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Aug. 18, 2017, 9:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

Are your Google search results another kind of filter bubble? The answer seems to be: Kind of

Plus: The AP’s new fake news listing, a lack of center-right news outlets, and how to spot a fake viral video.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Do filter bubbles apply when you do a Google search? The Algorithmed Public Spheres network at Germany’s Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research wanted to find out the degree to which personalization affects people’s search results: “How similar are the results of Google searches for the names of political parties and candidates?” The team got data from Algorithm Watch, which allows people to “donate” their search results to a German crowdsourcing project:

The plugin does not collect actual searches of users, but automatically conducts searches for a fixed list of 16 terms. The results are then sent back to AW’s servers. This approach creates a high degree of comparability. If two users with similar browser settings and location search for the same phrase (say “Angela Merkel”) at the same time, shouldn’t they receive identical (or at least very similar) results? Thankfully, Algorithm Watch makes public the anonymized search results that users collect to answer questions like this one.

The team wanted to see how personalized results were for users who were logged into their Google accounts at the time of their search (“While the degree to which personalization is possible is likely to vary a lot, it is safe to assume that Google has some indicators of your interests when you make a search,” including browser history). The findings are detailed and worth reading. The team found that, overall, results were very similar, with some regional differences. But there were a few exceptions:

There is some stuff that would qualify as fake news (in the original non-Trumpian sense), such as an alternative ‘feminism-free’ version of Wikipedia. Approximately 1-3% of users in the sample get these ‘very different’ results when searching for the query terms. Perhaps less headline-grabbing than fake news in this regard are special interest and lifestyle media, which feature heavily in the personalized results. I think we need more research on the relevance of these sources for political communication.

That Breitbart story! The New York Times Magazine’s cover story this week, by Wil S. Hylton, is about the rise of Breitbart: “this company that began as a smattering of websites about Hollywood, government and the media, then morphed into a sprawling multimedia conglomerate with offices overseas, including an eight-person bureau in London and a daily radio program on Sirius XM, all financed by shadowy right-wing figures and buttressed by a mob of fervent readers whose engagement in the comment section, for example, dwarfs the comments at this newspaper by roughly a factor of 10, even as those readers/commenters/trolls remain, to most of the outside world, a mysterious horde of indistinct origin and uncertain intent.”

The research about Breitbart being by far the largest far-right news source, which Hylton mentions in the piece, is from this project out of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center. Among the findings of that report:

Disproportionate popularity on Facebook is a strong indicator of highly partisan and unreliable media.

A distinct set of websites receive a disproportionate amount of attention from Facebook compared with Twitter and media inlinks. From the list of the most prominent media, 13 sites [see image, right] fall into this category. Many of these sites are cited by independent sources and media reporting as progenitors of inaccurate if not blatantly false reporting. Both in form and substance, the majority of these sites are aptly described as political clickbait. Again, this does not imply equivalency across these sites. Ending the Fed is often cited as the prototypical example of a media source that published false stories. The Onion is an outlier in this group, in that it is explicitly satirical and ironic, rather than, as is the case with the others, engaging in highly partisan and dubious reporting without explicit irony.

One interesting finding from the report is that, in the U.S., there are few if any notable center-right digital news outlets (can you think of any?): “The center-right is of minor importance and is the least represented portion of the media spectrum,” the authors note. Yet this space could hold solutions:

If readers on the right shun fact-checking sites because they read their media to reinforce their in-group identity and share in partisan folklore, then new fact-checking apps will simply be ignored, and imagining that installing them will solve the rise of disinformation is merely whistling past the graveyard. Perhaps the most important antidote is in the hands of American conservatives who do not recognize themselves in the racist, populist, anti-science, anti-rule-of-law, and anti-journalism worldviews that became so prominent in the right-wing media ecosystem. Such conservatives have the legitimacy on the edges of the new right wing to speak from inside the tent, rather than throwing stones at it from outside. The marginalization of never-Trump voices within conservative circles in this election cycle suggests that such conservatives will face a steep uphill battle.

AP launches a fake news listing. The AP is running a weekly listing of fake news stories that have gone viral, “Not Real News: A look at what didn’t happen this week.” (Sample listing: “Not real: Putin: ‘Pope Francis Is Not A Man of God.'”) I asked Amy Westfeldt, a manager at the AP Nerve Center who oversees the feature, how she compiles the listing and why links to the stories in question aren’t included in it:

We have several ways to track popular but false stories — in-house metrics tools we use, like NewsWhip, among them. We are working closely with Facebook to identify stories that are being flagged on its network as false or shared widely. Sometimes a bureau will point out an item that bubbled up on a reporter’s beat and we’ll find them that way.

We search for stories that are getting traction, ones that meet our standards for fact-checking and ones we think might be more easily misconstrued, or believed.

We don’t share original links for many reasons; often there are dozens of versions of the pieces moving on sites, and AP’s reporting on this phenomenon has shown many sites produce false news for financial gain.

The fact-checking/debunking effort fulfills our mission to refute widely shared falsehoods.

Don’t trust anything from “theguardıan.com.” BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko look into a “coordinated effort” to fabricate articles that look as if they came from media outlets such as The Guardian, Haaretz, The Atlantic, and Al Jazeera. Russian-language outlets then link back to the stories, with “Western media reports…”

While the evidence shows there is clearly a coordinated effort to create credible-looking fake articles from English and Arabic-language news websites, the content being produced does not have consistent political messaging. The fake Guardian story was clearly pro-Kremlin, but others could be read as hostile to Russian government interests. Overall, the fake stories seem engineered to inflame international tensions.

Also, on the subject of misinformation, check out this thread on how far-right groups are increasingly relying on Russian internet. (Anton Shekhovtsov studies the far right in Europe.)

(By week’s end, the Daily Stormer had fled to the dark web.)

How to spot a fake viral video. The Verge’s James Vincent talked to “filmmaker and visual effects specialist Alan Melikdjanian, better known as Captain Disillusion — a character Melikdjanian has been playing on YouTube for a decade, and who’s responsible for some of the best (and wittiest) debunkings online.” Among the tips:

Melikdjanian says it’s usually much easier to remove elements than add them in, and you should keep this in mind when examining videos. “You can make something look amazing just by erasing a wire, or a person helping you off camera. I’d say most hoaxes are about erasing things rather than introducing them into the shot,’ he says. “I like to apply a visual effects version of Occam’s razor. You look at a video and think, ‘If I had to fake this, what’s the laziest, least amount of work I would have to do to make it look real?'”

Also: “Melikdjanian says that one of the biggest problems he sees now is not people believing in fakes, but doubting genuine videos. He says debunking itself has become a bit of a meme, with people using it to prove their cleverness online.”

“Save democracy! With conference calls!” Melissa Ryan of the Factual Democracy Projectme is running a Kickstarter campaign to launch a conference-call speaker series about fake news, far-right, and misinformation-related topics. Some of the calls will be available to the public, others only to backers of the campaign and the press. First up: “Bots & Computational Propaganda,” on September 12 at 1 p.m. ET. Ryan also writes the newsletter Ctrl Alt Right Delete and, with Misinfocon, held a conference call about fake news during the French election earlier this year. The Kickstarter seeks to raise $21,880 by August 22; it was 80 percent of the way to that goal as of Friday morning.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

POSTED     Aug. 18, 2017, 9:30 a.m.
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