truthsquad
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truthsquad

“Rip and tilt” rules, and other things we’ve learned from tracking social media

My colleague Marc Ambinder and I, along with several USC journalism students, have been tracking our social media feeds for a project called “Truthsquad.” Here’s are some highlights of what we’ve found so far.

Outrage = shares

We haven’t yet come across the kind of blatantly false hoaxes that got so much attention during and immediately after the election cycle. Instead, we’re seeing lots of stories we call “rip and tilt.” The posts start with an actual event, but the framing and presentation pump up the levels of outrage and emotion which leads to more shares. They come from Facebook pages churning out memes and articles targeted to the left as well as the right.

For example, lots of mainstream news organizations covered the January Women’s March, but one student found her trending story on the topic came from a small left-leaning Facebook news page. (She reached out to them, and you can read more about their response here.) The same student, Maddie Ottile, also spent time looking at stories from right-wing sites that put a highly partisan spin on current events.

I saw an example in my own feed shortly after the election. Some friends shared a post about a Gold Star family booed by first-class passengers. I did some digging and found the story had first been reported by a local news station, but a conservative site reposted it, changing some crucial details to make the story more emotionally charged.

“Rip and tilt” sites and accompanying pages make it more difficult to quickly identify misleading information. First Draft News has created this useful guide to mapping variations within the hyperpartisan and misleading news ecosystem.

Beware the memes

A few weeks ago, a student at USC wrote a Facebook post about her emotional reaction to a vendor selling a t-shirt featuring a swastika. It led to a vigorous debate about free speech on campus, but it also unleashed a swarm of trolls on the student’s Facebook page. Our reporters looked into the origins of one alt-right meme, known as trash dove, which flooded the poster’s feed.

Memes have become the rapid response force of the Internet, and they are far more difficult to fact-check or contextualize than written articles. A Columbia Journalism Review analysis found that memes on the Breitbart Facebook page are more widely shared than news stories. Reporter Jordan Winters looked at the memes, some of them false, circulating in some political Facebook groups. She reached out to the moderator of one group who said she didn’t want to spread false information, but struggled to keep up with the flow of posts in the rapidly growing network.

Facebook’s sponsored ads really, really want you to think they’re news.

Reporter Charlotte Scott investigated how easily ads can mimic news sites and how rapidly the sites can transform. She also set up her own “news” page on Facebook in a matter of minutes. My own Facebook feed often displays a “sponsored ad” that hints at revelations about Ivanka and Melania Trump but instead leads to a sketchy site selling a miraculous face cream. Once, the ad even pretended to be a Buzzfeed article.

We’ve reached out to Facebook several times about this topic but so far haven’t gotten any response. We’ll keep trying, since fake ads are a problem the industry can’t seem to get under control. I tend to agree with commentators who think fake ads have real consequences.

Social platforms are trying to adjust

Facebook has been tinkering with its trending stories algorithm by making it easier to see sources and standardizing articles by region. We’ve definitely seen greater consistency among students’ trending stories. But combatting the spread of disinformation can be a game of whack-a-mole.

Google recently battled a series of false “snippets” , which led to a top Google search result claiming Obama was planning a coup. Professor Jonathan Albright told our reporter Daniela Pieche that the company was “culturally hacked.” Albright has also written about how the right-wing ecosystem of news sites may be collecting data from users who engage with the stories — using “emotional button-pushing” in place of ads. His full interview is available on the Truthsquad podcast here, and it’s fascinating.

There are things you can do

Albright gave us some recommendations for news consumers.

He says you should turn off Google’s instant prediction in your search settings and monitor your Twitter feed to make sure you’re seeing truthful posts. I would add that, no matter how it makes you feel, don’t share stories from sites you don’t recognize. Look for legitimate news links rather than hyperpartisan “rip and tilts.”

Finally, if you want to listen to our smart, thoughtful students talk about journalism and the challenges it faces in this tumultuous age, you can follow the Truthsquad podcast on Soundcloud here.

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An exploration of news, journalism and truth from the students at USC Annenberg.

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rebecca haggerty

rebecca haggerty

Associate Professor of Professional Practice, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, USC. Formerly: NBC News, public television

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