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As we head into the home stretch before our CoLab event, let’s pull the threads together. In week one, we talked about mail dumping narratives: the ways in which many scattered events were tied together to create the impression of an out-of-control election. In week two, we got into more complex conspiracy theories around “ballot-stuffing”. These conspiracy theories were not a single set of false stories, but a complex interweaving of many false stories, adding up to something akin to an alternate universe.

This week, I want to bring us back to the SIFT methodology, and the larger picture.

The Bottle in the Lake

When I talk about misinformation these days, I often start by sharing a parable of sorts. It goes like this. …

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Last week we talked about mail-dumping narratives, which have driven a lot of the misinformation leading up to the election. This week I want to talk about one of the major narratives we expect to see during and after the election: ballots discovered. But first let’s give a bit of background.

Elections in the U.S. aren’t perfect. In fact, they can be pretty far from it. We live in a country that has been increasingly gerrymandered, where vast swaths of the population are disenfranchised from the vote. …

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Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash

Social media has long had a role in keeping government accountable and calling flaws of the electoral process to light. In previous elections, we saw images of long lines at some voting locations — based on a division of resources that seemed correlated more with the wealth or racial composition of districts than population. We’ve gained insight before into ballot printing errors that seem to have benefitted either Republicans or Democrats. Individual users of social media have alerted us to defamatory robocalls, or deceptive flyers. …

One thing you learn on TikTok is users have an almost religious view of the algorithm. This was always true of YouTube creators (see Chris Stokel-Walker’s work, for example) but it’s true here of users too. And this has some disturbing implications for disinformation.

If you flip through TikTok users are obsessed with how the algorithm brings them together. “No tags!” a video will say “If TikTok brought you here it means that you’re like me, an extroverted-introvert book-loving break-dancing freak.”

Users actually refer to algorithmically created groups as “Toks”. StraightTok (applied derisively to normie content). TrumpTok. MomTok. GayTok. DeepTok. …

In the misinformation field there’s often a weird dynamic between the short-term and long-term gains folks. Maybe I don’t go to the right meetings, but my guess is if you went to a conference on structural racism and talked about a redesigning the mortgage interest deduction in a way that was built to specifically build black wealth rather than intensify racial wealth gaps most of the folks there would be fine with yes-anding it. Let’s get that done short term, and other stuff long-term. Put it on the road map.

In misinformation, however, the short term and long term people are perpetually at war. It’s as if you went to the structural racism conference and presented on revised mortgage policy and someone asked you how that freed children from cages on the border. And when you said it didn’t, they threw up their hands and said, “See?” …

Interesting example below of the death by a thousand papercuts warping of reality we now endure daily.

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Screenshot of shared C-Span video, showing Sanders alone in House in 1991. The caption reads “…here is Bernie Sanders — alone — addressing the empty chairs of our elected officials long gone home on the need to prevent the first gulf war…”

Everyone who watches C-Span knows this is not a Jimmy Stewart moment. It’s what reps do as a CYA move to get into the record. You’re not standing alone, you’re reading into the record at a point where it has no real impact. If I read the date here correctly, the vote happened several days before. This is theater.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Reading into the record after hours is a venerated tradition. But the framing of the video makes it seem like the House is empty because Sanders was the sole person standing up for this, and implies that his Democratic colleagues voted for a war and then went home. …

People have been dunking on this Google layout change (announced below by @searchliaison), but for the record I think it will be good for helping people spot sources and sponsored content. And that’s far more important than all the concerns of layout purists.

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“Last year, our search results on mobile gained a new look. That’s now rolling out to desktop results this week, presenting site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded “Ad” label for ads. Here’s a mockup”

This is the OLD layout below. What I’ve noticed with students is they do not see the URL or ad designation at all. It’s hidden under a massive page title, and the green text is almost designed to go unnoticed

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Screenshot of old SERP

Additionally, you might think that the little word “Ad” in the rounded rectangle would pop, but somehow the fact it’s not text also makes the user skip over it. …

A neighbor was sweeping his sidewalk, pushing tiny white rocks back into his rock garden. The sky was an uninterrupted blue. A mailman worked his way up the empty street. There were no signs of “Sharia Law.” The migrant caravan was still hundreds of miles away in Mexico. Antifa protesters had yet to descend on Pahrump. Chapian squinted against the sun, closed the shades and went back to her screen.

— Description of Shirley Chapain, consumer and believer of near-apocalyptic right-wing disinformation, from ‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America (WaPo)

I have a few thoughts on the recent Washington Post piece on misinformation, which follows both a purveyor of it and a consumer of it. I’m breaking those thoughts into a few posts. This is number one. …

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Early Melt on the Greenland Ice Sheet (NASA / Public Domain)

New Knight Foundation-supported study out about college students which very much confirms what we see in classrooms. Students:

  • feel overwhelmed by the “firehose of news”
  • feel unequipped to sort through that news
  • want to read and share truthful accounts
  • believe in journalistic principles of accuracy and verification
  • but fall back on cynicism as a strategy, believing far more news to be fake or spun than really is

All this is exactly what we see in classrooms. Every class might have one or two hardcore partisans, but the vast majority of students feel OVERWHELMED. …

Hygiene checks of online info can be as simple & automatic as hand washing & seatbelt wearing

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments. — Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics (1911)

My younger daughter is learning to drive right now, and it’s a nerve-wracking process. You realize pretty quickly that what separates you from next week’s car wreck is not really anyone’s amazing driving skills. It’s habits. It’s scanning the crosswalk before making the turn. It’s the mirror and head check before changing lanes. …


Mike Caulfield

Teaches web literacy and other things. Recent book: Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.

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