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: https://now-ish.slack.com

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 contact@wikiedu.org, 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.


Starting a Wikipedia Article on a Local Newspaper

This is sped up, but an introduction to how to start a local newspaper page on Wikipedia. It’s not meant to introduce people to Wikipedia as much as the process of slowly building out an article based on quality sources.

We really need faculty and students who are willing to sign up for our project described here. Just commit to having your class do five to ten articles and they’ll make the world a better place while learning digital literacy and research skills. We’re even working with Wiki Education to get you the classroom support you need.  Email contact@wikiedu.org saying you want to your class to participate in the Newspapers on Wikipedia project to get started for the fall. Perfect for everything from history classes to first-year seminars to journalism courses.

Sign up now and give your students a chance to make the world a better place instead of doing more throwaway projects. You won’t regret it!


Encourage Students to Give Feedback on Google Answers

Early on in the Digital Polarization Project we had students do large info-environmentalism projects, and we still do that sometimes. But I’ve become convinced that the more sustainable change is in simpler actions — stuff you can do in a few hours or even a few seconds.

Here’s an example from today — I was talking with my daughter about her summer job, and the question of what minimum wage was in Washington State came up. Google told us it was $11/hour:

minimum wage

And it was — in 2017. But it’s 2018, and so scanning a bit further we found the Washington government site, where it is listed as $11.50 as of this past January:


That could be that, but there is a feedback button below the Google result.


Now I do want to be clear — the chances of Google looking at your particular answer and fixing this particular answer is quite low. Google tends to avoid adjusting individual answers. But if it identifies a systemic problem — for example, broadly out of date minimum wage data across many states — it may result in some attention to the way they derive these answers. So go ahead and do it, it just takes a second:


Having students give feedback also helps remind students that the answers they see at the top of the Google result page are at best guesses.

If you’re looking for a quick classroom activity, going and look up the minimum wage in various states and see if Google gets it right. Give feedback if it doesn’t.



Establishing the Significant History of a Newspaper on Wikipedia

Ultimately one of the prime goals of the Newspapers on Wikipedia project (#NOW) is to make sure that significant local publications have an infocard, and thereby are more likely to generate a Google panel in the search results.

But that’s not the first, or hardest step.

The first, and more difficult, step is to establish the significant history of the given newspaper so that the article meets notability requirements and will not be deleted. Once that is accomplished it is relatively simple to go back and add infocards.

So how do we do that? And what does it look like? It varies from paper to paper — but here are some resources you can use and examples you can mimic.

Start With the Library of Congress Record

Here’s the main thing to understand about Wikipedia – a primary source cannot establish its own notability. So that long history in the paper’s about section? You can cite that, but only after you’ve established much of the history and significance through other sources.

The Library of Congress has a project about historical newspapers called Chronicling America and one of the nice results of that is that they have bibliographic records on many papers. This is a good starting place because it not only provides you a nice authoritative Library of Congress cite for your newspaper page, but it also alerts you to different names the paper published under, who the owners were, and whether it was preceded by a related publication.

It’s worth taking note of all these names and people, as they are going to be search terms for you. You can also start to build the chronology of the paper. If the paper is the result of a merger, you may want to cover the history of the previous papers it grew from in the article.

You can do a fancy LOC search using “site:” syntax or use their own internal search (which I found a bit lacking). But for most papers, this sort of thing gets you where you want to go.

loc search.PNG

When you get to the LOC page, note the first date (or year) of publication, the frequency, the publisher, and any preceding titles as you’ll work this all into your article.

Because different papers sometimes have similar names you’ll also want to check the town of publication and the publication years. Occassionally LOC will have multiple records for the same paper name in the same town and you have to find the right one.

Search Google Books

A useful way to establish notability is to search Google Books. For instance, through Google Books I learned the Wellesley Townsman published one of Sylvia Plath’s early poems, as well as an obituary that blamed her death on viral pneumonia. That’s interesting, and also adds to notability. I also learned that the Griffin Daily News played a significant role in stoking racial resentment — locally and nationally — in the 1890s.

What you’re looking for in these accounts is not a book sourcing a fact to these papers, but the papers either playing a role in events or being covered due to their importance. So if a book just cites the paper as a reference — well, that’s not really notable. But if it talks about the paper directly — maybe about the sale of it, or how it was the only paper to support a certain candidate for Governor, or when it went to a daily publication schedule  — that’s something to throw in the article. You might also see if notable people may have worked for the paper at one time and go to their articles and link them to the paper.

Google Books also does auto-citing pretty well — throw the link into the cite box and it builds the citation for you. Don’t pull the URL from the location bar, however, pull it from the link up top after hitting “clear search” — this should provide a link directly to the cited page.


Some older Wikipedians get a bit grumpy about autocites — they don’t look as nice, and when multiple cites are used they don’t compress into nice “Ibid’s” etc. I’m sympathetic, but it’s not something you should worry much about. Using autocite maximizes your research time and provides direct links to evidence, so on the whole it’s a good thing.

Historical Newspaper Archives Will Save Your Life

The most useful resource for finding out the history of a paper is other contemporary papers. Start by checking if your university’s library has subscriptions to newspaper archive search engines.

Nineteenth Century Newspapers:


ProQuest Newspapers:


And Nexis Uni:



If you don’t have the access you need from your institution or local library you might want to pay for a personal account somewhere. The “Publisher Extra” subscription level of Newspapers.com costs $75 for six months and a NewspaperArchive account is $50 for six months. Both are excellent sources, especially for small local papers.

Even for these accounts, you may not have to pay any money at all — Wikipedia provides a number of free accounts of NewspaperArchive to Wikipedians that have a significant edit history and no institutional access, as do some local libraries.

The amount of hidden history that you can find news archives is extensive. Here’s my recent Newspapers.com clippings on J. J. Benford, editor and initial publisher of the Albertville Herald in GA:

In there we have the entire early biography of this editor. We’ve also got various articles on the merger of the Albertville Herald with the Sand Mountain Reporter.

Clippings are also shareable with the general public which makes them very useful on Wikipedia.

Here’s a shot of NewspaperArchive with an article on Jesse Culp, the editor of the Sand Mountain Reporter in 1961 when the article was published:


Now it’s on Culp speaking to the PTA, but we learn that he had been editor of the Sand Mountain Reporter since it spun up in 1955, and that — like J.J. Benford (who ran the other town’s paper) — his background was in agricultural radio reporting. We also get a nice connection (and therefore link out) to the WAVU Wikipedia article.

And here’s a Nexis Uni page on a purchase of the paper in 1999:


Pulling It Together

When you write your article, these bits of research are used for small parentheticals, but they get cited as well. For instance, here is a page for the Sand Mountain Reporter I drafted this morning out of these references:


If using historical newspaper archives, links should go to “clippings”, not pages, per both Wikipedia and the archives. Clippings in these systems are a way to share specific articles publicly, and linking to the clipping — which is not behind a paywall — allows others to check your work and the accuracy of your citation without needing an account.

In this case we weren’t able to find anything worthwhile in Google Books about this paper, but by getting down the history — even of this rather small paper — we’re able to show its long and important history in the community. And we’re able to do this without citing the paper itself, instead relying on the Library of Congress and four other local papers to tell the story here.

It would be nice if we had a Google Books story or two — a Sylvia Plath style story, or even a mention in a book on local Alabama history. But I think you can make the argument to those that ask that the long and continued coverage of this paper by other papers shows its importance to the region. While the paper may seem a little slight, it is not simply a weekly shopper of pay-to-play features, but a true area newspaper with a significant history.

After you’ve established notability, you can go ahead and write up an infobox on the page (or let someone else do it) giving the most current stats of the paper, and think about what needs to be in those important first couple sentences of the page. Or fix citations — I notice I didn’t note the page of the paper here, which I should do. But  starting with the history and significance will get you off on the right foot.