10 Ways to Identify Fake News

Image: David Mikkelson and Ari Ratner address a breakout group at the ADL conference in San Francisco, 11/13/17. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

This is the last of a series of my notes from the “Never is Now” conference hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Finally I attended a presentation titled “Misinformation and the Battle for Truth.”

David Mikkelson is the founder of Snopes.com, the oldest internet fact checker.
Ari Ratner moderated.

Mikkelson was very interesting, partly because he has such a long tenure with the issue of misinformation online. He has been operating Snopes.com since 1994.

In the beginning, he said, most of the questions they got were had to do with hoaxes and urban legends. Since 2008 misinformation online has become highly politicised. There are also issues of people putting out misinformation for profit, since fake news is cheap and viral.

According to Mikkelson, the economics are fairly simple. Posting on social media is free. Revenues are generated by advertising on the sites themselves. The purveyors of this stuff look for “grabby” pictures and clickable headlines. Bots are cheap. One profitable strategy is to pit groups of people against one another: they all click and click and click, the angrier they get.

After the election, he said, we began to realize the “fake news” phenomenon. The president leaped onto the usage of the term and unfortunately has rendered it almost meaningless.

Someone asked about personal attacks Mittleman has received. He said most of those have been “mostly misinformed.”  One memorable case was that of Hal Turner, a white nationalist radio host. He claimed that a secret North American Union (a “one world” entity) was secretly issuing currency. He spent a lot of time on the radio talking about how the “owners of Snopes are helping their rich Jew pals deceiving.” He said that everyone in fact-checking gets some of this; what he didn’t say was how many of those other firms are thought of as Jewish.

Currently, he said, there’s less overt anti-Semitism online, but that the hate is more towards immigrants, Mexicans, Syrian refugees, etc.

He talked about the need to educate ourselves in fact-checking, and especially for young people to be helped to understand how they can do this for themselves. Some suggestions:

  1. Use fact checking websites like Snopes.com.
  2. Look at the site where the material appears. What are their sources? Search on the writers’ names and see what else they’ve done.
  3. Keep an eye out for websites that mimic the respectable news sites, such as BBC, ABC, etc. Some fake news sites use design to boost believability.
  4. Watch for indications that someone is paying to publish. Always look for possible bias. Sponsored content must be evaluated as such.
  5. The more outrageous information is, the less likely that it is true. Keep checking.
  6. Does this source (the website, etc.) have a particular political bent? Are all their articles from the same point of view?
  7. Do the facts in the article match the headline? Headlines sometimes are clickbait and the article says no such thing.
  8. If studies are cited, who paid for those? How reputable are they?
  9. Watch for confirmation bias. We are inclined to believe things that match with the opinions we already have. Anyone can fall into the trap of believing something because it appeals to them. WHY do I want to believe a particular item?
  10. Finally, beware the lure of “secret knowledge.” It’s very exciting to have secret information. But if it is all lies, that’s a problem.

He said that at the platform level, some companies are taking steps. Still on a basic level.  (This matched my impression of the presentations from Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube earlier in the day.) He said that the platforms don’t want to limit what users see.

Someone asked about what other countries are doing.

Mikkelson said that in Europe they take legislative approach that wouldn’t work in the U.S. because of Constitutional issues. For instance,  Facebook can be fined for not getting hate stuff down fast enough. He pointed out that the global aspect of this is part of what complicates solutions.

Someone asked about “sponsored news” and his comment was that “at least they are telling you it was paid for.” Funding media is a huge challenge.

He pointed out that there is a difference between fact checkers and journalists. One of the strategies used by the oil companies in the Standing Rock conflict last year was that they sponsored “fact checking sites” that were strongly biased in favor of the oil companies. So always look at the sources: who is paying?


“Anti-Semitism on Campus in the Bay Area”

Image: A panel of experts discuss issues of anti-Semitism at San Francisco State University. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar, 11/13/17)

This is a continuation of a series of my notes from the “Never is Now” conference hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Next there was a panel talking about anti-Semitism on campus, specifically at San Francisco State University.   The situation there has been particularly difficult lately (see this article from the J Weekly for more about the specifics.) The panel was composed of Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish Studies at SFSU, Ollie Bern, Director of the San Francisco Hillel, and Abigail Michaelson Porth, Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council. Each of them came to the issue with a different point of view, although all were in basic agreement on the problems.  Seth Brysk, the Central Pacific Regional Director of the ADL was the moderator.

The panel talked about the differences between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-normalization. The latter is a tricky concept; here’s a Jewish point of view on it and a pro-Palestinian point of view on it. I don’t feel qualified to explain it myself at this point.

Marc Dollinger spoke at length about his belief that the University should be a place where we engage with ideas. He was clear that while he sympathizes with students who feel upset, it is also important for them to learn to listen to new ideas and to develop and articulate their own thinking.

Ollie Been was eloquent about the challenges, that no student should be required to have a particular point of view in order to participate in university discussions. He also told us that at least one professor of ethics at SFSU has argued for the exclusion of Hillel from campus life, since it is a Jewish organization.

Abigail Michaelson Perth talked about the response of the Jewish community in our area, specifically the decision to invest in SFSU. Jewish foundations have funded programs of many kinds on the campus, not just the Jewish Studies Department. She expressed her frustration at the way that support of the university was received, as evidence of undue influence:  “We feel dismissed and our students disrespected.”  Marc Dollinger pointed out that the community support has been critical for Jewish faculty, staff, and students.

Panelists noted that other Bay Area campuses have handled similar conflicts quite differently. Ms Michaelson Perth pointed out that there are examples of best practices at many of the University of California campuses – not at all hard to find. The situation at SFSU is therefore particularly frustrating.

Ollie Been expressed concern for both populations of the students, the marginalized Jewish students, and the Palestinian students as well. Both are very small minorities on campus. He spoke about the need to build relationships with other communities. Allyship has to be genuine.  Building relationships is hard work and must be sincere and ongoing. We have to teach students how to do this and mirror in larger J community. WE have to show up for others.

Seth Brysk mentioned a resource on the ADL.org site: Think. Plan. Act. It’s a set of tools for dealing with anti-Semitism on campus.

There was a question from the floor about potential students. Dr. Dollinger was candid that SFSU can be a shock to sheltered Jewish students. However, he pointed out that it is an opportunity to engage with people who have had different experiences. For the right student, it can still be a worthwhile experience.

Ms Michaelson Perth said that while it is important for the Jewish community to continue to be involved at SFSU, we should also recognize that it isn’t for everyone. And for the Jewish community at large, we have to make choices about continuing to invest in a campus that is so hostile.

Ollie Been said that anti-Semitism is everywhere. SF Hillel is there for the students. It’s important not to over-dramatize the situation. It is possible to fight BDS without invoking Hitler. He also advocated for a student-centered approach to activism on campus.

Marc Dollinger recounted an incident that inspired him. He said that the current Hillel students are smart, brave, and intelligent. At one meeting, the University President said that Zionists are not welcome on the campus. An undergraduate challenged him immediately and asked him to define Zionism, and then engaged with him about his definition.

There was a lot more, all of it thought provoking.


“No Platform for Hate” – A Tech Panel

Image: Nellie Bowles of the New York Times interviews a panel including Melissa Tidwell of Reddit, Juniper Downs of YouTube, and Monika Bikert of Facebook. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar, taken in San Francisco on 11/13/17) 

I know if I wait to rewrite this, I’m not going to get around to posting it. Therefore what you are getting are my slightly-edited notes from the ADL Conference “Never is Now” which I attended in San Francisco yesterday. This is the first of three posts.

Jonathan Greenblatt gave the keynote.

Nellie Bowles from the New York Times interviewed a panel of representatives from Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube. Fascinating stuff, beginning with the fact that gradually dawned on me: all of them are attorneys, judging from their bios.  All chose their words carefully, and talked about what the companies have done to rein in hate speech on their platforms.

Unfortunately, the answers all came out sounding to me like “not as much as one might hope.” It’s clear to me that the profit motive is alive and well in Silicon Valley and tends to crowd out other concerns. Ms. Bowles kept pressing them with different versions of the question, “Are you going to hire editorial staff to make judgments about the stuff that goes up, and its provenance?” and the answer was always, “Let me tell you about this cool tech thing we are doing.” Unfortunately, that’s where they’d lose me. Either I couldn’t follow enough of what they were talking about, or they really haven’t made all that much headway in dealing with these difficult issues.

On the other hand, it was great to see a panel all made up of powerful, intelligent women, and I did feel they personally take the issues very seriously.

The ADL announced the establishment of a new Center for Technology and Society to combat the growing problem of hate speech and harassment online. Funded by the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. I think this is a very promising development.

(More about the conference in my next post.)




Resource on Anti-Semitism: The ADL Global 100

Graffito in a restroom at the University of Chicago
Graffito in a restroom at the University of Chicago

I’m preparing to teach a class on anti-Semitism. It’s an important class for my Intro students, even if I don’t like talking about it.

If you want the short version of what I teach in class, you can read it in another blog post. But today, as I was preparing, I discovered a great new resource online, the ADL Global 100. For the first time, the Anti-Defamation League commissioned an independent research firm to survey adults in over 100 countries. (Previously, their survey covered only the U.S.)

The survey itself was interesting. People were read 11 statements, to which they responded “true” or “false.” If they answered “true” to six or more of the statements, they were counted as having anti-Semitic attitudes. The complete list along with the methodology is on the website, but to give you a feel for it, here are six of the statements:

  • Jews only care about their own kind.
  • People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.
  • Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.
  • Jews have too much power in the business world.
  • Jews are more loyal to Israel than they are to the country they live in.
  • Jews have too much control of the U.S. government.

To count as having anti-Semitic beliefs, they have to answer “true” to six of eleven statements similar to those. Again, the complete list of survey statements is on the ADL Global100 website.

So what were the results? 26% of adults world-wide have anti-Semitic beliefs, as measured by the survey. Nine percent of adults in the United States hold such beliefs. Before Americans congratulate themselves, remember, that translates to 21,000,000 people.

You can click around on the survey and find out the percentage for each continent and for each country. It’s fascinating reading. For instance, why is it that in the U.S., men and women have anti-Semitic beliefs at the same rate, but in Australia and New Zealand, men have those beliefs at a higher rate than women? Why does Panama far outstrip all other countries in the Americas, with a rate of 52%? What would account for the low rate in the Philippines, only 3%?

Perhaps if we could answer those questions, we might be on the way to ending it.

Image by Quinn Dombrowski, some rights reserved.