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Fight fake news waste by asking W.A.I.S.T.: “Why Am I Sharing This?”

27 Feb

[I’ve prepared the following post to go with a brief talk I’m giving on March 1 at UC Berkeley’s Academic Innovation Studio for a panel discussion on “Beyond Hype, Hysteria, and Headlines:  Strategies to Address Media Literacy Gaps in the Classroom.”]

Shortly after she became a grandmother, the writer Anne Lamott came up with a brilliant acronym as a reminder for herself. Any time Lamott felt the urge to offer unsolicited (and probably unwelcome) parenting advice to her son and daughter-in-law she would try to stop herself by thinking:  


Which stands for “Why am I talking?”

The acronym works beautifully in its two-fold way by first reminding one to pause and then to think before speaking. Though she intended it for her own use, and subsequently as a suggestion for other grandparents, I’ve found it helpful to employ as a parent of a pre-teen as well as in meetings at work and in conversations with friends and loved ones.

Inspired by Lamott, and knowing I wanted my undergraduate students at Berkeley to do a little thinking about the “fake news” that’s much discussed in the real news these days, I came up with an assignment for them centered around another acronym:


Which stands for “Why Am I Sharing This?”


Guiding Students Through the Morass of Fakery and “Fakery”

As many media observers have noted, fake news has become a kind of catch-all term in the past few months to harness information reported and shared online that is entirely or partially made-up, and which could constitute anything from straight-up propaganda to biased half-truths to cynical attempts to profit from people’s mindless, emotional clicking to sharp satire and on and on until we get to meta moments like this piece of performance art when earnest news commentators are rightfully sussing out fake news purveyors who, in their turn, prove the point of how easy it is for fake news to go viral.

And that’s to say nothing about the most troubling category of fake news:  the news that the current president categorizes as “fake” not because it’s not factual or well-sourced but because he doesn’t like the story.

Into this breach stepped the students in my second-semester freshman reading, composition, and research class. As in thousands of other college classes across the country, my students always learn to practice careful critical assessment of source material. This is essential not only to their work while in college, but also to their future as engaged, productive citizens. Since my current group is studying issues around the Internet, social media, and the human-machine interface generally, it was a natural fit to ask them to spend some time discussing and then evaluating some of the news they themselves were inclined to share in online spaces.

We first discussed what they took “fake news” to mean, and looked at some samples of things that were flat-out lies, such as this meme that was widely circulated in many forms and on many social media sites prior to the election last November:


Source: Snopes

As has been widely reported, Donald Trump never said this. It didn’t stop the meme, even after it was debunked, from being shared again and again on social media by Trump’s detractors who desperately wanted it to be true. As my students noted, it’s difficult to figure out who originated many memes, but whoever created this one did a bang-up job of trying to capture a Trumpian tone to the quote that made it seem potentially real.

My class also looked at this bit of fake news about President Obama supposedly banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools that stirred up predictable outrage amongst those who didn’t like him. Those same people presumably ignored whatever internal “Really?” voices they possessed (not to mention the funky URL with the extra “co”) and instead liked, shared, or otherwise reacted to this fake post on Facebook some 2.2 million times as of mid-November:


Source: Refinery29


Among the key things to note about these two samples of fake news are that each of them went viral because of the emotions they stirred among Trump’s and Obama’s detractors, respectively. Many people who were pleased to see confirmation of their own biases, and who were spurred on by the controlling fervor of their emotions and the satisfying immediacy of the social media interface, shared and reacted to this fakery quickly and without much thought.

Clearly it’s time we all slowed ourselves down a bit.


The Assignment

After the above discussion, I asked my students to read this excellent article by the journalist Brooke Berel that usefully frames in the problem of fake news, provides historical context and helpful links (including this list of fake news sites from Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College), and points to steps that journalists, tech companies, and we, the public, can take to ensure that fake news doesn’t metastasize into a permanent condition.

My assignment, which you can see here (why-am-i-sharing-this) was a simple one.

I asked my students to pick two items from their social media feeds that they’d be likely to share with others (or which indeed they had already shared) without too much thought. Whether a joke or apparently serious news, whether an article or a meme or a video or a GIF, the two pieces they picked had to have some facts or claims that would need to be verified. Then I asked them to write up their assessments of each piece in five steps:

  1. Describe what it is.
  2. Explain why you’d be inclined to share it quickly.
  3. Identify and carefully evaluate the source:  its origins, its credibility, its biases, its truth.
  4. Consider your audience:  how would they react?  what benefits or problems might arise from sharing this post so quickly?
  5. And then, knowing what you know now, would you still share the post, and what have you learned by doing this exercise?

The students picked a wide range of material and revealed themselves to be astute evaluators of truth on social media (contrary to what some studies of their generation have found), readily identifying clickbait and things that would stir social media users in particular ways. However, there was also evidence that some of them needed more help in assessing not only the factuality of material but also the context in which that material was situated and how that shaped the message. This was to be expected–most of my students are college freshmen, and people of any age can make these types of mistakes. But it also pointed up a key thing to consider about the problem of fake news:  in school assignments, students make these mistakes even when they are keyed to think and act more carefully and critically. In everyday discourse on social media, where speed and emotion are king, what chance does the truth have?

Another thing that stood out in the students’ responses was their acute awareness of their immediate audience on social media:  Not only (or even primarily) “Is this post true?” but “Will my followers and friends like it?” In doing so, they seemed to enact their own versions of this graphic representing “How to be unannoying on Facebook”:


Source: WaitButWhy


Intuition and the Mind:  

A Few Obvious and Yet Important Takeaways for Fighting Fake News

After the students had completed the assignment, we talked about some of the things they thought we all should do to better evaluate news and “news” that is shared on social media. Working in small groups, they each came up with lots of good suggestions for making classic critical moves of evaluating authors, media outlets, and interest groups; cross-checking facts; following trails to original sources; being aware of confirmation bias; sniffing out doctored images and sketchy web site design; relying on fact-checking sites and on distinguishing credible sources from non-credible ones, and so forth. I was pleased to see them suggesting many of the same steps recommended by the UCB Library when it issued a guide to identifying fake news a couple of weeks later.

An amusing contrast emerged when one group listed the advice to “Use your mind!” when on social media, while across the room another group advised people to “Use your intuition.” While the assignment and our debriefing of it were largely focused on doing the former, the latter was indeed an important step in the process of assessing an item’s veracity. It just shouldn’t be the only one.

So, distilling the students’ very concrete findings and that mingling of mind and intuition, I come to the following steps for asking and enacting W.A.I.S.T. (“Why Am I Sharing This?”) not just in scholarly work but, especially, in everyday social media use, enabling a pause to think before sharing, liking, or reacting in whatever way:

*The more emotional you are, the more you should pause.

*If it’s not a credible source you know you can trust, you should pause.

*If the piece speaks deeply to your own biases, you should pause. Twice.

*If liking/sharing/reacting is mostly about making yourself feel better, you should pause. (See Venn Diagram above.)

*If you haven’t carefully considered how your audience will react to the news, you should pause.

*Do you want the site you’re sharing or liking to make money from your sharing and liking? No? Then you should pause.

*Have you actually read or watched the thing you’re sharing? No? You know what to do.

You get the idea. Like Anne Lamott, the grandmother aspiring to restraint, we all need to take a moment to WAIT before reacting, then ask WAIST, and then, and only then, should we act. Remember that most of the time on social media we are not in read-and-react situations of imminent danger:  we are not in a war zone, on a dark street corner at night, or about to be sacked by a 300-pound lineman. Most of us are sitting on our couch at home, getting stirred up by the little machine in our hand.

Speaking of machines…


…A Coda from E.M. Forster


For several years, I’ve had students in this same class read E.M. Forster’s prescient short story, “The Machine Stops,” which was first published in 1909. (I’ve previously written about Forster’s story and its relevance for our time elsewhere on my blog.) In the story, the people of a futuristic society live entirely underground and rarely move or leave their hive-like “cells,” such that their bodies have become “lump[s] of flesh.” The most common activity is sitting alone in one’s cell before a screen, remotely connected by a central, god-like Machine to thousands of other residents, all of them incessantly listening to and giving lectures on various “ideas” that aren’t ideas at all.

At one point in the story, an influential lecturer whose area of expertise is the French Revolution gives some advice to his sedentary, isolated listeners that captures the ethos of the soon-to-perish Machine civilization. Like so much of Forster’s story, the lecturer’s absurd advice to his somnolent audience offers us an all-too-relevant warning for our own time:

“Beware of first- hand ideas!”….“Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element—direct observation. …You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time…there will come a generation that has got beyond facts…a generation…which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.”









Sincerely Yours, America!!

31 May
Exclamation point

Source: The Guardian

Hey there! By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the study that confirms what we always knew: that people who conclude their text messages with exclamation points are the most sincere people!

I’ve been saying this for years, but no one would listen to me! Oh noooo, we had to wait for big and mighty SUNY Binghamton to come up with a study telling us that if you end your texts with a period, you’re a jag-off grammar nerd who everyone hates, like that drip “King” Stannis from Game of Thrones!

Irony of ironies: you know who SUNY Binghamton’s mascot is?! Baxter the Bearcat! And we know full well what someone with a name like Baxter does: he’s the kind of guy who ends his texts with a period!

What I have to say about periods is as follows: Suck it, end stops!

The thing about periods is that they make people think of, like, Megyn Kelley with stuff coming out of her whatever! Eww!!

OK, OK, don’t get all sensitive! That’s the problem with you people! People are too sensitive these days! But do you know who has the most right to be sensitive at the present moment?! People like me: a cis, straight, white male who lives on the coast with his values! We are the most maligned people in the country right now! Everybody hates us!

Why?! Because of our sincerity!

Insincere, period-using people just don’t like it when you get real with them!

Let me pause here to enthusiastically and sincerely note that when someone told me I was a cis, I said, “No duh!” on account of I work in Computer Information Systems! But then I learned that cis just means I’m a guy who likes girls! OK, fine, I’m down with that—I’m a cis CIS man, ladies!

And how did I come to learn what cis means?! Because trans people were shouting about it, using exclamation points left and right so I could be educated! Thanks, trans people! I come in peace, and I will totally let you use my bathroom if you introduce me to some of your hot cis lady friends!

Yes, exclamations are finally having their moment! Exclamations mean sincerity and enthusiasm and shouting! Just check the comments section of any web site! (Ignore the ALL CAPS people, though! Those guys try too hard at faking it until they make it!)

Still doubt the righteousness of exclamations?! Just look at the current presidential campaigns and who has the momentum:

Donald Trump: shouting!

Bernie Sanders: shouting!

And Hillary Clinton—you know why people don’t trust her?! Not enough shouting! But when she does start shouting, man, she needs to tone it down! Sheesh, so aggressive!

(In case you’re wondering why Ted Cruz and John Kasich lost:  period users!!)

The enthusiasm of these people! It’s what America needs! All of us shouting and exclaiming at each other! No one listens to people who declare or critically question or reasonably state! If we’re going to move forward as a country, we need to use exclamation points in all areas of our discourse, public and private, and we need to do so now!

But if you continue to insist on being the type of person who no one likes, the type of person who still ends his messages with periods like the rest of the losers who can’t get with the hot cis ladies, then go ahead and pay a visit to SUNY Binghamton and trade texts with Baxter—no doubt he’ll be over there correcting King Stannis’ grammar!

Sincerely though:  Go Bearcats!

Baxter the Bearcat

Baxter the Bearcat (Source:

Remembrance of Things Steve: a digital footprint

8 Jun
Steve Tollefson welcoming new transfer students at UC Berkeley, 2008. (Photo credit: Peg Skorpinski)

Steve Tollefson welcoming new transfer students at UC Berkeley, 2008. (Photo credit: Peg Skorpinski)


Last Friday morning, UC Berkeley lost a giant–a gentle, smart alecky, and much beloved giant–when Steve Tollefson passed away. The news came as a shock to many of us who counted him as a valued colleague, an inspiring teacher, a caring mentor, and as a dear friend over his four decades at the school.  People have begun sharing memories of him, and I wanted to collect a few of them here.

If I’m being truthful, I’m doing this primarily for myself, so I can hold on to this faint digital trace of Steve and return to it from time to time, though I hope if you look at his writing and at the memories from others that I share below, you’ll get a sense of the man he was and of how lucky we all were to know him.

Steve had a rambunctious energy and spirit, full of good humor, such that he came across at times–as one student described him in a very Tollefsonesque description that Steve would have found amusing–“a little like David Letterman’s hyperactive twin brother.” (More from that student in a moment.)

This spirit served him well in the classroom, but it also reflected the way he was outside the classroom as well.  As a teacher, a writer, a man, a friend–Steve was consistently himself. Among his innate talents was his unique way of being able, somehow, to make fun of you, make fun of himself, and to express deep empathy with you all at the same time.

In a lovely Facebook post, his friend and Cal colleague Beth Williams captures a sense of what I mean:

“I just can’t believe it about Steve passing away so suddenly, but I’m taking some comfort in the wonderful memories I have of him. I thought I would share a few here to honor this beautiful man. While I was Steve’s neighbor, he gave me and my sister a tour of his amazing house last summer, where he showed me his earthquake supply stockpile, but then told me not to rely on him if an earthquake struck (I’m laughing just remembering that!). I love that he would teasingly sing Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’ whenever I said I was scared of the rats in Wheeler Hall, but then was willing to diligently check my office for ‘structural weaknesses’ that would make my office ‘vulnerable’ to rats, eventually declaring my office ‘safe.’ He always laughed at how I would turn around at my desk when he passed by my office while continuing to type, saying that I reminded him of a woman who played piano on a famous old TV show. And I’m remembering the perfectly ‘Steve’ way that he comforted me when I didn’t get a job I wanted, by saying that my disappointment was similar to how he felt when he wasn’t selected for jury duty the first time he was up for it: misguided. I will miss Steve terribly and am grateful for these memories and many more that I will cherish forever.”

Steve reads his short story, "Duboce Park, 1969" at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, May 19, 2013. (Photo credit: Beth Williams)

Steve reads his short story, “Duboce Park, 1969” at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, May 19, 2013. (Photo credit: Beth Williams)

Steve was a talented writer–of fiction and essays, of book reviews and articles about life, about grammar, about teaching.  (For the last bit of that list, I was going to write “about pedagogy,” but I could imagine Steve saying something like, “I was going to go teach my class today, but then I decided I was feeling pedagogical.”)

That parenthetical puts me in mind of his hilarious academic conference-spoofing short story, “Strunk and White Died for Our Sins,” which you can read here:  Strunk and White and Tollefson.

For more of Steve’s writing, I encourage you to visit this compendium of writing by and about Steve put together by another friend and Cal colleague, Jane Hammons (speaking of another of UC Berkeley’s giants). I’m so grateful that she’s done this.

Steve was also an avid reader, as was reflected in part by his enthusiasm for the annual UC Berkeley Summer Reading list, which he started in 1985 as an informal welcome to incoming students, and then curated for the next 25 years. When Steve really liked something he’d read–by an author, by a student, or (if you were really lucky) by you–he’d exclaim “Oh, oh, oh!” like Horshack from “Welcome Back Kotter.” A very literary Horshack, mind you.

As the curator of the list for so long, he let others contribute suggestions rather than doing so himself, but it just so happens that on this year’s list, a few months before he suddenly took ill, he offered his first recommendation in years:  Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay. If Steve liked it, you know it must be good.

Steve got a good chuckle out of recounting how he sat in a meeting some years ago when the reading list was “very unofficial,” as he put it, and a dean of some sort said, “Who’s running this reading list!? We need to get control of that!” Steve sat there quietly, a grin on his face, and the reading list continued on unofficially until all agreed it was plenty official enough.

Finally, and most prominently in his professional capacity at UC Berkeley, Steve was known, with good reason, as “Mr. Teaching,” the only Cal employee ever to have won both the Distinguished Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award, the latter for his work helping to train teachers as the director of the Office of Educational Development.  Many of us were the beneficiaries of that training, both formal and (because we’re talking about Steve here) informal.  If Steve spoke well of your teaching, you knew you were doing something right.

Finally, it is that teaching and the countless students he joyously and successfully taught over the last 40+ years that might be his greatest achievement. The students’ numbers are legion, the influence Steve had immeasurable. And yet, there are ways in which that influence can be expressed, and so I’ll let one of Steve’s students have the last word.

Last Friday, I sent out an email with news of Steve’s death to the last group of students he taught this past Spring semester in our department’s team-taught creative writing course.  A couple of hours later, I received a reply from one of those students, Regina Kim, a recent graduate, who had quickly and beautifully written an appreciation of Steve.  It is well-written, funny, thoughtful, and sweet–in short, a fitting tribute to Steve.

Take it away, Regina…



RIP, dear Steve.  (Photo credit: Beth Williams, Jane Hammons)

RIP, dear Steve. (Photo credit: Beth Williams, Jane Hammons)


Postscript: Steve’s obituary in The Daily Californian.

Even better postscript:  A lovely remembrance by Jane Hammons.


Students going multimodal

15 Dec

In my first-year reading and composition course at UC Berkeley this semester (“Writing in Public:  Identity and the Digital You”), my students read a series of pieces that asked them to think about digital technologies and the ways they are affecting our lives.

Among the things they read and wrote about: 

*It’s Complicated:  The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by danah boyd

*The PBS Frontline documentary, “Generation Like”

*Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think:  How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

*Philip K. Dick’s famous futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

They wrote in the traditional modes of freshman composition–rhetorical and literary analyses, persuasive papers and summaries, reader responses and the like. Then, after they read Thompson’s descriptions of students who had experienced the beneficial effects of writing online for an audience of more than one (the teacher), I asked them at the end of the term to write a short, multimodal essay and to post it online so that anyone–possibly you–could see it.

The class issued a collective gulp.

Exhausted after a long semester but game for the challenge of writing in a way almost none of them had tried before, they wrote and shared their essays via WordPress, Tumblr, and Prezi. I’ve linked below to some of them, organized loosely into two categories. I hope you’ll take the time to explore a few of them.

Social media and its (dis?) contents

Starting with a little historical context, Inger draws comparisons between Facebook profiles and illuminated texts from the Middle Ages.

Alex argues social media might help us bridge the gaps between our intrinsic and perceived identities, and Sierra tells us about how social media provides her with a “second home” as she moves from Korea to Canada to the Philippines and then on to the U.S. 

Exposing part of social media’s less savory side, one student looks at how it pressures people to change their appearance, while another, Chantelle, explores in particular the way this affects girls’ and women’s sense of what counts as beautiful.

Perhaps Shelby’s examination of why people tend to present only their ideal selves online accounts for some of how those pressures create a vicious cycle of self-presentation.  Maybe this is part of why people behave so aggressively online, a subject that Justin explores.

Much of the pressure comes from the prominent place of the visual in online spaces.  Katie discusses the rise of digital photography, and another student asks her friends to describe why they use Instagram the way they do.

Speaking of photography, Keshlee clearly enjoys taking selfies, and she’s glad to tell you how to up your selfie game.

Who Am I Online (and Off)?

This student asks whether it’s possible for people, including himself, to be authentic on social media. Dorothee feels like one of her favorite musicians, Ben Howard, can. (Especially if one mostly ignores social media and simply listens to his music.)  

Meanwhile, Austen finds expression by flying high above our heads. Want to learn how to do so yourself? There’s a De-Cal for that.

Lily–lover of food, reading, and golf–asks whether she’s the same person online and off, as does Stephane, who may one day win Wimbledon or improve your eyesight, or both.

This student, employing the evocative metaphor of the silhouette, debates whether we are knowable online, and demonstrates why some, including herself, often choose to represent themselves with avatars.

Kevin wonders whether he’s just being a lemming by joining social media (he says, with good cheer, that the answer is pretty much yes), while Kim lays out the virtues of the most popular networks, and Jocelyne considers the ways in which people interact on Tumblr.

Vanessa makes clear that it’s all about the audience for her, even if the audience–paradoxically for social media–is sometimes just herself, while Danxin reminds us that in the global reach of the Internet era, one’s audience (and one’s online self) can sometimes shift as it crosses borders.

My thanks to my students. (That wasn’t so painful, was it?) I hope you, the public audience, enjoyed their pieces as much as I did.

Postscript:  As I posted these essays here, I sent out the following tweet with a link to this page, and soon thereafter got the following responses from one member of the broader public audience.  

If the students above had even a fraction of Clive Thompson’s 25,000+ Twitter followers take a look at their essays, that will be an audience that is considerably larger and more public than the one they’re used to. Nice to have one of the authors we read cement the point for us.

A Public Audience 1

A Public Audience 2

So much depends…

15 Jul


an inserted

scribbled in black

amidst the white

 The Kindly Rejection


Though in light of the TriQuarterly submissions controversy last week, and T.A. Noonan’s cogent responses to same (both anonymous and by-lined), the cynic says, “Oh, I bet you say that to everyone.”


Postscript:  The story referenced in the above note has since been accepted elsewhere.