Tools and Techniques for Tracking How #FakeNews (or the Real Thing) Flows

Footprints across Catfish Pond, Garrison, N.Y. © 2016 Andrew Revkin

Many updates| This post was originally written before the blitz of coverage of #fakenews began following the presidential election. It’s more relevant than ever now, in offering one approach to building a culture in which reality matters to news consumers. A tough challenge, but a critical one. Read on below and also explore my Dot Earth post on this issue: “An Exercise to Sift for Sources Amid a Blitz of Fake News.”

In finalizing the syllabus for my last Pace University graduate course in Multi-Platform Communications, I realized that folks outside of our program might benefit from an exercise my students are required to do.

A “Backtrack Journal” is a standing assignment. This is the task:

Each week, determine the path one bit of information took to get to you. If it was a powerful photo of a drowned refugee child, did it come via Facebook? Twitter? If so, was it forwarded by a friend from some other friend or feed? Who created the content? Try to trace how information MOVES.

Here’s a quick example:

I just saw a fascinating tweet about a connection between Steve Jobs of Apple and the drowned Syrian refugee child.

It pointed to a Chicago Tribune article, “A Tweet reminds the world: Steve Jobs was a Syrian migrant’s child,” by Meg Graham.

The article is built around a tweet by Dave Galbraith, a Web innovator:

But the smart Chicago Tribune writer did some digging beyond that tweet, including an interview with its author, to build her piece. Note this marvelous and important point about Twitter:

Of the wide reach of his tweet, Galbraith said: “I did have a hunch the Tweet would go viral, because it used few words, stated fact not opinion, defied stereotypes and had an iconic picture…. In a medium restricted to 140 characters, a picture is worth more than 1,000 words.”

I had no idea beforehand that this quick test of backtracking would lead to something so relevant to my class.

Updates here:


  1. Introduction to bullshit
  2. Spotting bullshit
  3. The natural ecology of bullshit
  4. Causality
  5. Statistical traps
  6. Visualization
  7. Big data
  8. Publication bias
  9. Predatory publishing and scientific misconduct
  10. The ethics of calling bullshit.
  11. Fake news

One reading is by Carl Sagan:

From “The Demon-Haunted World”
  • Inserted August 16, 2018: Karyn Lewis, a middle-school teacher, described a great use of an online tool for teaching:
  • Here’s a great DeSmogBlog piece showing how this backtracking practice helped reveal the manufactured fakery behind the hottest “news” story on climate change in recent months:
  • Here’s Eric Umansky of ProPublica on next steps for journalists in a post-factual presidency and related media environment:
  • Here’s a GREAT example of a defrocking job in the face of viral fake news report on a sniper taking down three intruders assaulting his neighbor’s home:
  • Here’s my recent screwup, reflexively tweeting after seeing a flooded runway in the flow of Hurricane Harvey news. In this case, the reposted image came from visualizations done for a report on sea-level rise by Climate Central. My tweet, deservedly critiqued, demonstrates how confirmation bias and reflexes can short circuit the reflective part of the brain:
  • And there’s this helpful #Irma flow from CrowdTangle:

The full suite of sessions is well worth exploring. I gave the following talk at the meeting and wrote about it on Dot Earth: