Brecke Boyd Explains Facts and Online News

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Media Literacy and the Obesity Crisis

Many schools have already implemented Media Literacy classes to help young adults sift through what’s real, what’s semi-real, and what’s totally false in their newsfeeds and Snap stories. From politics to “adult entertainment,” these media literacy classes attempt to equip students with the tools they need to discern the information they should base their decisions on.

One surprising area? Food advertisements. In the US, children suffering from obesity go on to develop lifelong problems, including diabetes, joint pain, cardiovascular diseases, and more. Some blame the problem on the lack of accessibility of healthful foods for both geographical and fiscal reasons. Others blame poor nutritional education, both on the parents’ part and the children’s part. The advertising industry has also taken some of the flack for marketing the salty, oily snacks to kids and using devious tactics to make the snacks seem better than they are.

Advertising dangerous activities to children has been taken very seriously for some time. In the 1990s, the cartoon camel used to advertise Camel Cigarettes came under fire as children began looking forward to the cartoon and associating the camel, and thus smoking, with fun. The company chose to settle a lawsuit alleging its complicity in convincing children to smoke and pulled the cartoon ad altogether. 

Some nations have taken some more drastic measures to stop the promotion of harmful substances and snacks to kids. In 2016, eight nations declared that no advertisements for junk food could be aimed at children, and Chile took an especially drastic approach by outlawing the beloved mascots Tony the Tiger, among others, that make junk food appealing to kids.

In the US, though, such sweeping policies aren’t likely to catch on, so educators are taking a different approach — media literacy for food advertisements. That way, young people are more aware of the marketing tactics, half-truths, and imagery that snack companies use to convince them to purchase junk over healthful options.

Virginia Tech rolled out a program designed to help people practice looking at snack ads with a critical eye to point out what information they’re omitting and the other ways their desires for the foods are being manipulated. For example, ads often suggest that a person can become more popular or attractive if they purchase and consume the snack in the ad. The program asks users to create “counter ads” to sugar drinks by drafting alternative taglines that offer more truth than the original.

While widespread inclusion of food literacy may take some time, but it could save lots of money down the road in healthcare costs once today’s youth become adults.

Fake News and Honest Mistakes are entirely different things

Now that 2017 is over, pundits and analysts alike have looked back on a year of “fake news” allegations and the way the public evaluates the veracity of various online stories and reports. In fact, many have named “fake news” as one of the phrases of the year for its use (and arguably over-use) in the public arena over the past twelve months. While the term “fake news” originated to describe false information intentionally disseminated with the intent to deceive readers, it’s taken on a life of its own. Nowadays, the term has so many common uses that it has ceased to mean much of anything at all.

Most recently, the term has been applied to reports or stories that contain honest mistakes or unintentional factual inaccuracies. Journalists have made mistakes and broken stories without fully vetting their sources, fact-checking their information thoroughly, or simply not editing closely enough. Politicians and sympathizers have long accused each other of manipulating the truth and telling only one side of a story, but any time a reporter makes an honest mistake, all mayhem breaks loose.

There’s an important distinction between fake news and a mistake in reporting, but both bolster the same point — Americans want to be able to trust their journalists and news sources, and both of these issues have seriously damaged reader’s trust in news media sources.

As I’ve written about before, the original intention of the phrase “fake news” was to describe malicious sources that knowingly spread wholly false information with the sole purpose of deceit, particularly bots that attempted to sway voters during the 2016 US Presidential Election. Those sources take pride in misleading readers and make it their mission to convince visitors to change their behavior based on the fallacious reporting.

Unlike intentional fake news, though, legitimate news sources do what they can to make amends if they realize they made a mistake and publicized incorrect, fraudulent, incomplete, or mis-written information. Knowing the responsibility they have to the public, news sources enforce high penalties for reporters who fail to adhere to the highest levels of journalistic integrity in reporting stories, live-tweeting events, interpreting data, and smearing someone’s good name. A number of times throughout this past year, reporters have had to resign because their failure to thoroughly vet their sources.

Mistakes happen by people with the best and purest intentions, and as the news-consuming public, it’s hard for us to forgive and move on when we feel deceived or mislead. However, we need to be able to discern between mistakes by our present journalistic media that works to uphold responsible reporting, over malintent snake oil salesmen who purposely create fake news.

Finding the truth after a Disaster

From the allegations of Russian interfering with the US election to natural disasters to national tragedies, Westerners especially turn to search engines and various social media feeds for the most up-to-date and accurate information about the people involved and the status of the event. Before there was internet, information often trickled out slowly by ways of multiple channels, and while it was frustrating, it was usually pretty accurate.


In a lightning-speed world, though, information is updated on a second-by-second basis, but its accuracy can be low, and the sources are of dubious integrity at best. Lots of reports of missing people, criminals at large, and conspiracies circulate in the immediate aftermath of a huge event. On the Media, a WNYC podcast on media literacy, published a handy list of best practices for what to believe — or not believe — in the immediate aftermath of an event.


Usually, a little bit of googling will disprove some of the fishier claims, but what happens when even online search platforms fall prey to some of the nonsensical discussions on the internet given artificial intelligence is producing the results by computer algorithms?


After the tragic shooting in Las Vegas, users rushed to search engines and searched, “Las Vegas Shooting” to stay up to date on the manhunt, the victims, and the motive of the crime. Online algorithms produced some reliable sources, but it also produced a piece from 4chan, a website infamous for peddling wild conspiracies, trolling comment sections, and leading readers astray. Within a few hours, a spokesperson from one of the search engine platforms noted the error of the algorithm and took down the entry.


Widely used social media platforms, too, retrieved articles from alt-right websites when online users queried for information about the act of domestic terrorism. The Crisis Management Hub team for one of the social media platforms responsible for curating up-to-date reports on huge phenomena issued a statement saying they had removed the errant articles and that it would do better to vet which articles its algorithm produced.


When it comes to artificial intelligence and computer algorithms, it’s important to remember that they don’t exist in vacuums, and they have the same biases as their programmers. In a recent demonstration, an online translation platform showed how it assigns gender pronouns when translating from a language that is gender neutral. A presenter translated the sentence “She is a doctor” from English into Turkish, a gender-neutral language. When that sentence was translated back into English, the algorithm produced, “He is a doctor.”


Algorithms are products of our world and reflect the society we’ve built, and to that end, it should be no surprise that they don’t always behave the way we think they ought to. As such, in the aftermath of a national disaster or tragedy, tread cautiously, and report any errors you spot so that the programs do better next time around.

What do we do with Oral Histories?

On the popular question and answer forum Quora, one user asked, “Is there any time fake new is a good thing?” Naturally, many Americans’ knee-jerk reaction is “absolutely not.” In the US, we highly value the verifiable and documented truth, and as such, we hold our journalists to extremely high standards, both legally and societally. When we discover that a journalist has been spreading false information, they face both the courts of law and a public crucifixion of their reputations. However, if we zoom out a little, the issue is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as we would say it is today.

For long stretches of human existence, “history” was not the cold hard science and exercise in forensic archivism that it is today. Rather, history was passed down orally from elders to younger generations as a means of building a unified cultural identity. Consider the famous Greek tragedies, The Iliad and the Odyssey. Today, we regard these works as highly fictionalized accounts of battles that probably did take place in real life — although, not with the intervention of petty deities. At the time, though, the purpose of the stories was not to provide a factual portrayal of what happened — instead, these tales taught morals and religion.

Countless cultures practiced the passing of oral history. Throughout the entire continents of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, indigenous people used oral histories infused with the supernatural to pass on creation stories, societal values, and explanations for natural phenomena and royal succession.

Fast forward to the Enlightenment Era in Western Europe. The development of the Scientific Method required scientists to test theories and ideas ruthlessly by collecting evidence, drawing on past research, and applying the most critical lens possible to the issue at hand. Naturally, this fundamental shift in what it meant to test a theory and declare something “true” was not confined to the hard sciences. Soft sciences like sociology, politics, and economics also adopted the perspective and required hard proof to determine what’s accurate.

History was soon caught up in this fit of proof and evidence, too. Governments, educational institutions, religious institutions, and laypeople alike all began record keeping on unprecedented levels. To this day, the British government maintains logs detailing every moment of their time as colonizers and the exact amount of damage they inflicted. The majority of society has benefited from relying more heavily on evidence — we have better medicines, more accurate predictions, and highly advanced technology as a result. However, all this innovation left oral histories in an uncomfortable spot.

Oral history now inhabits a peculiar crevice in academia. We can’t teach oral histories as “facts” because they are completely unprovable. However, discounting them totally means that the history of Africa, parts of Asia, and the Americas gets omitted from textbooks and instead are relegated to “myth and folklore” courses. History purists and activists who tout more inclusionary agedas clash often about what to do with these histories and where they do or don’t belong.

Ancient oral histories are different from today’s fake news epidemics in many ways, most notably in the latter’s intent to malevolently deceive. But still, both terms refer to the intentional dissemination of semi- or wholly false information with the end goal of shifting the culture. So to the original question of whether “fake news” can ever be a good thing, the answer has more to do with what we call “fake news” and the purpose of the information.

Back to School Media Literacy

Brecke Latham Boyd Back-to-school Media LiteracyIt’s getting to be back-to-school time again. In addition to all the frantic shopping that parents are doing to prepare their kids for a fresh school year, parents also spend these last precious days and weeks mentally and emotionally preparing their students for the realities of the social scene. From bullies to the “popular kids” to respecting teachers and law enforcement officers, there’s a lot of precarious navigating that young people have to do in between — and often during — learning time.

This year, though, it’s more important than ever for parents to equip their kids with the tools to wade into the political thickets, social media swamps, and rumor weeds and come out the other side educated and unscathed. With the modern state of politics, the ubiquity of social media, and the crashing waves of information and data that enter people’s purview hourly, young people need some sound advice and a strong moral compass for determining who to trust and where to go for the facts. Here’s some ways you can equip your child for the upcoming school year emotionally and mentally.

Ask For Sources | Rumors get started because nobody fact-checks information, and stories get exaggerated at every retelling. As you prep your child for the realities of returning to their 8-3 schedules, encourage your child to pause and consider how they can verify what they’ve just heard. Can they Google the claim? Can they ask the subject of the story? Even in a classroom, it’s well within the etiquette of respectful discourse for your child to ask a teacher where a claim about a historical fact or statistic came from.

Find Out What Others are Saying | Critics all across the political spectrum have been accused of “cherry picking” their news sources and academic studies such that they cite only those that bolster their viewpoints and omit those that prove detrimental to their agenda. Teachers aren’t immune from this, and neither are kids at the mercy of rumor mills. If your child happens upon a claim that seems a little too good to be true or a story to which there may be multiple sides, urge your child to explore what dissenters are saying. Where is their information coming from? What are some of the underlying assumptions on any side of an argument?

Don’t Repeat Unchecked Info | As I’ve talked about lots and lots of times before, social media has exacerbated the issues of people spreading unverified information. Claims, accusations, and “discoveries” will cross your child’s consciousness all day long. In insular communities like school buildings, students determine their social standing by when word of a rumor hits their ears, and as such, it’s tantalizing for students to spread both current events or juicy personal details as soon as they hear it. Get your student in the journalistic mindset of seeking out truth and professionally-researched opinions before they report on it to their friends and Twitter followers.

Brecke Latham Boyd News about -News- is Fake News

News about “News” is Fake News

Brecke Latham Boyd News about -News- is Fake NewsPoor lexicographers woke up to a wildfire the other day as teens had tweeted and retweeted thousands of times a thoroughly incorrect definition of a word.

In early June, Twitter user @asteinmetz_21 tweeted that he’d “discovered” that the word “News” was in fact an acronym for “Notable Events, Weather, and Sports.” Within the day, the tweet had garnered nearly 30,000 engagements from other users, who now felt more informed about the origin of such a common word.

Kory Stamper, one of the editors for Merriam Webster, stepped up to try to restore some order to the dumpster fire that had torn through twitter. The Merriam Webster account tweeted not only the definition of the word, but also its etymology, dating from the 1450s, having nothing to do with an acronym whatsoever. Stamper noted that it’s rare for acronyms to become words and that this “news” incident wasn’t the first time someone falsely accused a word of being a distilled acronym.

Other users fact-checked the claim made in the tweet and discovered within seconds that “news” was not, in fact, an acronym for anything. Some refuted the tweet plainly with screenshots of their google searches, while others mocked the original tweet with equally false acronyms for what “news” stands for. In time, the fervor quieted down, but there’s still a lot of people out there who think that the word “news” is an acronym.

So what do you do when you have a catchy runaway story with no truth to it whatsoever?

The truth of the matter is, there’s precious little to be done on a large scale, but on a small scale, there’s lots of little fires you can smolder yourself.

Firstly, if there’s some grand new discovery about the origin of a word, not matter how cool or plausible it may be, google it before you retweet it. Stories like this only gain popularity because not enough people bothered to fact-check. According to Daniel Levitin, it’s important to corroborate the story against what others are saying — if you can only find one source writing about an incident or a discovery, it could easily be fully false or a wildly exaggerated version of what happened. In this instance, this mind-blowing fact came from an unverified twitter account, and a little digging will reveal that the owner of the handle is not a licensed lexicologist.

Secondly, if you see your friends retweeting that information, draw their attention to all the aforementioned info. As was made clear in Katy Perry’s recent life stream with activist Deray McKesson, public shaming is nowhere near as effective as a private conversation. Direct Message or call your friend to talk about why they retweeted fake news and how they can immunize themselves from the epidemic.

No one person can stop the spread of this nonsense, but a lot of people “vaccinating” their friends will help keep it contained.

Brecke Latham Boyd Teens & Media Literacy

Teens & Media Literacy

Among those most vulnerable to falling for the pandemic of false information are young people in middle school and high school who don’t have the real-world experience yet to discern factual reporting from sensationalized nonsense. Some schools have begun to include classes in news and media literacy to help students think critically about bias, narrative, and “end goal” for the viewer, and it seems to be helping to create a stronger generation of media consumers, but we need more, and we need it now.

Buzzfeed recently polled school-aged students on their sensitivity to sensationalized news to get a sense of where we are now and what work still needs to be done. The same way that most people would classify themselves as good drivers, most young people classify themselves as adept at identifying lies on the internet. Buzzfeed partnered with the social media app After School whose target audience is exclusively grade school students. In all, 39,000 students completed the survey. In its analysis, Buzzfeed admits that its poll likely does not meet the standards of scientific rigor, since any student with the app could submit answers and there’s  no way to determine the authenticity of the answers, but the responses are still worth noting.

According to the poll, a little over 80% of teens believe themselves to be very good at identifying falsities when they cross their newsfeeds. As Stanford has noted, though, many teens are not as good as they think they are, especially when it comes to determining the source of a claim. About 65% of students said that, when they spot bad intelligence online, they choose to ignore it, while around 30% said they call it out.

Among those teens who had never encountered the term “fake news,” a little over 65% still believed that the news publishes and promotes factually inaccurate stories. Surprisingly, though, only about half of those who identified as unfamiliar with the term believed that they could identify an example of fake news.

The author of the Buzzfeed piece noted that these results are unfortunate but not shocking at all. As per a 2016 poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, about three out of four adults had trouble spotting a fake news story when it came across their screens. In addition, the pollsters asked respondents to identify which of five headlines they’d seen come across their radars, and many said that they had seen headlines that had indeed been completely made up by the pollsters.

As the summer approaches, parents and children can embark on missions to combat fake news together. Dinnertime discussions about what’s going on in the news can help families consolidate all the news each member has individually consumed and check it against what other members have read. Many libraries also offer summer sessions on news literacy and discussion groups that may help all family members learn about avoiding the lure of click bait.

Brecke Latham Boyd Google Cracking Down

Google Cracking Down on Fake News

brecke latham boyd google cracking down on fake newsFake news: otherwise known as the two words nearly everyone has heard ad nauseam for the past several months. However, in spite of its inherently annoying nature, this phrase represents a very real problem in our society — and others around the world.

Sometime in 2015, articles with long, somewhat seedy titles began popping up all over Facebook users’ news feeds. This lower form of online journalism, also known as clickbait, was created to generate high volumes of web traffic to otherwise irrelevant websites with questionable URLs. This tactic has steadily risen in popularity over the past two years, with even popular websites sinking to exaggerating titles for the sake of attracting clicks.

This phenomena spun out of control as the United States entered election season, with exaggerated — and even downright false — stories about candidates surfacing at the most inopportune times and even caused some very real consequences (e.g., Pizzagate).

Even after all of the public acknowledgment of the existence of fake news, social media users are still faced with clickbait disguised as legitimate news stories. It should come as no surprise that this never-ending flow of fake news has led both Facebook and Google to come under fire for not making a greater effort to prevent such false information from spreading like wildfire.

In response to their critics, Google has started the arduous process of rewriting its powerful search algorithms to keep fake news stories from the top of users’ results. This tactic also entails 10,000-plus employees meticulously flagging pages that publish hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other content the company labels “low-quality.” While this does not necessarily eliminate fake news from the internet, it certainly reduces its visibility and relevance.

Additionally, this effort has come just months after Google announced it permanently banned over 200 AdSense users for attempting to make a profit by perpetuating misleading or false content.

While these actions are a noteworthy step in the right direction, a report released by the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University suggested the news media could be doing more to counteract the chilling effects of fake news.

Among the researchers’ many recommended plans of action, the most notable included: reaching out to conservative agencies such as Cato and Koch Institutes to counteract civilians’ general distrust of the news media, thus reducing their likelihood to believe in “underground” sources; collecting more data from social media platforms to aid journalists in accurate reporting; and incorporating researchers into the average newsroom, thereby providing journalists with “cheap and reliable sources of information so that well-sourced reporting can outpace the spread of misinformation on social media.”

Regardless of the tactics that are employed, it is imperative that they put an end to the perpetuation of fake news once and for all. Failure to do so will only enforce Americans’ reliance on irreputable sources due to their lack of affiliation with the news media — and that is simply a risk we cannot afford to take.

Brecke Latham Boyd Science

Science: The Next Frontier of “Fake News”

You would think that science, with its obsession with facts, proof, and data, would be immune from the epidemic of bad and fallacious information plaguing our society, and yet, it’s become deeply entrenched in the problem. From the heated debates on global warming and abortion to the tooth-and-nail fights for limited science grants, the way scientific findings are publicized and used as fodder in the political arena has left it vulnerable to being consumed by ne’er-do-wells trying to make a profit off clicks. Even besides how science is being misapplied in legislative tete-a-tete, “fake findings” have begun to permeate the field and severely damage the reputations of certain researchers and even entire fields of study.

First, let’s dissect what we mean when we say science. The term science does not necessarily refer to immutable facts carved in stone. Rather, the term has more to do with the process of collecting data and evidence to support or refute a hypothesis. Most scientists will shirk from the word “prove,” as this word implies certainty as to its truth. All science can do is make a judgement call based on a pile of evidence collected either in nature or by stringent studies.

In defense of science, it has gotten much much harder to get a study published, and very few people understand what it means when a scientific discovery happens. FiveThirtyEight published a huge expose in the summer of 2015 when public faith in the scientific method was waning. Around that time, stories were breaking left and right regarding the “reproducibility” of certain studies. Put most simply, for a scientific finding to “count,” other scientists should be able to perform the same methods and get the same results. However, when a sample of studies’ methodologies were performed, the results were nowhere near those which were published. The public was astonished and came down hard on the selectivity of peer-reviewed journals.

To be fair, though, science has become more difficult in modern times. FiveThirtyEight demonstrated just how high the bar for getting published is and how a tiny bit of number fudging can make or break a study. However, the writers and commentators noted, that doesn’t excuse science from the scrutiny of the public and its need to uphold its integrity. From increased sample sizes to more honest reporting, science needs to recalibrate.

Consider, now, how this issue of number fudging and choosy data translates to, say, the debate on climate change and what to do about it. It’s all but impossible to “prove” whether the climate is changing enough to raise concern, and on top of that, the cause of the change. However, different debaters cite different “evidence” that “proves” their side of the story. Both green party affiliates and climate change deniers have pages and pages of evidence bolstering their arguments. However, a glance over the research will indicate funding from political parties that want to see certain findings as well as numbers difficult to reproduce. The glance will also yield that neither side cites evidence that the other presents.

As I’ve discussed in other posts, a lie by omission is still a lie — and fake news by omitted evidence is still fake news. Such “reporting” may not be totally factually false, but when journalists choose to omit a source, base their facts on the opinions of their funders, or lazily research a story, the published news deceives the reader. When scientists or politicians citing science on either side of the aisle pick and choose the science that supports their proposed legislation without understanding the full implications of the study or presenting the whole story, science is leveraged as fake news. For the public to retain its trust in the scientific method and the outcomes thereof, we have to be more mindful about which studies get published and how we cite them in our public discourse.  

The Modern State of Fake News

Brecke Boyd | The Modern State of Fake news

Widespread reporting by credible news outlets in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election unearthed the existence of fabricated online news stories that intentionally falsify and mischaracterize factual information for the purpose of manipulating readers.

Coined as fake news, inaccurate information is packaged and branded online to appear as credible news stories, is spread rapidly through social media and inflicts severe damage to those targeted.

For the first few weeks following the 2016 presidential election, pundits argued the existence of fake news and its culpability in persuading political leanings during the campaigns.

One side reasoned that fake news jeopardized the credibility of information consumers read online leading up to the election, thus altering public discourse and drastically affecting the election results. Challengers refuted that inaccurate online stories couldn’t possibly have any real-world consequences, and even less, couldn’t inflict tangible damage on society.

Amidst the pundits arguing, a U.S. citizen armed with an assault rifle stormed into a D.C. restaurant and fired multiple shots with employees and customers present after reading an online story that Democrats were operating a child slave ring out of establishment’s basement. The gunman traveled from his North Carolina home to “self-investigate” and free the children he believed were being held against their will. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Unfortunately, this gunman had been manipulated by a fake news story  convincing enough for him that in reaction he committed a felony.

We are vivacious consumers of online content, and fake news preys on our need for information. It’s outward lure of truth looks the part of credible news, making it harder to identify. A mastery of disguise, it is maliciously produced in various online forms with the intent to fool readers. It lies. Misrepresents. Smears good names for the sake of online clicks. Manipulates the truth. Falsifies its identify. Tells you what you want to hear. Can steal your money and your identity. Appears trustworthy.

Take clickbait, where an outrageous headline draws readers to websites where stories may be partially true but use fiction, satire, or other fake details to appear believable. These deceiving websites intentionally prey on trusting readers who do not check sources nor url addresses, and then pass the information off as accurate news.

Despite one’s political position, there is no denying that fake news not only exists, but that it is affecting real lives.

Who’s to blame? The creator or the consumer? Before the revelation, creators of the content were at fault because consumers were unaware that their online habits were being maliciously and tactically targeted as a tool to spread misinformation. But now knowing that fake news exits, the consumer is going to need to be the first line of defense to stop the spread of misinformation. We spot it, we stop it.

News outlets have started reporting lists of fake news websites which may be a starting place to educate consumers. But should there be one step further where there is a defined list of what outlets are journalistically credible so that people can confidently know stories have been fact-checked, sourced and made accurate by real reporters before they are published?

Possibly. However, Bloomberg News reports that professional fact-checkers say these types of lists “require judgment calls, and it can be hard to tell where to draw the line.”

It may takes years to halt the generation of fake news, but the more educated we are about what it is, we as consumers can be the first to stop spreading, consuming and believing fake news stories. We have arrived at the fake news revelation.


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