Something tells me you may have noticed that fake news is in the headlines, most recently through the blitz of fact-free web fare during the presidential campaign and a new Stanford University study showing, as NPR put it, that “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real.”
This issue has been simmering for many years, of course.
For information consumers who care about reality, the overworked folks at Snopes.com offer a tiny line of defense, but are completely outgunned, not just by professional disinformers but by the reflexes of Instanet users. (Here’s a Snopes fake news “survival guide.”)
The Lamp is an exciting model for building online “survival skills” in schools and communities around New York City. A valuable set of learning tools is being disseminated by the Center for News Literacy of the Stony Brook University School of Journalism.* There are web annotation efforts like Climate Feedback. Google and Facebook are trying to fight back.
But there’s much more to be done. I’ve tried to do my small part, writing the introduction to a related illustrated young-adult book, “How to Fake a Moon Landing,” and sifting for ways to #makeveracitycool Of course, veracity isn’t a much-used word these days. And humans’ tendency to place tribal affiliations ahead of reality continues to create challenges for those who might want to provide clarity amid overheated discourse.
Listen as @jacquelyngill describes attacks after critiquing @drjillstein on sea level. https://t.co/yOiwXKGHvs Can we #makeveracitycool?
I’ve also worked on this in the classroom in my six years on the faculty at Pace University, starting in 2010 and ending next month when I move to Propublica.org.
For my fall graduate course aimed at making the most of online communication, I created a standing assignment called a “Backtrack Journal,” in which students (and their professor) occasionally trace how some interesting insight or communication innovation made it to their screens.
“Where did you first see it? Who (or what) brought it to your attention? Who created it? Also try to compile links from the originating content to your eyeballs (and where you shared it).”
Try it yourself and let me know what you find!
Here’s one of my backtrack journals, which I think illustrates some of the value in trying to trace how the web and social networks move information around and often obscure the origins of content. Below you can click on a link to another example.
In a conversation with a colleague awhile back, I recalled two images in “The Conundrum,” a short and thought-provoking book on energy and climate by David Owen of The New Yorker (the magazine piece that spawned it is here). The book had this splendid subtitle: “How scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse.”
The images were in a chapter entitled “Traffic Congestion is Not an Environmental Problem.” One showed 28 people sitting in compact rows of chairs in the middle of a street in Tampa, Fla., as if arrayed in bus seats. The other showed them in 28 automobiles in the same spot.
I tried a Google image search for some relevant terms: “public transportation bus cars traffic owen.”
I saw one image that resembled the one I recalled (although it’s a cityscape and the recollection was of a tree-lined street). I clicked.
It turned out to be a remarkable animated gif that spectacularly illustrates how much more road space is taken up by individual drivers than those same people in a tram or bus.
But I still needed to find out who created it! Down the rabbit hole I went.
One use was on MissionMission – a blog about the iconic San Francisco neighborhood with that name.
That November, 2013, post was built around a tweet by @AdrianCovert pointing to a post on The Atlantic website by Derek Thompson on “a brilliant piece of data viz.” Thompson tipped the hat to fellow Atlantic writer Andrew Golis, who featured the gif on his Tumblr feed, reposted through several intermediaries (nickcrocker, mattlehrer), with all roads, in the end, leading to Peter from Texas, Nov. 4, 2013.
But who made the gif, and why?
It took until early this fall for me to find out through a fresh new query on Twitter, picked up by Lloyd Alter, a longtime environmental journalist based in Toronto.
@Revkin It’s Toronto https://t.co/Ca7jA7sWQ3
His tweeted reply led me back to a Huffington Post Canada item explaining:
[T]he pictures themselves come from the Toronto Transit Commission, which posted them to Facebook way back in 2009. Tumblr user Peter From Texas appears to have stitched them together to make the compelling GIF.
Click the following link for another example involving Steve Jobs and Syrian refugees.
Coda | Dot Earth’s 2,800-plus posts will live on, but I’m moving to ProPublica on Dec. 5. Read the back story behind this blog at Times Insider, my reflection on 30 years of climate reporting and stay connected with me on Twitter or Facebook.
Disclosure Note | * I’m on the Stony Brook journalism school advisory board.