suing to stop warrantless phone searches at the border. Probably a lot better use of their time than defending Nazis.

The EFF has resigned from the W3C over the W3C’s reckless push for a standard of web-based DRM that makes everyone less safe.

WikiTribune was going to have a new wiki approach to news, and I’m interested in that. And I like founder Jimmy Wales, who has been a great influence on the web, of course. But I’m very worried that the first article they’ve put out is a puff piece about an organization Jimmy Wales is working with. Actual lede: “An unusual coalition of figures from the movie and music industries, fantastically wealthy philanthropists, human rights leaders, politicians, and diplomats are pushing against the nationalism and gloom evident since Brexit and the U.S. elections to push for bold new goals to combat poverty, health and security.” And it’s a crowd Wales will be talking to. We need better than this, please. (And is it just me or is that sentence really hard to parse?)

Facebook is becoming the internet, and when seen through that lens it looks more like China than a modern democracy. [NYT video] Also, from April, We Need More Alternatives to Facebook.

There’s a conservative case to be made for busting the Google-Amazon-Facebook monopolies.

In light of recent events, you probably want to read Bruce Schneir’s old post on Data as a Toxic Asset. The crazy but true thing proposed there – companies hold onto toxic data because it’s the only way to justify out of whack valuations. They risk your life and our democracy not even for direct profit, but for investor hand-waving. They are risking everything to preserve their elevator pitch.

BTW the world is burning

It turns out we may have a chance – just sliver of a chance – of avoiding the catastrophic levels of global warming. No secret how: stop pumping carbon into the air, abide by current agreements. Under another administratiion this would be amazingly hopeful news. [evolving]

Crapjects for a Post-Truth World

If you teach this stuff to students you should probably know what “prank” site generators are.

Polarization and the Twilight of the Elites

Hillary Clinton finds that de Tocqueville got there first. According to his treatment of the French revolution, revolts start not in the places that have it worst, but in places with the biggest expectation gaps.

This paper argues that engaging a frame of “civic duty” leads to more rational policy preference formation when processing information. That would be great if true, and could be a path to saving the world. Too bad the article’s paywalled.

Justin Murphy argues that the data we have (at least presently) shows very little movement towards the conservative or liberal poles in the U.S. in the past few decades, and that the only long term trend is increasing social liberalism.

If that’s true, then how do we explain polarization? I’m going to come back to the point I keep pressing: polarization is driven by elites. And where I am right now on it is that that elite polarization is largely driven by strategic concerns and outcomes, both in media and political life. I’m not 100% sure on this, but that’s where I am at the moment. Elites polarize for strategic reasons, partisans follow the cues. That’s not to say that some ideas on the “fringes” aren’t right — but when we look at why polarization seems asymmetric, for examples, we should find our answers as much in strategy as psychology.

Related to that, an interesting paper that I haven’t dug into yet that shows the impact on partisan cues on reasoning.

Via Maria Popova, a reminder from Karl Popper: “Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we can correct them.” This confusion – that truth and certainty are the same – underlies much disinfo and conspiracy theory.

The Rock 2020

Conspiracist Alex Jones has said he might support The Rock if he runs. I won’t link – you can look it up. I think Johnson’s better move is to run on the Democratic side if he’s running in 2020: the math on presidential same-party challenges is pretty bad. (Note: I’m not saying that it’s good or bad he runs, I’m just saying there’s a good chance he’s going to run and do fairly well).

How To Participate In Digipo (September 2017 version)

Every time I say I can’t make it easier to participate in Digipo, I find a way to make it easier.

The current process involves no skills greater than knowing how to work a word processor, and (more importantly) allows students to participate anonymously if they wish, without having to sign up for Google accounts or have edits tracked under pseudonyms. We accomplish this through a Microsoft Word template and by submitting the files into public domain.

You can of course use a more complex process, sign your name to the article, and use Google Docs as your central tool. Depending on your needs and skill level you may want to do that. It’s just not required anymore.

Here’s the steps.

  1. Read (at least some) of the book.
  2. Pick a question to investigate from our list of 300+ questions, or make up your own.
  3. Have your students download this Microsoft Word template that guides them through an investigation of a question. Apply the skills from the book.
  4. Do whatever sort of grading, assessment, or feedback you want.
  5. Take student reports where the students have agreed to submit them into public domain, and zip up the word documents. Mail them to Make sure you introduce who you are, what the class is about, and a bit about your experience as I do not open zip files from random people. Also give me a blurb about how your class would like to be identified on the site (they have the option  of remaining anonymous too). For verification purposes, send it from your university account. I may email back to verify.
  6. I’ll put them on the Digipo site in a subdirectory with a bit about your class and give you a password that allows them to edit online going forward.
  7. At a later point we’ll assemble a small panel of professors who will go through the student work and choose ones to “promote” to the main directory based on quality. The key question reviewers will ask is whether the document provides better information than at least one of the top ten Google results for the question.

That’s it!



That Watson for OER Pitch Is Classic Information Underload

Saw this today. Watson is going to solve OER!


Wait what? Only a thousand lessons?

Divide that by six grade levels and that’s about 166 lessons per grade. Figure you probably teach 80 lessons a year…

So Watson, with its supposed brain the size of a planet, is going to do what for you exactly? Whittle down 200 lessons to 80?

Not exactly HAL, is it?

We keep doing crap like this, proposing “discovery” solutions to content production problems. To find out why we have to stop focusing on the wrong end of this, read this from me and this from David Wiley.

When Fox News Is Not a Bad Choice

Misinformation is an asymmetrical phenomenon, occurring more in sources followed by Republicans than Democrats. There are historical reasons that explain this: the creation of a right-wing media system was heavily funded and subsidized by corporations and donors in a way that left-wing media never has been. This isn’t to say that the left couldn’t become much like the right in this respect, and there are indications it may go that way in time. It just isn’t there yet.

This asymmetry puts educators in a bit of a bind, since skills training presented to students can come off as partisan, even when it isn’t. And if it is perceived as partisan, many students will dismiss it. No one wants to learn a set of skills that seem to threaten their core identity. Not conservatives, not liberals, not leftists, not centrists. As such, it’s important to look for examples that demonstrate the lessons students need to learn but that at least occasionally upend partisan expectations.

Here’s an example of something along these lines. In this set of Google results, to a person not knowing these sources, Fox News is the best choice:


Can you see why? Here’s a close up:


We can see in the snippet that there are sources to this story, called out by name (or at least position). Now I wouldn’t trust that headline (you should never trust headlines from anybody, really) and I wouldn’t take the Navy’s word for it. But it’s clear here from the snippet that this article will give you some sources you can follow up on (or, as we say, allow you to go upstream to the source).

And when you click on that article, you do find it is well sourced, and that it draws most of its info from a McClatchy news service article.


And you can take that information and find the article Fox is using (which apparently it finds a valid source since it is citing it) and find it with a simple search modification (adding McClatchy to the search):


And it turns out the McClatchy article that Fox is quoting has a great deal of research behind it (and, notably, contradicts what the Navy is saying). But what Fox News’s print articles do (at least a portion of the time) is follow some of the journalistic norms which allow you to understand where information is coming from and, if possible, track it to its source.

I’ll repeat, before I get slammed in the comments. This is not meant to be a defense of Fox News. But if you want to help people get better at navigating their information environments, you have to start where they are. And part of that might be talking about times when Fox might be a decent choice for a click, and how tracing Fox News claims to the source can provide a deeper, more informed reading experience.