How crowd photos can be misleading — and a primer on spotting fake news


The material comes from the project’s newsletter, the Sift, which takes the most recent viral rumors, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and journalistic ethics issues and turns them into timely lessons with discussion prompts and links. The Sift, which is published weekly during the school year, has more than 10,000 subscribers, most of them educators.

The News Literacy Project also offers a program called Checkology, a browser-based platform designed for students in grades 6 through 12 that helps prepare the next generation to easily identify misinformation. Now, during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the project is offering access to Checkology Premium at no cost to educators and parents in the United States. In just two weeks of the offer, more than 1,100 educators and parents in 49 states and the District have registered to use the platform with as many as 90,000 students.

You can learn more about the News Literacy Project and all of the educational resources it provides in this piece, but here is a rundown:

Founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the News Literacy Project is now the leading provider of news literacy education.

It creates digital curriculums and other resources and works with educators and journalists to teach middle school and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and provides them with the tools they need to be informed and engaged participants in a democracy. It uses the standards of high-quality journalism as an aspirational yardstick against which to measure all news and information. Just as important, it provides the next generation with an appreciation of the First Amendment and the role of a free press.

The following lessons come from the May 4 edition of the Sift and relate to the pandemic that has shut down public life in much of the world, including in the United States.

Here are some earlier parts of this ongoing series:

Social distancing distortions

As photos of people who appear to be flouting social distancing measures circulate online, critics have noted how misleading they can be.

At issue is the way that camera angles and different lenses can affect the appearance of gaps between people: telephoto lenses and zoomed-up digital cameras (including those in cellphones) can compress distances, while wide-angle lenses can exaggerate them. In an April 26 report for TV 2, a television network in Denmark, two photojournalists demonstrated the dramatic impact of this “perspective distortion” by shooting the same people in Copenhagen at the same moment from different angles using different lenses.

The same day, a man in England used a tweet thread to demonstrate how the composition of a viral photo of the seafront in Bournemouth — one that sparked outrage when it was published — collapsed distances in misleading ways. An April 24 photo of diners sitting on the patio of a restaurant in Colleyville, Tex., and photos of a beach in Jacksonville, Fla., taken shortly after it partially reopened April 17 also sparked debates online.

Note: While it may be tempting to see such distortions as deliberate, it is important to realize that almost all photos inevitably misrepresent distances to some degree. Also, the use of a telephoto lens does not indicate an intent to produce misleading photos. This Facebook post by Vic Micolucci, an investigative reporter and anchor at WJXT in Jacksonville, explains that most of the differences in the photos of the beach there were due to the fact that they were shot from different angles with different equipment.

Also note: Martin Sylvest, a photographer quoted in the TV 2 report (linked above), explains any potentially distorting effects that result from his methods in the descriptions of the photos he submits.

Discuss: Can any single photo accurately capture all aspects of a given scene? How can news outlets be more transparent about the effects of “perspective distortion” in the photos they publish?

Idea: Ask students to take two digital photos of objects that are a foot or more apart — one with the camera’s zoom at the maximum setting and one using a close-up or wide-angle setting (see the example here). Compare the appearance of the distance between the objects. Then ask them to review examples of online photos that depict a lack of social distancing and try to evaluate whether the photos are substantive or misleading.

Exploring the “Verification Handbook”

The European Journalism Center, a journalism training and advocacy nonprofit in Maastricht, Netherlands, has released the third edition of its “Verification Handbook,” an online primer designed to help journalists investigate online content. The guide is edited by Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed News and a digital fact-checking pioneer, and includes contributions from a range of distinguished journalists and misinformation researchers.

The book is divided into three parts: an introduction, which explains the stakes of digital verification work; a section on investigating individual accounts and pieces of content; and a section on analyzing platforms and influence operations. Though it was created to help journalists avoid being exploited by “coordinated and well-funded campaigns to capture our attention, trick us into amplifying messages, and bend us to the will of states and other powerful forces,” the book is also broadly useful for anyone interested in honing digital verification skills — especially educators working with students.

Every article addresses a vital topic; several stand out for adoption in the classroom:

* “The Age of Information Disorder” by Claire Wardle, the head of strategic direction and research at First Draft. It includes three important elements for students: a taxonomy for categorizing different types of misinformation; an explanation of approaches to the thorny topic of determining the intent behind a piece of misinformation; and a graphic — the Trumpet of Amplification — that shows how bad actors “use coordination to move information through the ecosystem,” promoting falsehoods in closed groups and conspiracy communities until they trend on social media and gain the attention of professional media.

Idea: In groups or individually, ask students to collect 10 recent examples of misinformation (by using fact-checking websites or this newsletter’s viral rumor rundown). Then have them trade those examples with another group or student and determine which of Wardle’s seven forms of information disorder best fits each example.

* “Spotting bots, cyborgs and inauthentic activity” by Charlotte Godart and Johanna Wild, two open-source investigators affiliated with the online investigations collective Bellingcat. It offers an approachable yet detailed look at automated and semi-automated accounts. It also gives clear steps anyone can take to investigate suspicious accounts; explains common red flags for automated accounts; and links to several useful online tools, including three — Botometer, Bot Sentinel and accountanalysis — that analyze Twitter accounts for bot-like patterns.

Idea: Review with students the common characteristics of automated accounts on Twitter, such as usernames that the platform automatically assigns, a lack of a profile picture and unusual account activity. Have them work in teams to collect a number of accounts that they suspect are bots. Then have the teams trade their collections and use one of the free analysis tools linked above to evaluate the likelihood that the accounts are automated.

* “Investigating websites,” by Craig Silverman. It explains how to explore who is behind a website; how to uncover networks of shady sites; how to analyze web content (including Web pages that have been deleted); how to use tools such as BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle to map the spread of specific links or domains across social media; and how to investigate domain registrations and IP addresses using tools such as DomainBigData.

Idea: Ask students to read this article, then divide them into groups. Give each group a different tool mentioned in this piece; ask them to explore it, and then explain it, to their classmates.

Resource: The Check Center, part of the News Literacy Project’s Checkology® virtual classroom, includes tutorials and fact-checking missions for students. (Registration is required for teacher or parent access; NLP is currently waiving new student license fees for those affected by the covid-19 pandemic. U.S. teachers and parents engaged in distance learning or home schooling as a result of school closures can apply here for access through June 30.





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