Pictures from Pinterest

I’ve been looking at political culture on Pinterest. I pulled these images from my feed today. Apologies that there are so many from the right and none from the left — that’s just what came up today. Political culture on Pinterest tends towards the Republican side of things (I’m training another Pinterest account to feed me liberal memes).

Not all of these are false, though many are, and some are a bit horrifying. And for the record, I’m not saying that “debunking” these is the best approach to Pinterest propaganda (it’s probably not — ‘debunking’ is usually not the right tone or approach). I’m just putting them here to start a conversation, and maybe as an input into your lesson plans.


Let’s talk briefly about a few varieties of the memes people pin on Pinterest.

First, the general lizard brain access point for a lot of these is “Man, my opponents are so dumb”, which how a lot of memes get propagated. And they aren’t meant to persuade as much as demonstrate how they’ve been right all along. That said, there’s a couple categories to look at.

Fake Artifacts



The above pieces were likely pulled from different pictures, but if you go to Snopes you’ll find that the Obama one is fake and the Clinton-Gore one did not originate from the campaign (and possibly never existed at that time). The other two did not appear in any contemporary coverage, which they almost certainly would have.

It feels weird to debunk this though, right? That worries me about this sort of image based disinfo, the way verification always seems beside the point.

Photoshopped/Falsely Labeled Events


There’s a lot of this sort of thing. The photo above is actually from the 2009 riots in Greece, with the antifa logo photoshopped on:


Questionable/Fake Quotes

A lot of effort to attribute things to people either out of context, or more usually, that they just didn’t say:


Yeah, he didn’t say that.


Hitler never said this and actually believed the opposite of it — for him, change came from violent and visible upheaval. But the idea, I think, is to somehow connect bans on guns, incandescent bulbs, and Kinder Eggs to creeping fascism. So someone wrote this to make it seem like an eerie parallel.

Incomplete, Deceptive, or Fictional Stats

This stat isn’t bad; it comes from a real academic paper, apparently. It doesn’t deal with the high natural variability of reported rapes in Orlando which doesn’t invalidate this point, but provides necessary context.


In images like this the main problem is that the image floats around devoid of not only context, but of any pointers to context. It doesn’t invite contextualization the way that text does.


That problem becomes a huge issue in cases like the above. This stat may be true, depending on the year to which it is referring. But the picture is provocative and the necessary context — people tend to shoot people local to them, and the black population is highly concentrated — is completely absent. There’s no context that the vast majority of deaths of white people are at the hands of other whites. It’s stats like this, incidentally, that radicalized Dylann Roof.



Not much to say here. But it’s popular to do this. Hey, man, they’re “just asking questions”. (You can read more about “leading question technique” here).


This one actually fooled a congresscritter or two. It reauthorizes powers that have been available to the president in a time of emergency since the 1950s. Every president has had these powers, and as a matter of fact, probably had these powers implicitly before, since FDR exercised broad control over resources in WWII. But paired with the Obama picture it feels ominous to a lot of people for reasons that we won’t go into here.


I don’t even want to dignify this. But no, he was not a frontrunner, he was not running, and the crash was textbook inexperience and recklessness.

Fake Stories


Need I tell you this is not true?

Weird Stuff Plugging Into Some Belief System I Do Not Know


So this is actually a photo of a European fighting the Zulu in South Africa, not someone fighting Native Americans. For the life of me, though, I have no idea what weird point this is aiming to prove.

Anyway, that’s today’s batch. Sorry they were primarily far right memes, I’ll try to get a Pinterest account trained up to collect liberal stuff as well.

I have some deeper thoughts about the problems of media literacy and memes but maybe I’ll talk about that later.


Assignment: Knife-Carrying Odinga Supporter

There is currently unrest in Kenya over the Kenyan Supreme Court’s certification of results of a disputed election. A number of people have been killed in protests. There is some dispute around how many have died, but estimates range from five to eighteen. The police maintain that mobs in support of the opposition candidate have killed around five people; the opposition leader Raila Odinga has pointed to police shootings of over a dozen protesters as the main violence, part of a pattern of police force that Human Rights Watch claims has taken the lives of 67 people since the original August 8 election.

Now our task: this image circulated on Twitter recently among Kenyans.  It shows a man with bananas and a bloody knife, and describes it as a photograph of a Raila Odinga supporter who has stabbed a banana vendor in order to steal bananas. It does not indicate whether the banana vendor died.


And here’s the picture by itself:


The man is clearly wearing an orange Odinga shirt, marking him as a supporter of the opposition. Twitter users — including Odinga supporters — were justifiably disturbed by the photo in this context:


Questions coming up downpage. But I am going to warn you before starting to look at this about four things:

  1. You’re entering an unknown media environment (Kenya) where it will be unclear which news sources to trust and which to not. You may wish to keep Wikipedia’s Newspapers in Kenya list open in a tab. Interestingly, this lack of media and cultural knowledge of party dynamics mimics what a lot of younger American students have in the American context: they don’t recognize the major papers or major names in politics.
  2. I’m going to tell you in advance that the results of this one may be fuzzy. Just try to get the best information you can.
  3. Because may be unfamiliar with the political context, this may take a little bit. Don’t expect to understand Kenya in 90 seconds.
  4. Final point: I worry that dipping into a political issue like this and learning one single fact about it might distort your understanding of Kenyan politics. So I highly encourage you to take twenty minutes after the activity and read up more generally on the current political conflict in Kenya.


  • Where is the photograph from? Was it taken at the protests? Is it recent?
  • What is the best information we have on the story behind the photograph?

OK, go! Comments are closed here, but if you want to show you got the answer, DM me on Twitter @holden.

Traces #32: Hall of Mirrors

For some reason Tiny Letter’s archive is not showing the latest newsletter, so I am putting it here for safe-keeping. You can read other previous newsletters here, and also sign up to receive them by email.

Global Potemkin Village

A new NATO Stratcom report on social media-based disinformation is out. I haven’t finished it, but it starts out with an great (and needed) summary of various disinfo efforts around the world, with particular attention to how disinfo manifests differently in different countries and platforms. I think tracking this is important to media literacy efforts, not necessarily because our students will be fighting disinfo on Russia’s VKontakte or China’s Jinri Toutiao, but because by tracking these many different articulations of the same phenomenon we are more likely to see what is coming down the road next.

A piece on Mocha Uson, who is the social media face of Duerte’s regime in the Phillipines. Uson calls the press “press-titutes” (get it?) and has more recently pushed for the news source that published this to be reclassified and denied access to some Palace events. The piece lists the web sources she promotes which also forms a helpful index of junk news Filipino websites. Remember that in the Phillipines sharing fake news knowingly is a sin against charity, per the Catholic Church there, which maintains a list of websites to avoid.

China’s WeChat is rumored to be moving toward a more feed-like experience. Chinese citizens get the majority of their news from online sources, and given the ubiquity of WeChat these changes will increase those numbers. Of course, the Chinese government exerts heavy control on these platforms. I need a burner phone so I can play around with WeChat while not aiding the Chinese surveillance state.

Claire Wardle talks about the need for a coordinated global effort to fight information disorder. She also says we should treat “fake news” as a swear. Which will ding our SEO, but she’s probably right.

Shameless Self-Promotion

I made a short video showing how Pinterest can quickly pull a person into a web of medical misinformation. It’s quite shocking to watch. In two minutes you can watch a person go from antivax-curious to full-on medical conspiracist. A lot of this is driven by natural health sites, who push these pins into the system to up their reach, and to discredit traditional medicine as a marketing strategy. While it’s tempting to chalk that up to California liberalism, it’s worth noting that Pinterest as late as 2014 was the only major platform that had a much larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats. But watch the video and be shocked. Pinterest is also a major source of political misinfo, but more on that later.

1984, Inc.

From Molly Hackett: “We should be having a conversation, as a society, whether we want our moral emotions to be manipulated as a way of generating advertising for big tech companies.”

Fringe communities on Reddit and 4chan have an outsize impact on Twitter. Yeah, tell me something I don’t know, but there are some interesting details here besides that. Again, you have to look at this as a system — the surest sign of a noob in this space is someone that sees influence as only occurring in the platform things originated in. The truth is much more complex.

The Lawfare Podcast has Andrei Soldatov on Russian Intel Ops and Surveillance. Related: a 2015 Guardian article on the Hall of Mirrors approach to disinfo.

New report on Google and the 2016 elections finds that “up to 30% of … national candidates had their search results affected by potentially fake or biased content.”

Jonathan Albright on Instagram meme-seeding. Takeaway: “Instagram — a service larger than Twitter and Snapchat combined — should be seen as a major influence, targeting and engagement hub for the spread of political propaganda.”

You Are Being Gamed

Sharing pictures of missing children on your Facebook or Twitter feed must be good, right? Not so fast, say Canada’s Mounties. These pitures go around for a lot of reasons and you can do real harm in sharing them. Always make sure the child is truly missing by checking news reports before you share.

Disinformation campaigns target tech-enabled citizen journalists” from Brookings.

Amanda Hess has an utterly engaging short video on conspiracy theories and the Internet. There’s not much new here, it’s just really well done. I look at it more as an example of the sort of idiom we might want to talk in to correct misconceptions.

Alternative Facts and Alternative Medicine

A good interview with Emily Thorson who is much more concerned with medical misinformation than with political misinformation in high-profle races. Again, the main takeaway is that this is a complex problem that does not benefit from band-aid or single-pronged solutions.

A bonus old article on Pinterest and health disinfo.

You’ve seen those web ads where Jennifer Aniston endorses some unheard of product by describing one weird trick, right? Fake, of course. But incredibly profitable, according to Stephanie Lee at Buzzfeed. Profitable to the tune of $179 million. Seriously. If we want to reduce medical misinfo where going to have to a lot better job at making it unprofitable.

Free Speech is like Free Markets. Broken.

Here’s a good case that “No Platform for Fascists” makes sense, but that expanding it much further may not. Also a good presentation of the case that the real threats to free speech on campus are not coming from the students. Something I didn’t know — “No Platform for Fascists” as a stance in student movements dates back to 1973 Britain.

Department of Being a Better Person

Drake calls out a groper in the crowd. Honestly, they should have kicked the guy out of the club, but Drake is still the hero we need right now. Rock and rap shows are often gropefests. It’s disgusting, and artists need to speak up

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).