UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Sharing Information, Misinformation and Untruths

Posted by Brian Kelly on 1 Dec 2014

Recent Mainstream Examples of Misinformation and Untruths

It’s good to share. And we now have a global infrastructure in place which facilitates sharing and encourages discussions on the information which has been shared.

But as well as sharing information the infrastructure (such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+) can also be used to share misinformation and untruths – and it’s not always easy to differentiate between the different types of information. This is especially the case if we would like to belief the misinformation.

This struck me over the weekend when I came across three examples of misinformation and untruths which were being widely shared across my stream on Facebook and Twitter.

On Friday and Saturday I came across a number of Facebook status from people I am connected to who posted links to stories about how ‘Black Friday’ originated with the slave trade.

Coalition of resistanceI also came across a number of links to a post published by the Coalition of Resistance: Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay organisation which provided visual evidence that MPs will turn up on large numbers for votes on MPs expenses and pay but won’t attend parliament for votes on the war in Afghanistan, the sex abuse inquiry, knife crime prevention, drug laws, the impact of welfare reforms on the sick and disabled and similar issues.

The outrage which this series of images generated can be seen from the large number of Facebook ‘likes’ (28,615 to date), shares (67,721 to date) and comments.

In this case the Spectator, a right-of-centre publication, published an article entitled “The menace of memes: how pictures can paint a thousand lies” pointed out misinformation:

When debates go on for several hours, MPs often pop in and out as they have other business going on at the same time. They may be in a select committee, meeting constituents, taking part in a Westminster Hall debate, running an all-party parliamentary group meeting, briefing journalists, plotting a rebellion with colleagues or working in their office 

and untruths:

The bottom image claims to be from 11 July 2013. There was no debate on pay that day, which was a Thursday. There are often fewer MPs in the House on a Thursday. So this image is from the wrong day. I’ve combed the PA images archive and, surprise, surprise, it’s not from a debate about pay in 2013. It’s from Prime Minister’s Questions on 5 September 2012.

associated with this post and associated discussions.

In the case of the origins of the term ‘Black Friday’ the Snopes service provides evidence that the claim that “The term “Black Friday” originated with the practice of selling off slaves on the day after Thanksgiving is false.

Examples of Misinformation and Untruths About Online Services

The two examples given above were not only popular across my networks but also more widely. However two further examples are of more direct relevance to those with professional interests in online services.

Flickr is about to sell your photosThree days ago the Dazed Digital blog published an article entitled “Flickr is about to sell off your Creative Commons photos” which had a sub-heading providing a warning to Flickr users: “And no, you won’t see a single penny from it“.

I’m come across similar misleading posts about the terms and conditions of popular online services in the past. Back in April 2012 in a post entitled “Have You Got Your Free Google Drive, Skydrive & Dropbox Accounts?” I pointed out, in response to suggestions that Google owned everything uploaded to the newly released Google Drive service, the terms and conditions which state:

“You retain ownership of any intellectual property that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours”?

In the case of Flickr, according to a c|net articleit turns out the Web giant is selling prints of photos some photographers intended to give away for free, according to a report Monday by the Wall Street Journal“. But it seems that this will only happen for photographs which have been shared with a licence which permits commercial reuse, such as a Creative Commons CC-BY licence.  If Flickr users do not want others to make money from their photographs they simply need to provide a Non-Commercial (NC) licence. In this the original blog post was not being untruthful in saying “And no, you won’t see a single penny from it” but was being misleading in hinting that Flickr was implementing new terms and conditions.

Facebook copyright memeThe final example which I came across over the weekend is the Facebook copyright meme. In this case the misspellings (“the Berner Convention“) and poorly-written text (“Facebook is now an open capital entity“) provide clues that this text is meaningless and a Gawker article gives further details on why “That Facebook Copyright Thing Is Meaningless and You Should Stop Sharing It“.

Popular Memes

I suspect that few people in my network have been misled by the racist Britain First organisation (I do not intend to raise its visibility further by providing a link, but it seems that it currently has 590,762 ‘likes’).

But what about other memes such as “If You’re Not Paying for It; You’re the Product“? In some respects this isn’t saying anything new: I don’t pay to watch ITV and am happy to accept that ITV sells advertisers eyeballs for advertisements, with programmes as the filler between the ads.  But I didn’t pay to go to university. Was I, back in the 1970s, a product of the establishment? And should I welcome the fact that today’s generation of students are not products but consumers?!

Memes can help to disseminate useful information as well as misinformation and untruths. But it’s not always easy to differentiate between them!

View Twitter conversations and metrics using: [Topsy] – []


3 Responses to “Sharing Information, Misinformation and Untruths”

  1. […] Sharing Information, Misinformation and Untruths […]

  2. petej said

    But what about other memes such as “If You’re Not Paying for It; You’re the Product“? In some respects this isn’t saying anything new: I don’t pay to watch ITV and am happy to accept that ITV sells advertisers eyeballs for advertisements, with programmes as the filler between the ads.

    Advertising on the Web is qualitatively different from advertising on ITV television, at least on old-school terrestrial television, and suggesting that they are essentially similar is to ignore precisely the characteristics of the latter which motivate the “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product” meme.

    Consider the ITV television case. First, advertising was “targetted” only at the level of a very general audience group i.e. selection was based on a small number of factors: the nature/topic of the programme being broadcast, the time of the broadcast, and the region – perhaps supplemented by any “market research” that was available. So during an evening broadcast of a football match back in the 70s-80s, the half-time adverts were for cars, beer, Shredded Wheat and army recruitment. Second, I as a viewer didn’t divulge any personal information to ITV or its advertisers by watching an FA Cup Final replay – unless I volunteered to take part in some survey of viewer behaviour and catalogued my viewing habits and how I responded to adverts.

    But advertising on the Web is a different beast entirely. Targetting, profiling and “personalisation” are central, and vast resources are ploughed into trying to gather or infer information about individuals’ activities and preferences based on our behaviour on the Web. Sometimes that data collection is overt and explicit: we are invited to volunteer personal data to a social media service in exchange for access to communication channels and the creation of an online profile without which we are told we are a second-class citizen. Sometimes it is rather more covert, as in the surreptitious tracking of our behaviour across Web sites through ever more complex digital sleight of hand tricks. And that tracking increasingly extends into our physical world behaviour (tracking mobile wireless signals in shopping malls, linking email addresses to “loyalty” cards and so on).

    That personal information is gathered, stored, merged with other information, analysed/mined, transferred/bought/sold/brokered/requisitioned/intercepted/lost/found/stolen, and (re)used by different parties for purposes and in contexts over which we have no control – from “personalised offers” to spam to profiling to surveillance to identity theft to ending up on Theresa’s Big List of Domestic Extremists because someone on your “friends” list once “liked” a Bad Book. Services’ promises of ephemerality, security and anonymisation appear to mean little when the price is right (ba-dum-tish) and they can fall back on that get-out clause buried deep in the terms of service.

    Sure, you can say that we are “eyeballs” for ITV ads just as we are “eyeballs” for banner ads or two minutes of video ads inserted at the start of a Web TV programme, but (it seems to me) to do so is to ignore the core characteristics of what many of us find pernicious about Web advertising – and what underlies the “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product” notion.

    I’m not “defending” the use of that particular phrase, BTW: I think it is far too benevolent a description of the reality!

  3. Hi Pete
    Many thanks for your comment. I would like to respond to your comment in more depth, but won’t do so just now due to pressure of work. However I think we are both in agreement about the limitations of the phrase “If You’re Not Paying for It; You’re the Product“ – me because it is misleading and you because it is too benevolent.

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