Fighting Information Disorder

6 tools to fact-check and spot fake news, layoffs at Upworthy, & more


  • This is civic tech: I’m writing this today from MisinfoCon DC, the fourth gathering of a burgeoning network of researchers, hackers, journalists and democracy activists pulled together by Hacks/Hackers to share ideas and collaborate on projects. The crowd reminds me of the sorts of people who would come to TransparencyCamp a decade ago—a lot of young techies along with plenty of grayer heads, and a mix of NGOs, government agencies, and lots of investigative and civic monitoring organizations. But the mood is very different–back then the theme was “open data, open government.” Now it’s all about defending open society from bad actors. Follow along here. Agenda here.

  • With so much attention on organized misinformation campaigns spreading through social media, it’s no surprise that there’s been a flowering of tools designed to help researchers and others find the signal in the noise. Here are some that have caught my eye here at MisinfoCon: MentionMapp (which helps you discover relationships between hashtags, networks of tweeters, and the like), Polygraph.info (a project of the Broadcasting Board of Governors that monitors the spread of disinformation globally and offers fact-checks of trending articles), Botometer (a project of Indiana University researchers that scores Twitter accounts for bot-like behavior), FakerFact (an AI bot that will tell you whether an article you are reading might be fake news),Hoaxy (another Indiana University project that offers a dashboard deep in information about false claims, how they’re spreading, etc), and TruePic (an image verification tool).

  • I’ve also bookmarked a few articles for future reading as a result of attending MisinfoCon. A new one by Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron, called “Deep Fakes: A Looming Challenge for Privacy, Democracy and National Security,” is a working draft wrestling with the issues raised by the rise of technology making it cheap and easy to make convincing but fake videos of people saying and doing things they haven’t done. And a very old one, written by Francis O’Hara in the Villanova Law Review in 1965, called “The Foreign Agents Registration Act—’The Spotlight of Pitiless Publicity’,” explains the origins of a transparency law now being applied against Paul Manafort. You see, in 1938, when it was enacted, Congress was worried about the literal spread of Nazi propaganda by paid agents operating in the United States, and it decided that “that the spotlight of pitiless publicity will serve as a deterrent to the spread of pernicious propaganda.”

  • Related: It’s not a tool, but I wish I could take this class at the University of Washington, taught by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, which I also learned about at MisinfoCon.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Two must-reads on what the world’s largest social network platform is doing to us. First Kara Swisher in The New York Times, who says that its inventor has been overwhelmed by his creation. And second, Nikhil Sonnad in Quartz, who draws on Hannah Arendt and writes that “Underlying all of Facebook’s screw-ups is a bumbling obliviousness to real humans.”

  • The conspiracy website InfoWars has been largely removed from YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and iTunes for violating policies against hate speech and harassment, the Washington Post’s Hamza Shaban, Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker report.

  • Anti-Muslim hate groups are flourishing on Facebook, Ishmael Daro reports for BuzzFeedNews.

  • Reporting from the Decentralized Web Summit, Quartz’s Simone Stolzoff argues that “time well spent,” the mantra of Tristan Harris’ Center for Humane Tech, has been co-opted and defused by the big tech platforms.

  • In Germany, the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) requires social network platforms to take down suspected illegal content quickly and to report regularly on those efforts. In Digiday, Lucinda Southern gives the toplines for Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

  • Privacy watch: If you use a mobile peer-to-peer payment system like Venmo or the Cash App, you should be interested in Consumer Reports’ new ratings of these products for how well their protect your privacy and security. (Disclosure: I’m on the Consumer Reports board.)

  • Speaking of mobile financial products, Facebook is talking to large U.S. banks about sharing financial information about their customers in an effort to become a platform where people buy and sell goods and services, the Wall Street Journal reports.

  • Tech and politics: Last year, the FCC claimed—with weak evidence—that its commenting system had been DDOSed, but as Kevin Collier of BuzzFeedNews reports, chairman Ajit Pai has now put the blame on the agency’s CIO.

  • West Virginia is partnering with Voatz to enable oversees residents to vote in the fall election, but security experts are concerned that this is a terrible idea, CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan reports. “Mobile voting is a horrific idea,” Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told CNN in an email. “It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote.”

  • Good Media just laid off 31 employees at Upworthy, the once high-flying progressive viral media company, and Marlee Baldridge reports for Nieman Lab that questions are swirling about the change. One reason seems paramount: Facebook’s change in its NewsFeed algorithm undercut its ability to generate traffic for its high-value videos.

  • Four years after GoPro vounder Nicholas Woodman donated $500 million in GoPro stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, there is “almost no trace of the Woodman Foundation, or that $500 million,” David Gelles reports for The New York Times. But while “the benefit to the needy is difficult to see,” he points out that Woodman has earned tens of millions in tax savings (despite the value of the stock he donated declining precipitously). It’s just one example of how donor advised funds, a favorite of tech billionaires, can be abused.

  • End times: Some airports have a mean sense of humor.