Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Don't expect help in Infowars

Image Source: Fact Check Central
Yesterday's news about the subway attack in NYC is yet another example that you can't believe everything you read.

Read the article: When News Breaks, Google Still Can't Separate Rumor from Fact

The report, aside from being stockpiled with annoying full-page ads, points out that search algorithms designed to give people answers to their search questions still have a ways to go to filter out inaccuracies:

This trend has resulted in repeated embarrassment for Google, as its apparently authoritative answers have at times affirmed that the Earth is flat, women are evil, and four U.S. presidents had been members of the Ku Klux Klan (none of which are demonstrably true). It also once answered the query “is obama planning a coup” with information from a conspiracy site claiming that Obama was planning to seize power after his term came to an end.
There still is no substitute for personal responsibility as a (re)searcher. Gullibility lives in the fast lane of increasingly speedier computers, servers and results. Having no evaluation strategy is widespread: the democratization of irresponsibility.

There are plenty of ways to fix this. Start by understanding how to fact check.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Fullcircle Summer 2017

Most countries celebrate a special day of national significance. In the United States, that day is the fourth of July. Other countries have their own days citizens celebrate. But could there be a country other than the United States that celebrates American independence on the fourth of July?

What nation other than the U.S. observes America’s Fourth of July?

Unless you know the answer, this can be a perplexing search challenge. Why is that? How do you possibly wade through an ocean of information about American fourth of July looking for information about a different country? The solution is sound search strategy.

Strategic searching is guided by three big questions

  1. What am I searching for?
  2. What authority would know the answer?
  3. How do I use keywords (and operators) to find the information?
Read the whole Feature Article: Summer 2017.  https://21cif.com/fullcircle/summer2017/feature.php

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fake News can be Hard to Stamp Out

The Washington Post recently published an insightful story regarding fake news plaguing businesses on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. This demonstrates how baseless news, taken at face value, is hard to eradicate.

The article centers on Comet Ping Pong, the victim of a viral fake news outbreak, represented by the hashtag #pizzagate.

The misunderstanding came to a head when a reader from North Carolina, disturbed by erroneous reports connecting the restaurant with child sexual abuse, showed up at the business with an assault rifle to do his part as a concerned citizen.

Don't ever say that fake news is just for fun and no one gets hurt.

Fortunately, no one was injured, and the shooter gave himself up, but damage had been done to Comet Ping Pong and neighboring businesses inundated with calls threatening and accusing them of things they had never done. And of course, the shooter now has a police record.

Could this have been avoided?

With so many readers and re-tweeters involved, it's hard to imagine how this could have been stopped except during the very early stages. Once something quickly becomes viral, it develops a life of its own. Certainly, the businesses affected couldn't stop it. When they took measures to address the situation, it made them look more guilty to their accusers.

Should fake news perpetrators be held responsible?  And if so, how? This could be a good challenge for classes to discuss. Start with this tweet from #pizzagate:
"Nutcase walks Into Comet Pizza with gun: Anyone who even mentioned is responsible!"
It's a current day problem and not one that is going to go away any time soon--unless enough people practice investigative searching. And when you do, you could be responsible to report what you find as credible or not.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Being skeptical about information literacy

Students born in the digital age appear to be seriously challenged by a lack of discernment.

I know this smacks of personal bias. But there is research to support it:
"When it comes to evaluating information that flows across social channels or pops up in a Google search, young and otherwise digital-savvy students can easily be duped, finds a new report from researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education." Source
Access to information is so easy, and there's so much of it, that being discerning is more important than ever. But discernment is not easy. And that's where problems start for information consumers.

Innovators who want to create new products and services for today's market are literally forced to make things easier. Making something harder to do or use has no appeal. I cringe a little when I say that a good practice is to triangulate information. No one's going to do that unless they are really concerned about keeping their job or doing good scholarship.

On the other hand, what's the alternative? Making it easy. Demonstrating gullibility or an inability to think. Unless the stakes are high, most people may be able cope with that label.

While doing the hard thing (investigative searching) seems like the right thing to do, no normal person will volunteer to do it. They have to be made to do it.

In whose hands is the future of information literacy? Developers who can design apps that provide ever-easier access to information by which we can determine the source and reputation of information? Teachers who require students to learn skills that require time and effort?

I find Kalev Leetaru's suggestion in Forbes to have value--a developer's solution--for making one aspect of investigative searching easier. Instead of having to conduct a time-consuming search to triangulate information, it may be possible to aggregate tagged information to support or discredit statements:
"a browser or Facebook plugin that automatically identified quotes and factual assertions from an article and compiled a list of all reporting on those quotes and statements would at the very least allow a reader to understand how contested those details are. For example, a rapidly spreading viral meme attributing a certain statement to President Obama this afternoon could instantly be flagged as actually being a quote by Abraham Lincoln from a century and a half ago. A climate change claim that temperatures have actually dropped by 20 degrees over the past century could show that this number comes from a single personal blog, while all remaining reporting and scientific journals report very different results. Or, in the breaking aftermath of a major terror attack, such a tool could draw together all of the conflicting reports of the death and injury toll to offer a better understanding of the extent of the attack as new information emerges."
Such an app doesn't teach the reader how to find supporting documentation, but at least it gives the reader a chance to make up his or her mind by referring to other sources of information. Whether this solves a problem of information literacy or kicks it further down the road is something to consider.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Reacting to Fake News

Fake news may have started as a joke, but it quietly became a trusted news contender in 2016.

Saturday Night Live, the Onion and even Snopes have produced fake news for some time. In the context of SNL and the Onion, it's rather easy to detect the fake. When it comes to Snopes, it's harder because they are all about checking facts to debunk fake stories. Yet they've created their own fakes from time to time to keep readers from becoming overly reliant on what the publishers of Snopes say is true.

Here's one example:
The Mississippi state legislature removed fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum of public secondary schools.
It's not true. But if Snopes says it's true, it must be factual, right? Wrong. Snopes maintains a section of its site for "The Repository of Lost Legends" (TRoLL for short). See http://www.snopes.com/lost/lost.asp. One way to tell it's a fake is to check out a link at the bottom of the article: More information about this page. It's very subtle.

If this story appeared on Facebook, how many readers would take it for a fact? There would not likely be anything labeling it as fake news. 

Fact checking is the only personal solution to avoid being fooled or the victim of a scam.

In the Snopes article, these are just a sample of facts to investigate. 
  1. 13 August 1999.  First of all, this is an old date, so it doesn't seem relevant any longer. If a person investigated 13 August 1999 and other major keywords from the story, Mississippi fractions, these results would appear:
    • The original Snopes article
    • A reprint of the Snopes article claiming the story to be true because it was in Snopes; look at the comments: people are skeptical but not misbelieving.  (more than one reprint that offers the story as true)
    • An article that claims Snopes is lying 
    • Nothing from Mississippi government
  2. There are also many Proper nouns in the fake article that are worth checking out. Here are two:
    • senator Cassius de Spain
    • Judith Sutpen, chairperson of the Mississippi Senate Education committee
There is no record of Judith Sutpen as a chairperson of the Mississippi Senate Education committee. The closest coincidence is that she is a character in "Absalom Absalom!" by William Faulkner.  Cassius de Spain is also a character in the same book. A method for coming up with names is starting to emerge--I'd bet Cora Tull and John Sartoris may also be Faulker characters. Suddenly, the story seems manufactured.

Of course, one could also check Mississippi laws.

But it's way easier to react to news like this than to fact check it:
  • "It is true and sad, http://www.snopes.com/lost/fraction.htm "
  • "The scariest thing about this post is that I still haven't decided if it's satire or not. "
  • "wow people are idiots."
  • "You know, I could see changing the age at which fractions are taught if it was discovered that a thirteen-year-old understood them more easily than a ten-year-old (or for that matter, a six-year-old faster than a ten-year-old), but I thought the emphasis was supposed to be on more education, not less?"
 And so on.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Facts Matter

I recently updated a 21cif MicroModule on Evidence that got me thinking about recent elections in the US. What role did facts actually play?

Election outcomes don't boil down to just a few factors. Not everyone who voted one way or the other did so without weighing pros and cons. In all probability there could have been cases where a vote was cast knowing something about that candidate wasn't 100% satisfactory. For some, evidence to back up claims was critical; for others, not so much.

Throw into this mix Fake News. Titles that appeared include these:
“Twitter, Google and Facebook are burying the FBI criminal investigation of Clinton.”
“Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally.'”
“Remember the voting days: Republicans vote on Tuesday, 11/8 and Democrats vote on Wednesday, 11/9”
“Just out according to @CNN: “Utah officials report voting machine problems across entire country.”
Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/11/11/did-fake-news-on-facebook-send-trump-to-the-white-house/

Whereas none of the headlines can be supported with evidence, did they reinforce or sway voters? Perhaps.

Without evidence, believing something is true gives all the control to the news source.
"If you don't look for evidence you blindly place all your trust in the alleged accuracy of a source. How do you know they are right?"
(Source: http://21cif.com//tutorials/micro/mm/evidence/index.php)
Here's a helpful open source document on evaluating Fake News sites, thanks to Melissa Zimdars: https://docs.google.com/document/d/10eA5-mCZLSS4MQY5QGb5ewC3VAL6pLkT53V_81ZyitM/preview

She lists 11 tips:
  • Three involve checking the URL of the news source. 
  • Three are about lack of author or publisher attribution. 
  • Two are about checking other, known sources. 
  • One is about the effects of biased writing creating an emotional response. 
  • One is about formatting (pay attention to ALL CAPS)
  • One is about content that encourages bad Internet etiquette.
Can you think of others? These are worth putting into practice unless you don't think facts matter any more.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Refining and Finding Keywords

The keywords you start with are often not the keywords you need.

A good example of this occurred recently in a summer program I was leading. It wasn't an Information Fluency workshop, but it did give me an opportunity to show some middle schoolers how to find the information they were seeking.

The program was "Lifecycle of a Startup" at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois. Middle school students attend who want to experience being in a startup. We compress the first year of a startup into five days as a simulation game. Most of it is real--they pitch their ideas to real investors in a shark tank experience to raise (simulated) capital to get their business off the ground.

One team was having trouble developing its idea. It was Day Three and they hadn't firmed up what their new product was going to be. They had been toying with the problem of CO2 emissions and wanted to develop an ink that could absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. They just hadn't found a way to do this.

As I watched them search, this was a typical query:
how to remove carbon dioxide from the air using ink
The first article they found was one about using carbon nanoscale fibers to remove CO2 from the air. But since this didn't have anything to do with ink, they moved on, growing frustrated. Fortunately, improvements to search engines allows them to use a long natural language string and get results (it wasn't always that way).

They missed seeing a couple better keywords in the reading which I pointed out: carbon sequestration--the name of the process.

I suggested they query: carbon sequestration ink

I'm not sure the students had ever heard of sequestration before, but it's an effective term to query. Would they have used it on their own? Doubtful. But students should be encouraged to look for better terms in the results, even (especially) if the words aren't familiar. 

This produced a link to some Google Scholar articles which opened doors to what they were looking for. Of course, the girls had to skim the articles to see if they were relevant. Another search term popped out of the first article: reduced carbon-footprint concrete.

The girls eventually found a connection between what makes concrete absorb CO2 and what could be added to ink. It took persistence. They changed their idea to carbon sequestering paint, since that covers more surface area.

See if you can find the compound or chemical that may be added to paint to suck CO2 out of the air.