Who Googles Google? The Holocaust and Search Algorithms

Motivated users can manipulate search engine results

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Been going to Google for information about the Holocaust recently? You might have been presented with top results that include a white supremacist website.

As we posted previously, the idea that the internet is a neutral mass of information–and that search engines are neutral and unbiased–is one that increasingly needs to be challenged by students and readers of all ages.

Google results can serve as useful test cases to help students understand the inner workings behind what actually comes up in search results.

Fortune reports on the story in a short article appropriate for high school students.

The implications are alarming. Due to the search engine’s placement of the website, a young person unfamiliar with history, or a person seeking to validate a conspiracy theory, could easily get drawn into the Stormfront site as a jumping-off point for research.

The Guardian presents a more in-depth explanation of how Google’s autocomplete suggestions and ordering of search results can impact readers’ perceptions of an issue.

The increased scrutiny on the algorithms of Google – which removed antisemitic and sexist autocomplete phrases after the recent Observer investigation – comes at a time of tense debate surrounding the role of fake news in building support for conservative political leaders, particularly US president-elect Donald Trump.

Facebook has faced significant backlash for its role in enabling widespread dissemination of misinformation, and data scientists and communication experts have argued that rightwing groups have found creative ways to manipulate social media trends and search algorithms.

The Guardian’s latest findings further suggest that Google’s searches are contributing to the problem.

In the past, when a journalist or academic exposes one of these algorithmic hiccups, humans at Google quietly make manual adjustments in a process that’s neither transparent nor accountable.

At the same time, politically motivated third parties including the “alt-right”, a far-right movement in the US, use a variety of techniques to trick the algorithm and push propaganda and misinformation higher up Google’s search rankings.

 

Included in this post:

“How Google’s search algorithm spreads false information with a rightwing bias,” via The Guardian, 12/16/15

“A Top Google Result for the Holocaust Is Now a White Supremacist Site,” via Fortune, 12/12/16

The Civil Conversations Project

A Resource for Fostering Discussion

The public radio show “On Being” curates a series of interviews premised on the idea that people with opposing viewpoints can communicate calmly with one another. The series, called The Civil Conversations Project, aims to provide “tools and resources for renewing civic discourse at every level and nourishing common life.” It features audio, transcripts, writing, and activity guides appropriate for high school students and beyond.

Students can to listen to inspiring conversations between, say, opponents and proponents of gay marriage or abortion rights. Or they can try their hand at cultivating conversation among classmates or community members who come at issues relating to race, religion, economics, and the environment from differing or opposing perspectives.

The Civil Conversations Project (CCP) is an open, ongoing conversation offering tools and resources for renewing civic discourse at every level and nourishing common life.

In addition to the recorded interviews (podcasts), there are two guides for download. One, called Ask Three Questions, is for starting one-on-one conversations. The other is Better Conversations: A Starter Guide.

Great ideas, and the podcasts model the principles beautifully.

Moderating the Internet

Who regulates online speech? Is there a digital public square?

Since the end of the election, there’s been a lot of discussion about social media’s impact on the outcome, from the circulation of so-called “fake news” to Donald Trump’s use of Twitter.

Who decides what language and imagery is permitted on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest? The platforms are, after all, owned and maintained by private companies.

Here are some thought-provoking articles about how they establish and enforce their use policies. (Note that the language and situations described are crude). Students will be provoked to think hard about free speech and who gets to regulate it.

Dorothea Lange and Japanese Internment

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Anchor Editions has some wonderful primary source photographs of the process of Japanese American Internment, taken by none other than the photographer Dorothea Lange. Unlike many of Lange’s other images, these works are not well known–by design. Until 2006, they were quietly kept in the National Archives, unpublished.

This material makes an excellent companion to the curricular material highlighted in our previous post.

Particularly chilling are these words from General DeWitt, justifying the internment action. Emphasis ours:

…It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these are organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity.

The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.

— General John L. DeWitt, head of the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command

Tracking Hate Crimes

Unfortunately, since the election there’s been an increase in both incidents of hate crimes and, therefore, the need to track them. Several groups and publications are doing this in formats that can be useful for educators in various ways.

A general note with these resources: the content is intense. Assume that there will be offensive language and disturbing scenarios. They may potentially be more useful as background material for educators, or, with some screening, as sources of scenarios to use in Forum Theatre or other similar exercises.

Jezebel has a running hate crime and racist incident tracker, updated weekly and open to input.

Each week we will update this post with information about the most recent hate crimes, racist incidents and harassment reported around the country under Donald Trump’s presidency. If you have an incident to report, please email tips@jezebel.com and include in the subject line: “Hate Crime Tracking.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center Hatewatch has updates dating to November and a separate form, #ReportHate, for reporting an incident. Notable are the analyses of patterns, in particular that “nearly 40 percent of all incidents occurred in educational…settings.”

The SPLC collected reports from news articles, social media, and direct submissions from the #ReportHate intake page. The SPLC made efforts to verify each report but many included in the count remain anecdotal.

While the total number of incidents has risen, the trend line points to a steady drop-off. Around 65 percent of the incidents collected occurred in the first three days following the election.

Other patterns pointed out previously are holding too, notably that anti-immigrant incidents remain the top type of harassment reported and that nearly 40 percent of all incidents occurred in educational (K-12 schools and university/college) settings.

 

Beating the Bystander Effect: Part I

Reports of hate crimes and harassment have increased since the election. Several places are tracking these reports; a great place to get a current picture is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Watch. (To note, as expected, this link does contain offensive language and racial slurs.)

How do we prepare students to resist this kind of social situation? One way is by teaching about the bystander effect. This is the first in a short series of posts about ways to model and rehearse effective intervention with studentshopefully before they are in a situation where they need to act.

First up is an article from The Greater Good that includes both notes on research, observations on how the bystander effect plays out across developmental stages in young children, and some tips on teaching kids to move into action.

Research points to a number of ways we can do this:

  • Explicit teaching. “It might be a good idea to teach children about the bystander effect and its consequences, and responsibility in helping situations, from early in development,” says Plötner. Other research suggests that explicitly communicating responsibility and singling out children individually (“I will be counting on you”) increases their helping.
  • Modeling. Preschoolers are more helpful and sympathetic to children who hurt themselves if their own caregivers display kindness and compassion. “It could be helpful if authorities model helping in bystander situations, so that children learn about the positive consequences of such actions,” adds Plötner.
  • Environmental cues. In one study, simply exposing children to a subtle image of two dolls facing each other was enough to increase helping in 18-month-olds. Schools could use that kind of imagery, along with slogans like “It’s my job to help,” to create a kinder environment.

And from Quartz, here’s a basic step-by-step procedure appropriate for older students about how to intervene safely in a racist attack. This article is short and includes some great concrete tips that high schoolers in particular might find helpful.

  • Speak only from your own perspective. Too often people start speaking for the person who is being attacked. This stops the victim from speaking up, who is likely to do so if he or she finds support from bystanders. For instance, if a person is being abused for wearing a hijab, don’t say that the victim does so because of her religion. Instead, speak about how people have the freedom to choose how they dress.
  • Ask others to help. In most situations, you are likely to outnumber the attacker.
  • Use your camera. Racial attacks are a criminal offense in most countries. If you don’t feel comfortable engaging directly, you can record the event on your phone. This could be vital evidence to punish the perpetrator in the future.

More to come!

Mountain View High’s Frank Navarro Back in the Classroom

The Mercury News is reporting a resolution to the suspension of Frank Navarro, a teacher at Mountain View High School in Mountain View, CA.

While Navarro is happy to be back in the classroom–and his students are happy to have him back–there’s some discrepancy about why he was removed in the first place.

As The Mercury News reports,

In a letter to parents sent Monday, [Principle] Harding stated that “freedom of expression and academic discourse are the cornerstones of our schools” and also said that “the teacher’s paid leave was not for teaching a lesson comparing Trump to Hitler.” The letter said the district received a complaint and needed to investigate “to ensure the emotional safety of all of our students.”

But Navarro said that last week Principal Dave Grissom and Associate Superintendent Eric Goddard said they were placing him on leave for discussing the election. Only on Monday, Navarro said, did Harding tell him the issue was “maintaining a safe environment for kids.”

“It’s really curious they didn’t discuss a safe environment on Thursday,” Navarro said, when he was ordered to remain off campus until Wednesday while the district conducted an investigation.

It seems clear that outside pressure had an impact. Harding seems taken aback at how quickly the story, and pushback, went global. We here are encouraged, especially given that coverage began with the school’s student newspaper.

Approaching Internment in the Classroom

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Here are a few existing resources to help students deal with the period of Japanese internment in the United States during World War II.

Resource“Amendment Violation: Japanese American Internment and the United States Constitution”

From the National World War II Museum, this is a 9-12 grade curriculum that includes readings on the Bill of Rights and Japanese internment camps in order to help students analyze how and why internment was a violation of multiple Constitutional Amendments. The curriculum also contains some detailed enrichment activities as possible extensions.

The curriculum is available as a PDF.

Resource ♣ “Japanese American Internment: Fear Itself”

The Library of Congress created this 5-8th grade curriculum. It is spread across multiple links and includes primary sources, such as photographs and online exhibits. Some of the student primary source framing material is basic, but it can be applied to a variety of documents. The writing that students are asked to do is varied, including creating a two-voice poem and newspaper article.

The curriculum is available via a series of links. Notable is the tool that allows teachers to search Common Core and other state education standards to check alignment.

Resource ♣  Allegiance, the musical: Educational Resources

While the educators’ material isn’t ready yet, I’m posting this in hopes that it will be soon! This is actor George Takei’s passion project, a musical based on his family’s experience in internment camps during World War II.

small stones Lesson Plan: Contacting Your Representatives

Contacting Your Representatives

A sample lesson plan for middle school through community college students

Goals:

  • Students will work together to communicate their opinion on an important issue with their senators and congressperson.
  • Students will think and talk about congressional districts and how they come to exist.

Important Vocabulary:

  • Senator
  • Congressperson
  • Senate
  • House of Representatives
  • Districts
  • Redistricting
  • Gerrymandering

 Preparation:

  • If students will not have access to research tools, ID local and state representatives and have their contact information ready to share.
  • Using the US Census site, prepare to display your state or regions’ map of congressional districting lines.
  • Decide how best to group students—preselected groups, self-chosen groups, etc. You might also choose to group students whom you know live in the same area (i.e., will have the same representatives).
  • ID the roles that you’ll use with your students. Be mindful that students’ citizenship or immigration statuses could impact how comfortable they are taking certain roles or giving their names to representatives.
  • Decide whether students will be contacting their representatives about issues of their own or whether the class will focus on one or two issues in particular.
  • Come up with a method for calling or writing representatives that will work with your students. You might have them make calls during class time using a school phone, for example, or they may be responsible for emailing representatives out of class.

Continue reading “small stones Lesson Plan: Contacting Your Representatives”

Calling Representatives: Handy Instructions

Good news! There’s something really easy that you can do, that we can all do: call your two Senators and your Representative’s offices and tell them to publicly and vigorously oppose the appointment. Don’t email. Don’t tweet. Don’t fill out the online form. Call. Calling works best. Especially if a lot of us do it.

Gabriel Stein has written a quick, easy guide to calling your representatives. Students can do it too! Congresspeople and senators are constitutionally mandated to represent the people in their district, not just eligible voters.

Next post, an example lesson plan for one way to integrate this kind of outreach into a classroom.