Tools and Tactics for Seeking Reality Facing an #Infodemic

Andy Revkin
6 min readAug 23, 2016
Footprints across Catfish Pond, Garrison, N.Y. © 2016 Andrew Revkin

Many updates| This post was originally written before the blitz of coverage of misinformation and disinformation began following the 2016 presidential election — and way before the word and hashtag #infodemic vaulted into everyday usage as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in 2020.

It feels more relevant than ever now, in offering a few ways to build a culture in which reality matters to information consumers and sharers. Are there ways to give reality pull in an online communication environment designed to validate, aggravate, distract, and sell? In hashtag speak, can we #makerealitycool?

It’s an epic challenge, but a critical one. Read on below and also explore my 2016 Dot Earth post on this issue: “An Exercise to Sift for Sources Amid a Blitz of Fake News.”

In finalizing the syllabus for my last Pace University graduate course in Multi-Platform Communications in 2016, I realized that folks outside of our program might benefit from an exercise my students were required to do — called a “Backtrack Journal.”

I’m now at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, building an initiative on communication and sustainability. The overarching goal remains the same as the one I had at Pace and in my nine years developing and running my Dot Earth blog at The New York Times: pursuing communication and conversation methods

Try a Backtrack Journal

Here is the standing assignment I gave: Each week, determine the path one bit of information took to get to you. If it was a powerful photo of a drowned refugee child, did it come via Facebook? Twitter? If so, was it forwarded by a friend from some other friend or feed? Who created the content? Try to trace how information MOVES.

Here’s a quick example:

I just saw a fascinating tweet about a connection between Steve Jobs of Apple and the drowned Syrian refugee child.

It pointed to a Chicago Tribune article, “A Tweet reminds the world: Steve Jobs was a Syrian migrant’s child,” by Meg Graham.

The article is built around a tweet by Dave Galbraith, a Web innovator:

But the smart Chicago Tribune writer did some digging beyond that tweet, including an interview with its author, to build her piece. Note this marvelous and important point about Twitter:

Of the wide reach of his tweet, Galbraith said: “I did have a hunch the Tweet would go viral, because it used few words, stated fact not opinion, defied stereotypes and had an iconic picture…. In a medium restricted to 140 characters, a picture is worth more than 1,000 words.”

I had no idea beforehand that this quick test of backtracking would lead to something so relevant to my class.

Updates here:

  • Calling Bullshit

Lectures

  1. Introduction to bullshit
  2. Spotting bullshit
  3. The natural ecology of bullshit
  4. Causality
  5. Statistical traps
  6. Visualization
  7. Big data
  8. Publication bias
  9. Predatory publishing and scientific misconduct
  10. The ethics of calling bullshit.
  11. Fake news

One reading is by Carl Sagan:

From “The Demon-Haunted World”
Background
  • Karyn Lewis, a middle-school teacher, described a great use of an online tool for teaching:
  • Here’s a great DeSmogBlog piece showing how this backtracking practice helped reveal the manufactured fakery behind the hottest “news” story on climate change in recent months:
  • Here’s of ProPublica on next steps for journalists in a post-factual presidency and related media environment:
  • Here’s a GREAT @theinquisitr example of a defrocking job in the face of viral fake news report on a sniper taking down three intruders assaulting his neighbor’s home:
  • Here’s an illuminating Twitter screwup of mine, reflexively tweeting after seeing a flooded runway in the flow of Hurricane Harvey news. In this case, the reposted image came from visualizations done for a report on sea-level rise by Climate Central. My tweet, deservedly skewered, demonstrates how confirmation bias and reflexes can short circuit the reflective part of the brain:
  • And there’s this helpful #Irma flow from :
  • I’m inserting this wonderful short summary of Daniel Kahneman’s epic book on perception and behavior, Thinking, Fast and Slow, for reasons that’ll become obvious the minute you watch it:

The full suite of sessions is well worth exploring. I gave the following talk at the meeting and wrote about it on Dot Earth:

  • Dan Evon at Snopes offered a great simple exercise focused on “clearing the frame” before you embrace online video content that crosses your screen. Watch the video (or examine an image) and write your own objective caption.
from Snopes

“When you watch viral videos on social media, make sure to take a moment to assess the footage for yourself, on its own terms. Create your own captions. Determine for yourself what you are seeing with your own eyes. Then, once you’ve evaluated the footage on your own, take a look at the caption shared with the video and see if it aligns with your own perceptions. In this case, do you think captions claiming that ‘Biden tried to shake hands with the air’ were accurate?”

Please send me your tips and favorite primers!

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Andy Revkin

Pursuing progress on a finite planet at @columbia @earthinstitute. The rest? Family, friends, books j.mp/revkinbooks, songs j.mp/revkinmusic