How to Verify Information on Social Media

On Twitter every now and then a celebrity is declared dead. Very often this is just a hoax: For instance, Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington have had a mysterious deadly snowboarding accident. And when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died, the rapper Lil Kim became a trending topic as many hip hop fans simply got confused due their similar names.

Rumours, hoaxes and wrong information have been everyday phenomena in the news business. With social media some things have changed: User generated content has become a new source for journalists and now news spread and modify faster than ever. Journalists have to adapt to these new conditions. Last week I gave a lecture to first-year journalism students in Oslo. In the talk I put the phenomenon of rumours in social media into context and gave the students some tips on how to use the means they have available to check facts. The last slide contains links to a excellent blog posts and papers that contribute to the topic. Elsebeth Frey at Oslo and Akershus University 
College of Applied Sciences was so kind to give me the opportunity to speak in her class about fact checking.

And these are the slides:

The Culture of Trolling

This Wednesday our internet research group co-hosted a talk on the topic of trolling. Carmel Vaisman (@carmelva) who is a communication researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem spoke about the practices of trolls and the similarities and differences to face-to-face interactions. Don’t Feed The Trolls. Countering The Discourse Patterns of Online Harassments was her subject. I post my short notes here as a summary here, but be warned: I was live-blogging, getting things wrong and missing points, …* derStandard.at/Web wrote an excellent summary of the talk in German. I recommend also reading the comments of the derStandard article because you see another excellent example of troll behavior ;). And here is also Carmel’s prezi:

The talk was based upon two chapters of her book Hebrew Online.

A troll is person who seeks attention, who cannot be reasoned with. The word troll doesn’t come from the nordic monster. The verb has its origins in a fishing technique and means slowly dragging (a lure). There is also a small suitcase with wheels which we call trolley because we drag it.

Susan Herring is one of the first researchers who studied the culture of trolling.

Trolls in early internet days, for example in IRC chats, were polite in their expressions, they just seeked attenttion. Today’s troll are much more violent. Carmel differentiates six practices of violent online behaviour:

  • spam
  • flaming
  • stalking
  • trolling
  • cyberbullying
  • virtual rape

What is common to all those practices is that trolls perform those in repetitive manner. This erodes the identity of attacked person/institution step by step. What are examples of violent online behavior? Stalking is a form of sexual online harassment: Somebody reads every online output of another person and reacts on it, he/she keeps writing comments and gives “likes”, always being the first. The Facebook-Poke (which descends from the old Unix-Commands “ping” and “finger”) can be a form of flirtation, a form of touch. But if it is unwanted and repeatedly executed it is harassment. Other practices of trolls are hate groups and hate pages, repetative insults and threats on a private channel. What I found an innovative destruction tactic was when a troll clicked on the ads of a blog until Google stopped the ad distribution because of a violation of the terms of service.

Carmel made the important point that violence exerted to the virtual represenation of somebody else has real consequences. Trolls harm the avatar (the wall, the profile, …) and it is like harming someone in person. Attention is a double edged sword, it is not only resource, it can also be a burden.

Why is there so much more hate speech and flaming on the web than in face-to-face-interactions? Because big parts of the web are anonymous? Recently we see that the web is getting less and less anonymous (e.g. Facebook) and people are still flaming at each other. You could of course refer to a cultural explanation. In Israel, for example, online arguments are sometimes very tough but then they come to an agreement. Carmel identified parallels to the tradition of talmudic argumentation. But to look for the reason in culture may not be everything. The main reason why communication can sometimes be more violent online is because communication is mediated. The face and the body are missing (-> Levinas).

To underline explanation Carmel concluded with a tragic story of a young man who committed suicide live online, people watching him encouraged him and did not call for help. This couldn’t have happened offline, could it?

Web Literacy Lab meets Youth and Media Lab

Non-Berkman staff, please scroll down for additional background information.

The Institute for Journalism and Public Relations – my part-time workplace – is coordinating a research project called Web Literacy Lab [FB, Twitter]. Since it started in October last year I have been spending most of my working time on this project. Our main focus lies on researching and developing new media literacies in companies and organizations. The person in charge of this three-year project is Heinz Wittenbrink.

In the first phase (still ongoing) we are trying to find the answer to the following question: What constitutes new media literacies and what are conditions (and barriers) for people to adopt those literacies? To find a reliable and satisfying response in this explorative field we apply traditonal qualitative research methods, basing our research on the theoretical frameworks of ethnomethodology and actor network theory. By using the methods of participant observation, group discussion and conversational analysis we gain more insight into the web practices of people and the prerequisites necessary for successful online communication.

Once this first phase is completed and our question answered, we take a normative approach: Step two is the development of curricula and white papers, in which we explain how specific groups and branches can learn the previously defined new media literacies. Those concepts and publications will be open to the public under a liberal license and can then be taken and improved by everyone. The third and final step in our project is the implementation of these curricula in enterprises and educational institutions. By accomplishing those steps we hope to have contributed to the societal digital literacy in our region and to have helped closing the digital gap – at least a bit.

Why am I explaining this? On the one hand because it is an important part of my life and I want to share it. Empowering people to adopt technology for a greater good is an ideal that drives me. On the other hand– and this what makes it relevant for this text: I want to point out that from my point of view Berkman Center’s Youth and Media Lab and the Web Literacy Lab have much in common:

Firstly, structure: Our three main tracks are similarly shaped: Exploratory research (and literature review), development of study programs and the application of the latter.

Secondly, YaM and WLL have a similar approach when it comes to methods and the idea of new media literacies: YaM proactively engages different groups in discussions and involves young people from the beginning. This inclusive, equal leveled research completely matches our approach to  such a project. What we found in Graz out after the first months and what seems to be central for web literacy is the ability to evaluate the character of information as well to create and share content in a network. The YaM has also emphasized these fields of competence.

What is different (among many other things such as: project size, impact expectation and scale) is the target group: We focus on employees and adult people, some of whom can be regarded as digital illiterates. Although,  in a later project phase, we plan to develop curricula forthese people,  we do not intend to stop there.  Later-on we want to turn to the digital avant-garde and digital natives. I starting out with adult employees in general we hope to get a definition and a clear understanding of the set of skills which constitute web literacy.

By describing the similarities and differences of the Youth and Media Lab and the Web Literacy Lab I hope I could clarify and underline my reasons for applying to the Youth and Media Lab. In addition, my PhD thesis is also in the field of (data driven) literacy. But for the sake of brevity, I will not go into any details here. At Web Literacy Lab in Graz we are still at the beginning. I am sure, my summer internship at the Youth and Media Lab could lead to mutual benefit – I could extend my field of knowledge and methods, the YaM would certainly get an enthusiastic and hardworking intern.

Background information for Non-Berkman staff:

I am applying for Berkman Center’s Summer Internship Program. This is my contribution for the second and final application round. Please keep your fingers crossed. In the past days and weeks I have been intensively following the Youth and Media Project, which is hosted at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Harvard. I have been aware of the project for quite some time because I am subscribed to danah boyd’s blog and publications since the first steps in my diploma thesis. The project came back to my mind when I saw Urs Gasser, the project’s principal investigator (together with John Palfrey), at last year’s Forum Alpbach [PDF] where he presented the core findings of a book on digital natives, which he had co-authored. The Youth and Media Project consists of five divisions. They all deal with young people’s media use and content production each of them with a unique aspect and scale. The chief project among the subprojects is the Youth and Media Lab.

Another Way To Tell Stories

Jeff Jarvis provided an excellent link to a project by the British Penguin Publishers. It is called We Tell Stories. Six Authors. Six Stories. Six Weeks. The stories and the way they are told on this website are highly unusual – and I am really excited about.

The first story in the series tells a tale via Google Maps, another one uses Twitter and Blogs.

I also discovered an easter egg on the website. If you click on the rabbit at the left bottom of the page you are redirected to a blog, that might have something to do with a mysterious seventh story.

The company who created the project is called six to start and is based in London.

We create Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). ARGs use multiple media — the web, email, IM, mobile phones, radio, newspapers, TV and live events — to tell a story to hundreds of thousands of people, who can follow and influence the game in real time.
People are dividing their attention across more media than ever before. ARGs are the best way to tell a story that spans them all, and that’s what we’re experts at.

Could non-fiction stories or reports also be told like this? I truly think so. This could be an awesome concept also for news companies.

Is there anything like this in German? I would love so. I am really thinking about setting up something like this.

PS: Sorry for the long absence at this blog. If you read my tweets or – even better – my soup, you already know: I was on vacation in the United States for three and a half weeks. My English has improved (at least a bit, I hope) and this is why I have decided to write some of my blog entries in English again. Let’s see how long I will have fun with that.

i am very popular… just read by yourself

I just received the following email:

Subject: People are checking you outWow Julian, you are very popular! Did you know that 2 people have already visited your PerfSpot profile!?!

Your PerfSpot website is:

Thank you for spending time with PerfSpot, please let us know if you need anything.
DO NOT reply to this email.

I am registered at PerfSpot since a few months now. I do not want to say: Please sign up at Perfspot and add me as a friend, since I have only two. I am glad that I do not need another social network. I just want emphasise on the fact that very often firms communicate with their users and/or customers in a very appropriate way. Especially web 2.0 companies should to do better, since happy, revisiting users are what makes them successful.