Poor Media Literacy Spawns Fake News Crisis

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Two and half years ago I wrote about failing literacy in America, caused in part by evolving digital media types. The average citizen is losing the ability to understand the written word, and cannot discern quality information online based on text. Never did I imagine that a crisis would come to a fore as quickly as it has with this year’s fake news crisis.

In 2014 I wrote, “Part of literacy… is being able to delineate quality information from bad data. In the visual world, that includes producing and consuming quality media in a loud environment.”

Since then we have witnessed the election of Donald Trump, Pizzagate, and the general rise of digital fake news. Today, any persona has the ability to dismiss any other group or media outlet as biased.

As a result, less trust exists for the media. Even triangulating the facts behind a story does not guarantee the data offered is actual truth. In fact, it takes a chorus of diverse voices to make even the unwilling yield to truth. Still, liars and those who want to refute such stories — propagandists like Donald Trump, for example — can call it a “conspiracy.”

The ability to widely disseminate bad information and have it shared with trusting peers creates what is now being called a post-truth reality. There is no fact that can withstand the battering of the adamantly wrong and intentionally incorrect. That is scary, my friends.

Most Adults Cannot Discern Quality Information

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The average American is not prepared to learn or understand information online. A recent Pew study showed that sixty percent of American adults don’t know whether the information they are consuming online is trustworthy.

There is no obvious answer for our digital literacy crisis. People are not questioning what they read online. Worse, they are unable to prepare their own children and grandchildren to discern quality information online, either.

This leaves the imparting of media literacy skills to our schools. As someone currently working in the edtech space, I can tell you that America’s schools are just coming to understand how to best implement online learning. Some schools are very good at it, others don’t even have basic computing devices for their children.

In addition to understanding how to consume information online, parents and educators must learn and teach how to research the information they are receiving. Questioning information must become second nature. We need to ask questions like:

  • Is this information from a credible source?
  • What data is providing the basis for this story?
  • Is the research reliable and based on statistically relevant data (whether it’s a video of an event or a study of thousands of people)?
  • Are there similar stories and data that support the source?

These are basic questions that the average American doesn’t ask online. Instead, we simply trust the source who shared that information. Whether it is a peer sending a story via email or a social network algorithm, the online trust economy created by digital media channels has demonstrated its truest weakness.

Slanted News

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As social media has risen and traditional media have lost market share, news outlets have moved to tabloidesque journalism from formerly trustworthy brands. We have also seen media fracture to cater to smaller demographics, which in turn has created polarized community groups. Most media outlets serve their smaller constituencies with sensational stories drummed up to captivate the human mind. Click bait rules the day.

A younger, smaller media corps with less seasoned editors behind them now write sensational headlines with shaky content. These stories lack the factual quality that even a second tier news outlet would have demanded two decades ago.

Unfortunately, people fall prey to the sensational. The human mind processes it as entertainment and humor, and then latches onto it as fact. The human mind is naturally attracted to the sensational, and when they share this “news” they receive endorphin affirmation from likes and comments.

Then there are those who seek to sway minds with fake news, propaganda disguised as tabloid news. These stories have been deployed through the interwebs, and in actuality through the centuries, with great damage to society.

Today, sensational and fake news stories spread like wildfire thanks to the Internet. Facebook has moved from its original intent to connect people to a viral mechanism to misinform them.

A cycle has been created with likes falling along party lines. With bad information comes unwieldy results. And here we are, a world where the very truth itself can be debated and hucksters can use propaganda and smeer tactics to convince the public they are right.

My News Experiment

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In the wake of the Trump election, I found myself needing to read more my then narrow group of political news media, primarily CNN, the New York Times, and Politico. I started reading more conservative outlets, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, as well as the Washington Post and USA Today. In addition, I tried Breitbart News but found it to be so malicious and ridiculous that I could not stomach it. Don’t get cocky, liberals, I could say the same thing about Jezebel.

My overall assessment surprised me. While groups of media tended to cover similar stories — e.g. “liberal media” outlets the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times and the conservative group of the WSJ, and Fox News — none of them reported stories in the same way. Here is a masthead by masthead review:

CNN: Sensational and over the top. Pure tabloid, almost none of it seems well grounded.

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Fox News: Sometimes grounded, but extremely slanted towards the conservative. Runs a fair amount of link-bait chum that leans towards the malicious. When Fox owns a story favoring moderates or liberals, you know it’s true. They tend to be slow to publish stories that show Trump in a negative light.

New York Times: Very grounded, but written with a liberal slant. There’s great journalism here, but like Fox, when a story favors the conservative, it tends to be when the facts are in their favor, AND the story is big.

POLITICO: Pretty balanced in its news coverage with the exception of representing the political establishment (as a trade rag would be). So Trump coverage has been, but is increasingly less so, shocked and sensational. The zeitgeist has been accepted.

USA Today: The rare moderate masthead, USA Today plays it in the middle, and reports when facts are available. A fair barometer for breaking news.

Wall Street Journal: Similar to the New York Times, this paper is very grounded with great journalism, albeit a conservative slant. The conservatism on display here is that of big business, and as such it remains committed to facts, and will print a story favoring liberalism or anti-Trump if it is proven true or if it is pro-business. All political stories seem to be on delay here, a clear sign of careful vetting.

Washington Post: Grounded, but not as much as the New York Times. It still has a penchant for running the sensational, and can’t resist a good Kelly-Anne Conway quote (yuck). I take their anti-Trump slant as a partisan view.

As a result of broadening my spectrum, I do not trust CNN anymore. It’s pure junk. I also am not likely to trust Fox News and sadly, I don’t trust the Washington Post as much as I used to. In addition, if both the New York Times AND the Wall Street Journal agree on a story then it is almost certainly true.

Low Quality Information Creates a Wild and Ignorant Society

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The biggest take away from my informal experiment was the lack of integrity several of these outlets have when it comes to delivering “news” to their stakeholders. In the case of the more tabloid-esque outlets, it’s clear clicks and eyeballs matter more than the quality of journalism. They are purveyors of the sensational.

Perhaps more disconcerting, these outlets are some of the most consumed news producers in the United States. The study does not include the less reputable outlets that spawned the fake news crisis debated so vigorously over the past two months.

We have seen the results, and they are wild. Though people read and watch news online, because of their information sources, they remain ignorant. And worse, they are adamant about being informed.

To date we’ve seen Facebook offer algorithmic promises at resolving the issue. But given the intrinsic desire of the human mind to fancy the sensational, will it be enough? I don’t think so.

In the end, we must look at the root cause. And to overcome, we must come to know ourselves. We must educate ourselves to discern online information and then demand quality. Digital literacy is the answer, in my opinion, not algorithms to protect people from their own inability to understand information.

What do you think?

Twitter Needs Stronger Conversations, Not Longer Spam

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Barrack Obama types in the first presidential Tweet with Twitter Co-Founder Jack Dorsey watching.

The Internet is abuzz about how to fix Twitter. The conversation revolves around the potential expansion of Tweets to as many as 10,000 characters.

It’s a bit of a Trojan horse of a conversation. The real issue is how can Twitter break out of a slump that has the social network stymied with no growth, quarterly losses, and lackluster engagement.

Unfortunately, longer tweets won’t fix the problem. Twitter’s slump revolves around the network’s lack of human connection rather than its format. Specifically, the social network’s problem is a never-ending stream of spammy links and a lack of connectivity to other human beings.

Is It Really News?

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Twitter made a decision a long time ago to describe itself as a news service, and a place to find out and discuss what is going on. This was an effort to differentiate it from Facebook and other social networks.

The ongoing news focus came with a price: Sharing stories, news, and content in the form of links. Links to useful information aren’t bad, but what Twitter has become as a result of the links, well, that’s another issue. What many people see in there streams are a series of short (and often poorly written) headlines and comments with links. Rare is the conversation or simple reply.

Janet

Many of the links featured in the stream of links don’t expand. Even pictures are shown as links half the time, depending on browser and bandwidth.

Worse, because of the public nature of Twitter, it has become brand marketers and PR folks’ number one or number two go-to-social network to share information. Unfortunately, their idea of information is most people’s idea of spam or just boring content (see content marketing rant).

One could say the same for many of the links shared by everyday users. Some are interesting. Most are not.

Of course, you could say shame on the people who follow these folks. But even the most casual friend seems to use Twitter to 1) drop links and 2) rant or complain. It’s hard to follow no one on Twitter and be a part of any experience.

What Can Be Done?

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Twitter’s issue is not maximum tweet length. The way 10k would come across, it would look like any other blog post with a lead and link to the whole thing, so I see no inherent value or detriment. No, the issue is feeling that whenever you log in, you’re just going to be sourced a bunch of spammy links, some pushed by brands, some pushed by users (we’ll call this UG spam for user-generated spam). But can Twitter be saved?

Now you see the wisdom of Facebook, Pinterest and Google+. Each of those networks naturally embeds posts and pics in posts. In the case of Facebook and Google+, their algorithm curates the most “interesting” updates to spare readers from what they may consider to be mundane or spammy.

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I asked several people for their suggestions on what could fix Twitter. Some of the answers are embedded throughout the post. One of the most compelling ones was simply making the 140 characters used for text, and have posts show images and stories automatically as embeds sans character count.

I agree with Shireen, but am not sure format is enough to save the day. In comparison to the other social networks, Twitter is not fun very fun or useful in the social context.

The other social networks have function beyond sharing news and ranting about it on the side. They offer unique focus on social functions like family and friends (Fakebook), or business interactionss (LinkedIn), or friends who show and don’t tell much (Instagram), or contacts who share and store useful information (Pinterest), or places where you can avoid public eyes (SnapChat et al).

Horvath

What does Twitter offer that those networks don’t? News trolls? Publicly quantified pundits? What’s missing is the conversation and interestingness, and that’s what Twitter really needs to restore if it wants to continue to grow and develop. After all, it should be about the people who use it. That’s the way it used to be. Perhaps using some sort of an algorithm to filter the stream is necessary, but that would fly in the face of the social network’s stream ethos.

I don’t pretend to have an answer, but maybe you do. Feel free to weigh in.

The Washington Post Proves You Can’t Trust the Media

News sources today suffer from an accuracy problem. Journalists are under pressure to publish first in a dramatic buzz-worthy way to drive traffic. And there are fewer journalists. Those that remain are younger and less experienced, and they have to produce more content. The end result is an alarming amount of inaccurate stories that are tabloidesque in nature. This is true of small and large media outlets alike, as evidenced by a series of stories produced by the Washington Post‘s sports section in the past two weeks.

Last week a media debacle unfolded for the Washington Nationals, largely created by errant Washington Post articles. The news that Bud Black was hired as the Nationals Manager — a story reported by the Washington Post’s James Wagner and then echoed across every sports rag in the country — was wrong. Instead they hired Dusty Baker.

When the tsunami of reporters descended on the strange twist, they shellacked Nationals ownership for underbidding Black and being only willing to extend a two-year contract at no more than $2 million per year, plus incentives. Leading the charge was the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore (whose Twitter bio reads “Riding the line between honesty and schmucky journalist piling on”), who tarred and feathered the owners as out of touch, insulting, and cheap.

Personally, I thought the coverage was vindictive. Keep in mind Kilgore authored a series of Washington Post “expose” style articles at the end of the season detailing the Nationals horrid downward spiral. Again, ownership and management was tarnished (it’s never the players fault, is it?).

Where the Post Went Wrong

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There were two primary points the Post missed in the Bud Black/Dusty Baker story. At issue in the original story were Wagner’s nebulous sources, “according to multiple people familiar with the situation.”

Better sources were needed (says Captain Obvious after the fact). Every sports magazine and news outlet across the country that cited Wagner’s story as the definitive source should be ashamed of their blind shallow reporting.

At the Baker press conference, GM Mike Rizzo stated that he had told reporters that he wouldn’t go to print with the story, but the Post ignored him. Then on a local sports radio show, Rizzo said, “the media jumped the gun.” Dusty Baker said he hadn’t heard from the Nationals at the time the Black story came out, and felt hurt. In hindsight, maybe that was the ultimate sign that the managerial hire wasn’t finished.

An even bigger whiff was the Kilgore article slamming the Lerners’ character for not wanting to hire a manager for more than two years at a $2 million clip. The reason is simple: GM Mike Rizzo’s contract is up at the end of next year. After the horrid Matt Williams debacle, the terrible Papplebon trade, and horrific bullpen and bench moves over the past two years, the Lerners might be losing faith in Rizzo. The 2016 season is a make or break year for Mike Rizzo’s tenure with the Nationals.

Baseball Analyst Steve Phillips, a former general manager, spoke on the 106.7 show Grant and Danny on November 4 (segment 5). Phillips was quick to point out that new GMs don’t like to inherit managers. They hire their own manager as soon as possible. No GM wants to inherit a manager with an odious four or five year contract from his predecessor. So new Nationals Manager Dusty Baker really has one year to save Rizzo’s job, two to save his own.

As for the salary amount, that’s business. And in the end, Baker agreed to the $2 million a year salary plus another $3 million in potential bonuses. If the rate was too low, the position would have been unfulfilled.

Bad Reporting Is the Norm

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The past few months of the Washington Post‘s sports coverage reminded me more of the National Enquirer than a storied news outlet. Woodward and Bernstein did not write these pieces. Instead, the articles read more like ESPN gaffes. The 24 hour network has been know to incorrectly publish stories as quickly as possible and ducking responsibility for them.

Poorly researched dramatic news stories are normal now. Reporters are strapped. They have to do more with less, and the end result is increasing errors and over-the-top drama. That’s across all types of media. There are no sacred mastheads anymore. Every outlet has a bias, and most reporters are chumming the social network waters for the most shares.

Blind faith in the media is a mistake. Triangulate sources, and make sure different articles are not citing the same originating story. More than anything, question everything you read and see.

Maybe I am wrong, perhaps the Washington Post printed a retraction on the last page of the sports section at some point over the past week. That’s where such errors are usually buried unnoticed by the masses. Who knows? I don’t read a physical print paper anymore (do you?).

More importantly, are there any trustworthy news sources out there anymore?

Dangers of Algorithmic Sourcing

The increasing pervasiveness of algorithms in everyday life disturbs me.

At the behest of many friends, I finally joined the 500 Pixels community and have begun uploading some of my better photos there for licensing. It’s an awesome place filled with pro photographers competing for the highest scores on their photos.

Yet, scores are determined by the amount of likes, favs and comments you get over a short period of time.

For all intents and purposes, you have a homogenous community of primarily male photographers who are either very good enthusiasts or professionals voting on photos. What gets top ranked? The general popular stream is dominated by surreal landscapes and pics of almost nude models with the occasional wildlife pic thrown in for flavor.

500 Pixels Popular

If you want a top rank of 99 on 500 Pixels, bring epic photoshopped scenes and beautiful scantily clad women. These are amazed photos, and deserved their popular ranking. But you can look at the categories to dig deeper. Some of the lesser ranking photos strike me as a better representation of the many things you can do with a lens (and Photoshop).

Here’s the thing, I stopped posting anything I don’t think can get a peak rating of 80 or higher on 500 Pixels. I just won’t do it. Because I don’t shoot almost naked women for a variety of reasons starting with respecting my peers and wanting to stay married, I post landscapes. Since I shoot more than just landscapes, for that reason alone the site is limiting in its artistic and creative scope.

Algorithmic Determination

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Image by aloalo.

Algorithms impact our news choices, too. And our clothing choices. And what we read. And the movies we like.

It seems like algorithms are everywhere. Here are just a few examples:

  • Huffington Post and Mashable sourcing their news based on rising social media memes.
  • Colors and types of shirt you are most likely to buy (based on past purchasing history).
  • Books you should buy on Amazon.
  • Movies and TV programs you are most likely to enjoy on Netflix.

Is this healthy?

It depends. If you like the same type of thing over and over again, then perhaps algorithmic determination is OK.

Afterall, if you participate on the same sites and buy from the same vendors, then your general behavior will match your peers. As such the algorithms are likely to be correct most of the time.

Consider that 60 people eat the same seven meals every week.

Yum, pizza.

Crazy People Like Orange

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Image by balotto.

Because I am crazy, five percent of the time I’d like to buy an orange shirt. Yup, it makes my skin look like shit, but I like orange.

Orange was my favorite color as a child. I had orange and green dinosaur wall paper, and one whole wall was painted exclusively orange. I still remember it fondly.

The algorithms don’t know that, but based on what they see online they have predetermined that I will buy black and red and maybe blue. I do like my black T-shirts, but I also like splashes of bright color. And 5% of the time that means I like orange.

What to do?

No Growth

Manny-Moe-Jack

Image via View from the Blue Ridge.

How do things become popular? Someone has to try them first, and then they tell friends. Soon early adopters flock to the product.

Perhaps it becomes popular within a niche community (More surreal interior architecture shots, please). Enough people in the community participate in other social networks, and not just online. Work, family and neighborhoods count, too. People tell their friends, and show them the the new thing they like.

Suddenly, it is safe to try something new. But maybe it won’t be new. Because an algorithm already saw that seven percent of your friends tried something, and it knows you buy items as an early adopter. The site sources you an ad telling you your friends Manny, Moe and Jack bought it already.

Boom! You react and plunk down your credit card.

What’s so daring about that? Where’s the growth?

Cool to be Weird

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In a world where anything can be customized to a unique taste, niche stores are popping up all over the Internet to serve the terminally weird. Now it’s cool to be weird.

As database technology becomes cheaper and cheaper, niche stores will be able to serve a customer with algorithmic offerings. Even the daring will find themselves served with the predetermined.

And the algorithms will only get smarter.

How smarter more accessible algorithms impact the inevitable break from the norm remains to be seen. Perhaps that same percentage of the population will be able to resist precision marketing in this form. Or maybe we will all simply accept the endless stream of data driven sales pitches, some subtle, some obvious.

It’s a change that will happen whether we like it or not. The train has left the station.

What do you think?

Beating the Algorithm

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Image by MUMA Monash

In the old days of “influencer relations” (you know way back when in 2009), PR professionals targeted the magic middle and top tier bloggers, which triggered larger blog coverage, and then more often than not traditional news media.

Since then digital media companies straddled the space occupied by both traditional journals and the top tier of bloggers. They use algorithms to detect hot news stories before they trend in the blogosphere, then break the news before traditional players and bloggers alike.

Specifically, Mashable, the Huffington Post, Forbes, Google and the others use algorithms listen to chatter on the social web. When hot trends bubble up they source the content provider, assign a reporter, or in the worst cases use narrative science — computer-based news writing — to break the story first.

This effectively takes power away from PR executives to affect the news cycle through traditional influencer outreach, and in turn, empowers the crowd to determine stories.

Some news outlets use the crowd to validate top stories, too. Validation is embodied by shares on social networks and comments.

For example, USA Today features stories on its web properties based on the posts that get shared the most. The old assignment editor loses weight in these scenarios.
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Give Them Something to Talk About

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President Obama and Jack Dorsey at the White House Twitter Town Hall

Everyone talks about relationships and the importance of two-way interaction in social media. Participation is a cornerstone of building strong community presence. But other than core subject matter evangelists, there is only so much you can do to interest people on a dry topic. That’s when you need to give the community something to talk about.

Social means sharing experiences and yes, talking. And frankly, a lot of what businesses and nonprofits have to talk about can put the most lively of children to sleep. How can you turn a dry topic into something a little more meaningful? Here are four ways to go beyond normal day-to-day interaction, and spark dynamic conversations:

Events

If an experience isn’t interesting, an event can be. In fact, events are everything that is social. They give people an opportunity to meet face-to-face, and provide a basis for conversation, networking, and critiques (positive and negative). People love moving the online experience into reality. Further, they like telling their social networks about the events during and after the fact with posts, pictures and updates.

Quality events are a great way to give people something to talk about (hat tip: Kami Huyse, from a recent conversation). They always have been, and the social era only makes them more special and visible.

Research

Find your subject matter to be repetitive and boring? Then dig deeper. Invariably, an organization has statistics and performance information that — if analyzed and extrapolated — can be shared with the larger industry or subject matter related community. Research provides context and a point of interest for folks to talk about, critique and learn from. Hubspot has been a master of this for years.

Analysis

Maybe you don’t have your own data to share, but there is plenty of external information. Round it up and provide a level of analysis that supersedes the average punditry in your sector. In essence, paint a bigger picture. This is what great bloggers do. Also, if you look at most infographics today, they visualize analysis, sometimes private data, but more often, larger industry trends.

Create the News

This is the hardest of the four suggestions, and the most attention worthy. Do something newsworthy. Not a gimmick, but something substantial. Raise a hundred thousand dollars. Build a company, hire new people, or make a big sale. Invest in a new community, or create different ways to engage your current customers. Create a new product that changes the game. Empower others to do great things through a crowdsourcing initiative.

How do you give your community something to talk about?