How do we figure out what’s important, relevant and true?
It’s been a busy few weeks at the Center for News Literacy, as “fake news” and finding ways to fight it have been front and center in many conversations about what’s happening in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to give training workshops at community colleges around Illinois, and to talk to librarians about how they can help engage people in talking about these issues.One question that keeps coming up is how to handle the torrent of news and information, which has gotten even more intense since Election Day. It’s a sentiment well expressed in a recent New Yorker cartoon, in which a man and a woman are taking while walking down the street. The caption is a quote from one of them: “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”Many people can relate. The whirlwind of breaking news, tweets, commentary, punditry, analysis and spin that fills radio and television airwaves can feel overwhelming, especially for those of us who spend time on social media. It populates the screens of our computers and smartphones. It distracts us from our work and our time with family and friends.So how do we keep ourselves well informed while staying sane? How do we figure out what’s important, relevant and true?My answer: Develop a filter to determine reliable outlets of news and information, which serve up fact-based stories that rely on methodical verification to help you understand something rather than emotional appeals masked as news designed to raise your blood pressure.I began our exploration of news literacy with the concept of using the acronym VIA to evaluate information. VIA stands for Verification, Independence and Accountability, the three characteristics to look for in news. By seeking these things continually, we train ourselves to become a much more active consumer of news and information. It’s not an easy process, because it requires us to slow down and not react emotionally, because emotions can be easily exploited.We teach our news literacy students that by evaluating evidence that has gone through the journalistic process of verification and avoiding getting caught up in emotion, they can get closer to the truth of an issue or topic.Indirect evidence, on the other hand, is “arm’s length” evidence that may have gone through multiple individuals before it gets to a journalist to assess and report. While we do not apply a hierarchy to indirect evidence, we highlight the following types of indirect evidence for students:Accounts from a spokesperson such as a lawyer or a press secretary, or through a press release;Reconstructions from experts;Hearsay testimony;Inferences drawn from gathered evidence.While we teach students that direct evidence is better than indirect, one should never take action or make a decision based on a story put together from one SOLE piece of evidence, no matter how good it may be or how high it may rank.Journalists always know that to present a full story, they must take statements or other evidence and verify that information with another source. Many journalists know the common saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Reporters must always try to corroborate evidence with a second source of information.For example, over the past few weeks the news has been dominated by President Trump’s claim that he had been wiretapped by the Obama administration. He offered no evidence for the claim, which admittedly is difficult to do in a 140-character tweet — his preferred method of mass communication. Journalists asked him for evidence, which Trump wouldn’t provide. So they talked to many people who had previously belonged to the intelligence community, who could have authorized or carried out the wiretapping if in fact it was carried out by the previous administration.Not long after Trump made the wiretapping claim, Kevin Lewis, a spokesperson for President Obama, offered this statement:“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”In addition, a number of journalists, including NPR senior editor Ron Elving, noted that Trump mentioned in his tweet that he had “just found out” about the wiretapping. Elving pointed out that Trump may have been responding to a recent Breitbart post, which cited a timeline created by radio host Mark Levin that purportedly showed President Obama taking steps to undermine Trump’s campaign by obtaining authorization to eavesdrop on it.Using our definition of direct and indirect evidence, both pieces of evidence — Lewis’ statement on Obama and Elving’s inference about Trump reading the Breitbart article — are fairly good at refuting Obama’s role in any type of wiretapping. But both are secondhand, indirect proof.Indirect evidence is usually found in the process of fleshing out and analyzing a breaking news story. That first burst of information is often just the beginning outline of the story, and more detail and a larger picture tend to emerge in the aftermath as journalists work their sources to advance the initial report.Trump later said during a Fox News interview that his wiretapping accusation was based on a number of news reports he had read referencing wiretapping, but he also continued to assert that more information would be forthcoming to prove his claim.At that same time, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a press conference that no evidence had been found to support Trump’s claim. FBI Director James Comey corroborated Nunes’ assertion during his testimony before the committee last week.This example highlights two very important lessons for news consumers. First, claims made by either a journalist or a public official must be backed up by multiple pieces of direct evidence to allow people to conclude the claim is true. Single-sourced statements or those saying “information is forthcoming” should be met with skepticism.Then the second lesson becomes clear: It takes time for both journalists and news consumers to find out the truth, which makes it a moving target.A few weeks ago I wrote about the provisional nature of the truth: the way we understand it can change as more evidence is uncovered. In this particular case, it is evident that news consumers must take their time before coming to a conclusion based on a single source—even if that source happens to be the president of the United States.
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By James Holbrooks
“At its core was a question: do we want to be as connected to our foreign policy as we are to our smartphones? My hypothesis was no. Americans don’t care about the drone war because it is largely hidden from view.”
That’s how Josh Begley, writing for The Intercept on Tuesday, described the concept behind an app he created five years ago. The app, he says, was a simple one. It merely sent users an alert every time a U.S. drone strike was reported in the news.
Apple rejected the app three times on the grounds that it was “excessively objectionable or crude content,” but Begley didn’t give up on the project.
“Over the years, I would occasionally resubmit the app, changing its name from Drones+ to Metadata+,” he wrote. “I was curious to see if Apple might change its mind. The app didn’t include graphic images or video of any kind — it simply aggregated news about covert war.”
He went on to tell how, after five rejections, Apple finally accepted the app in 2014. It remained in the App Store for a year and was downloaded by over 50,000 people. But then, the following September, Apple removed the app, once again citing “excessively objectionable or crude content.”
Begley persisted. The reason he was writing the post this week, in fact, was because that day — March 28, 2017 — Apple had once again accepted the app. He wasn’t writing to talk about his ordeal with Apple, though. He was writing about the issue that motivated him to create the app in the first place:
As an artist who works with data, I think the story of this app is about more than a petty conflict with Apple. It is about what can be seen — or obscured — about the geography of our covert wars.
He pointed out that over the past 15 years, people have worked tirelessly to document what’s happening on the ground where these drone campaigns are being waged. And that work is certainly praiseworthy. But Begley went further, pointing out what he calls the “difficult truth” of drone warfare — that at the end of the day, we don’t really know who these missiles are killing.
Again, rather than focusing on his spat with Apple, Begley stayed with the issue that inspired him and talked about the end product of that inspiration:
Because the particulars of drone wars are scant, we only have ‘metadata’ about most of these strikes—perhaps a date, the name of a province, maybe a body count. Absent documentary evidence or first-person testimony, there isn’t much narrative to speak of.
The name ‘Metadata’ has a double meaning: the app both contains metadata about English-language news reports, and it refers to the basis on which most drone strikes are carried out.
The only time Begley questioned Apple’s earlier decisions to refuse his app was in his summation.
“Smartphones have connected us more intimately to all sorts of data,” he wrote. “Yet information about drone strikes — in Apple’s universe — had somehow been deemed beyond the pale.”
He used the past tense, of course, because Apple had, that very day, re-accepted Metadata. But as it turned out, the party was short-lived. Hours after Begley’s post ran at The Intercept, Apple pulled his app once more.
Highlighting the suddenness of Apple’s move, here’s how Reason opened its coverage of the news on Tuesday:
This was supposed to be a post about how anybody who wants to easily keep track of U.S. drone strikes overseas can do so through an app on their iPhone. But never mind. They can’t anymore.
Josh Begley chose not to go after Apple in his article when he easily could have. He took the high road and stuck to the far greater issues — the nature of drone warfare itself and how we, as a society, are responding to it in an age of instant communication.
This writer will follow Begley’s lead and not speculate on the myriad possibilities of why Apple seems afraid of his app. That’s the far less important aspect of what’s happening here. It all goes back to the core of the Metadata project and the question that drove Begley to get started: Given the option, would we really want to be as connected to U.S. foreign policy as we are to our smartphones?
Or, in other words, would we really want constant updates on all the killing?
Creative Commons / Anti-Media / Report a typo
The number of mobile phones being searched at the U.S. border is exploding, but certain steps can help secure your privacy.
Last month, the US-born Nasa engineer Sidd Bikkannavar was pulled into additional screening when he entered the US after a two-week vacation in Chile. He was taken into a room and told to hand over his phone and passcode. He explained that the phone belonged to Nasa and contained important work-related data, but immigration officials insisted and handed him a document explaining that the penalty for refusing was “detention”. He eventually complied and they took his phone into a another room for 30 minutes before allowing him to leave.Bikkannavar never found out why he was chosen for additional screening. He had not travelled to any of the Muslim-majority countries included in Trump’s travel ban.Cases like this are exploding. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), searches of mobile phones by border agents grew from fewer than 5,000 in 2015 to 25,000 in 2016 (DHS told the Guardian that there was an anomaly in the 2016 data, but did not reveal how that changes these figures). Anecdotal evidence indicates that searches have risen further in the wake of the election of Donald Trump.Border agents carry out these invasive searches without any warrant or even suspicion, going through text messages, social media accounts and photos, while asking the owner about the people they are interacting with, their religious affiliations and travel patterns.Experts credit the rise in searches to the increase in technical capacity at the border.“They are building capacity to routinely search as many devices as possible,” said Alex Abdo, senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.The lack of transparency over the process has led the free speech watchdog to file a freedom of information lawsuit, seeking to obtain the DHS’s rules for “suspicionless” searches of mobile devices. The institute wants to know what exactly immigration officials are looking for and how they decide who to target.“There’s a basic privacy concern with forcing people to be subjected to a digital strip-search simply for having crossed the nation’s borders,” said Abdo.Christina Sinha, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, added: “It’s a ridiculous situation. The entire thing is terrible. All it’s doing is greatly exacerbating the racial profiling problem at the border.” She provides legal representation for those unjustly affected by sweeping national security policies, many of whom are Muslims.“People are incredibly vulnerable at the border,” she said. “People are coming off 20-hour flights, completely jet-lagged and stuck in this limbo land of the border and there’s an armed agent in front of you preventing you from coming into the country.”In addition to going through people’s smartphones in person, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) can also confiscate devices for a further forensic examination. In this case agents can make full copies of all of the data on the phone, which can be shared with other government agencies. DHS has published test results from dozens of tools it can use to extract data from phones.This gives rise to business concerns, particularly if devices used for work contain confidential information that could be copied and potentially leaked.“If someone works for a company in Silicon Valley and has trade secrets on their work laptop, we recommend they speak with their supervisor at work before they travel,” said Sinha.What if individuals refuse to give over their passwords? Depending on your immigration status, that could mean being turned away from the United States.But “US citizens and returning green card holders can’t be denied entry for refusing to provide a password,” said Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).If your device is seized and if your goal is to prevent border officials from accessing your data, experts recommend using encryption and a strong password.However, it’s important to keep in mind that failure to cooperate can create practical problems. Immigration officials can detain people for hours of secondary questioning and seize their device for weeks. “They can make your life very inconvenient every time you travel,” said Abdo.For those entering the country on a visa or visa waiver, refusal to comply with border officials can mean being turned away or even having your immigration status revoked.So what can people do to protect their personal data?“The ideal thing to do is to leave your main phone and laptop at home and go across the border with a burner phone,” said Sinha, referring to a simple device that doesn’t have your email or social media apps on it.For those who can’t do that, experts suggest deleting data and apps from devices.“With so much of our data now stored in the cloud rather than on the local device, apps have become the prime conduit to our data,” explained Paul Lipman, the Silicon Valley-based CEO of the security company Bullguard.He offers the example of the secure cloud storage app Dropbox, where he keeps personal and business documents. To prevent these types of documents from being searched by border agents, a smartphone owner can simply delete the app and download it again once they are in the country. “A hassle? Yes. But hardly a big one.”A CBP spokeswoman said the searches affected less than one hundredth of 1% of travelers to the US and that they were “often integral to a determination of an individual’s intentions upon entry”.“They are critical to the detection of evidence relating to terrorism and other national security matters, human and bulk cash smuggling, contraband, and child pornography. They can also reveal information about financial and commercial crimes, such as those relating to copyright, trademark and export control violations,” she said.
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