Is the Las Vegas shooting the 273rd mass shooting in 275 days?

273 mass shootings in 275 days. That’s almost one mass shooting per day.

According to a letter penned by Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi, this is the reality in the United States. With the recent Las Vegas shooting, many questions have arisen about gun regulations and the frequency of mass shootings.

I first came across Pelosi’s claim on Twitter, where she tweeted a picture of her letter urging Paul Ryan to consider gun control legislation, citing various statistics.

Pelosi Letter

Of note in this letter are the following statistics:

“Nearly 12,000 Americans have been killed by guns in 273 mass shootings in 2017 — one for each day of the year.”

At the time of her letter (October 2), there had been 275 days in the year, and, according to her, 273 mass shootings in which 12,000 Americans had died. Nowhere in her letter did Pelosi cite where these statistics came from.

I decided to look for previous work surrounding Pelosi’s claim, a strategy proposed by Michael Caulfield in his book Web Literacy For Student Fact CheckersThis involves searching for fact-checks that have already been done.

I typed in the following on Google: 273 mass shootings in 275 days. I was hoping these eyebrow-raising keywords would bring up some results.

A Politifact article fact-checked some of the claims in Pelosi’s statement, including her statement that 12,000 Americans had died in 273 mass shootings. According to the site, Pelosi’s article incorrectly reported that these 12,000 deaths happened in 273 mass shootings. Rather, this figure refers to the total gun deaths (suicides excluded) in 2017, with 273 mass shootings adding to this total figure. While Politifact noted that Pelosi’s spokesman published a corrected letter, the original is still accessible on her Twitter account.

Sometimes it behooves a fact checker to verify the credibility of other fact checkers, so I decided to read laterally (borrowing another Caulfield startegy) and get a sense for the perceived accuracy of Politifact. The organization Media Bias/Fact Check files Politifact under its “Least Biased” category, noting its “minimal bias.” Screenshot 2017-10-11 at 1.33.26 PM

Media Bias/Fact Check also conducted a poll, asking respondents to rate Politfact’s trustworthiness. The greatest percentage (41.38%) rated it as least biased, with the rest of the percentages spread out amongst the political spectrum in small intervals (i.e. Left-Center at 15.87%, Extreme Left at 15.69%). Going off of these evaluations, it can be concluded that the information provided on Politifact is rather sound.

In the aforementioned Politifact article, a good point is raised. Certain politicians will use different definitions of a mass shooting in the furtherance of political aims.

It seemed necessary to dig deeper and see what is considered a mass shooting, and what isn’t.

According to the Washington Post Fact Checker, there is no universal consensus on what defines a mass shooting. Since the 1980s, the FBI has considered a mass shooting to be an event where four or more individuals are killed in the same general location. Further, Congress defined a mass shooting as three or more killings in a public place, following the Newtown shooting in 2012.

At this point, I wanted to get some insight into the actual shootings that occurred throughout the year. I Googled “list of 2017 mass shootings,” and found a Mother Jones article that cataloged them.

 

 

Mother Jones found that there have been a total number of 7 mass shootings, up to and including the Las Vegas massacre. 80 deaths in total are reported here.

Wait a minute… didn’t Nancy Pelosi say there had been 273 mass shootings?! What’s going on?

Mother Jones used the Congressional definition of a mass shooting, meaning three or more people killed in a single location.

Articles from Newsweek, The Toledo Blade, and Business Insider all referenced the Gun Violence Archive as the source of the 273 mass shootings statistic, the same number cited by Pelosi. Since this is where the vast majority of publications gathered their data from, I assumed that Pelosi either had referenced the Gun Violence Archive data or seen a separate report that references it, as I could find no other source cataloging and claiming to have found for themselves this exact number.

Like Mother Jones, the Gun Violence Archive keeps a running tab of its own on mass shootings.

 

 

 

There is a noticeable difference between the two: the Gun Violence Archive counts injuries toward the number of four or more. In the fourteen “mass shootings” counted by the site prior to the Las Vegas shooting, only one of them meets Congress’s definition and none meet the FBI’s, since they are below the cutoff.

Concerning the Gun Violence Archive, I decided to go upstream to find the origins of the project. This Slate article details the beginnings of it, which was started on Slate.com itself. The site notes that it passed the reins onto an individual named Michael Klein, who, at the time (2013), was launching the project under the name Gun Violence Archive.

Reading laterally came in handy here to help me get an idea on what the consensus concerning Slate, the site where the archive originated, seems to be.

This chart from the Pew Research Center places Slate alongside the New Yorker as having the most liberal audience of those publications evaluated.

 

 

Having a liberal audience does not automatically mean the publication has a left-wing bias. However, Media Bias/Fact Check categorizes Slate as having a left bias:

 

 

 

 

Another bias evaluation site, All Sides, also reports a left lean in Slate’s coverage.

The Gun Violence Archive claims that it is not an advocacy group, reporting strictly the facts in an unbiased manner. Its origins at the politically left-leaning Slate.com call this into question.

Michael Klein was listed as the founder of the Gun Violence Archive project. I decided to read laterally and find more information about him.

According to his own website, Klein is also the founder of The Sunlight Foundation, which is “trying to improve the transparency and thus the accountability and performance of our government, with a particular focus on the Congress.” I couldn’t find a list of donations to the Gun Violence Archive, so I figured Klein’s other foundation and its donors would be worth looking into.

The Sunlight Foundation lists where its funds come from. The biggest donation of the year, by a huge margin, came from Bloomberg Family Foundations, Inc, totaling $733,576. This was founded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a noted gun control activist who uses his massive funds to contribute to gun advocacy groups and aid in the opposition of NRA-sponsored legislation. This CNN article covers some of his efforts in detail.

Fact checking Pelosi’s claim was a winding road. I ended up learning about different definitions of mass shootings, which can be used in various scenarios for one’s own aims. Pelosi utilized the Gun Violence Archive and its findings of an alarming 273 mass shootings in 275 days, although this number includes injuries and strays away from the more accepted definitions by the FBI and Congress, which go by four and three deaths in a single location, respectively. Looking into the supposedly non-advocacy group, the Gun Violence Archive, turned up useful information. The group began on the left-leaning Slate.com and was taken over by Michael Klein, whose other major foundation received a large sum of money from known gun-control opponent Bloomberg Family Foundations, Inc.

Technically, Nancy Pelosi did not lie when she made her claim. However, she cherry-picked a statistic from a decidedly anti-gun group that categorizes mass shootings in a non-traditional manner, bloating the number to a headline-making 273 mass shootings, whereas the more accepted definition of a mass shooting means that there were far, far fewer.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fact Checking Possibilities

  1. More guns mean more crime– This Think Progress article claims that the more guns available in a country, the more gun crimes occur. They cite certain statistics (i.e. FBI data) to argue this case, as well as counter the argument that “good guys” with guns can stop “bad guys” with guns. I could read laterally and see what other statistics are available concerning gun crime in the U.S. and compare this with the sources cited. Also, for info referenced from organizations like the NRA or gun-control advocacy groups, I could go upstream and find out more about these sources to see what inherent biases they may possess.
  2.  Bullying in schools is out of control since election day– Mother Jones references a Southern Poverty Law Center finding that reported incidents of bullying in schools has increased since Donald Trump’s election. For this, I would have to mainly go upstream, looking toward the original study itself and where these reports are coming from. Much of the data comes from firsthand accounts from students, so I could look at these reports in a greater context of where the school is located and perhaps the economic aspect of the district, seeing if these play more of a role than just Trump’s election.
  3. Bernie Sanders’ health care plan could cost over a trillion dollars in 2017 alone– Many statistics are cited in here, and I would need to go upstream to the original sources. Additionally, I could read laterally and find other analyses of this proposal.

Swine Flu Vaccines and Miscarriages: Is There a Link?

Flu vaccines have been under intense scrutiny for decades.

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A name for the subdivision of people who argue against them — “anti-vaxxers” — has entered into the cultural lexicon. Vaccines and their effectiveness seem to be for scientific journals to discuss.

Recently, one such study emerged and was mentioned in an article on the AAFP (American Association of Family Physicians) website. The study finds that women who receive an H1N1 vaccination early in pregnancy have a higher chance of a miscarriage.

To test out the validity of this claim and credibility of its authors, I decided to go upstream and look at the original study that was referenced. The study is in the journal Vaccine. A journal’s impact factor can tell us the publication’s level of influence within the respective community. I Googled “Vaccine journal’s impact factor.”

It has a 3.235, as of 2016. Anything with an impact factor is substantially more credible than one without, since it has been validated by the community with a numerical rating.

Now came time to check Google Scholar, which tells the number of times a study has been cited. The more citations, the better, since this means a large number of people found the study sound enough to cite in their own work.

Journal Citation

This study has only been cited once, which raises some alarms about its validity. The one citation it does have is a critique of the study, which provides counter studies and literature that argue against the claim that H1N1 vaccines and miscarriage have a connection.

It is important to check the credentials of the critics of this study. One of the three authors of the rebuke is a woman named Christina D. Chambers, who is a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego.

I searched her name on Google Scholar to see how many citations she has received.

It’s a lot:

Journal Citation 2

Most of her work has to do with pediatrics and childbirth, so her area of expertise seems to intersect with that of vaccines and miscarriages. Additionally, her large number of citations proves that her work is generally respected.

However, the same can be said for the leading author of the original study, James G. Donahue. Many of his articles also have hundreds of citations.

What, then, is the expert consensus? Two credible experts disagree on the link between H1N1 vaccines and miscarriages.

After a general Google Scholar search of “flu vaccines and miscarriage,” the majority of the results (and most cited ones) argued for vaccination, and that no significant safety issues have been identified — here are one and two findings that back up the argument against the original claim referenced in AAFP. Most studies that argue for the link between H1N1 vaccinations and miscarriages appear to be outliers with few citations, cited disingenuously to further the anti-vaxxer crusade.

 

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Filter Bubbles: Three Separate Americas

Americans aren’t only deeply divided down partisan lines.

They also suffer from division in how they receive their news. Conservatives read sites geared towards them, liberals seek out liberal sources, and the rest tend to stick to more mainstream outlets.

These disparate sources of information all provide readers with different views of the world, playing on citizens’ preconceived ideas of reality and echoing the things they think their audience wants to hear.

The model works well, at least in a financial and ratings sense.

Several of the cable news giants– CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC– were evaluated by Pew Research Center concerning their amount of factual reporting vs. opinion/commentary. The graph below shows the findings.

MSNBC Pew

CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC were all found to have high levels of commentary/opinion. –Source

These more mainstream sources skew one way or the other politically (i.e. CNN to the left, Fox News to the right). That said, let’s take a look at some of the more blatantly politicized news outlets and what worldview they reflect.

Liberal sites like The Raw Story, Huffington Post, and Alternet all featured stories on a Jimmy Kimmel monologue in which the host attacked the Republican healthcare bill. Huffington Post’s headline underscored the perceived power of Kimmel’s response:

Kimmel HuffPo

Conservative sites viewed Kimmel’s comments in a somewhat different light. This is evident in a Breitbart headline:

The headlines themselves portray the same event differently. The liberal Huffington Post article highlights Kimmel’s criticism of a Senator’s stance on the healthcare bill. Since the preservation of Obamacare is a championed liberal cause, touting Kimmel as a valid critic of a Senator makes sense in the context of a Huffington Post articles, whose readers would tend to agree with Kimmel.

On Breitbart, conservative causes (like dismantling Obamacare) are fought for. Here, Kimmel is perceived as attacking a commentator from another more conservative outlet, Fox News, in a rant.

Judging from headlines alone, a more mainstream site– ABC News– gives a more even-handed perspective:

Rather than using phrases like “turns up the heat” or “attacks,” ABC News opts for a neutral term like “reacts.” The more bombastic rhetoric of the overtly politicized new outlets is toned down in the mainstream media.

While liberal and conservative news outlets often cover small-scale stories that are easy to spin politically (like Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue), some bigger issues pop up in the different bubbles.

Immigration is a very common topic. Conservative sites seem to point to the problems that come with it. Oftentimes, they will reference a story from a local paper from another country about violence committed at the hands of foreigners. In this Pamela Geller article, the author points to a story from the Hindustan Times that involves Muslim youth gang raping a young girl. Stories like these are common among conservative sites, often seeming an attempt to portray immigrants in a frightening manner.

Liberal sites take a different approach, tending to paint immigrants as sympathetic and worthy of citizenship. Occupy Democrats shared this video  of ICE agents detaining an immigrant father of four, whose thirteen year old daughter was in the car recording the incident. Following footage of the incident, unsourced aspects about the man’s life.

Liberal and conservative news sources seem to follow a similar trend: take a small-example, such as one immigrant’s experience, and apply it to the larger narrative being discussed in the country. Oftentimes, first-hand interviews or local stories from a very random location will be utilized to further the site’s political aims. Many of the links on the site will link to another story on the site itself, containing the reader within a mirror maze of stories, fed to them by a biased hand.

Mainstream sources are also guilty of this.

In this New York Times article, most of the links take readers to another NYT article. This does not follow the logic of reading laterally, where it is important to see what other information sources say about a certain issue. Linking to generally trusted sources like the Pew Research Center or Politifact could lended much needed credence to many of the stories contained within the filter bubbles of liberal, conservative, and mainstream media. At a time where fake and biased news is rampant, information literacy can aid in pulling a nation of news readers out of the swamp of sketchy fact-checking onto the dry ground of… less sketchy fact-checking.

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The swamp of sketchy fact-checking, filled to the brim with the gators of fake news. – Source

Breitbart: Respectable Journalism or Propaganda?

The late Andrew Breitbart was bombastic. Numerous interviews exist online of him going head-to-head with others in the media.

Aside from making its own headlines, the site named after him–breitbart.com–  has been in the headlines itself as of late. This is largely due to the emergence of the alt-right, and the site’s role in the Trump White house.

To fully understand Breitbart, it is best to adopt a Michael Caulfield strategy from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers: reading laterally.

“Lateral readers don’t spend time on the page or site until they’ve first gotten their bearings by looking at what other sites and resources say about the source at which they are looking.” –Michael Caulfield

I’ve heard plenty about Breitbart in passing, but to really dig deeply, it’s best to see what a range of other sites say about it.

I decided to Google “Is Breitbart trustworthy?”

The first result brought me to a Business Insider article. In this, the author includes a chart from the Pew Research Center that lists the ideological bent of a variety of news outlets, along with survey results showing how trusted the respective site generally is by each political faction.

Breitbart Graph

According to these findings, Breitbart is trusted among conservatives and distrusted among liberals.

Now, time to read laterally for the Pew Research Center. Mediabias/factcheck.com considers Pew Research Center very  non-biased:

Seemingly, Pew Research isn’t too ideological. That said, its findings that Breitbart is a conservative site can likely be trusted.

Steve Bannon is another big name within the Breitbart realm, going from executive chair of the site to White House insider, and now back to Breitbart.

Since this man is in charge of Breitbart and obviously has political clout, its important to find out what sites think of him.

source

President Trump swings into the White House on the tide of Steve Bannon’s wave of nationalism. – Source

In a BBC article, Bannon is quoted as having said: ” “In many ways I think I can be more effective fighting from the outside for the agenda President Trump ran on. And anyone who stands in our way, we will go to war with.”

The article goes on to refer to Breitbart as “ultra-conservative” and says he has been accused of having “anti-Semitic and white supremacist views.”

According to the aforementioned chart, BBC is highly trusted along the political spectrum.

Now for a more biased view. Buzzfeed is distrusted unanimously, according to the chart.

In a top post with over 100,000 views, a Buzzfeed writer compares Breitbart to an “ultraconservative” organization in Canada called Rebel Media.

“The site is like Canada’s very own Breitbart, dedicated largely to political and social commentary that covers everything from misinformation about Muslim communities to the likelihood of “white genocide” happening in Canada to the belief that being trans is a mental disorder that naturally precludes you from serving in the military,” Scaachi Koul, the author, said.

Comparing Breitbart to this site shows that Buzzfeed views it as one that deals in misinformation and controversy. It’s best to keep in mind, however, the low level of respect afforded to Buzzfeed as a news organization.

Consensus seems clear. Generally trusted sources (BBC) as well as distrusted sites (Buzzfeed) agree that Breitbart is a far-right organization that gives voice to some of the more unfavorable views in American society in a biased manner.

 

 

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Fact check 2: Was the Trump Campaign Wiretapped?

Wiretapping was trending on Facebook. Yet again.

When President Trump first claimed that he was wiretapped months ago, most people scoffed. However, if this trending article from the totally unbiased conservative site with the neutral name rednewshere.com was to be believed, then the Obama administration ordered wiretapping on the Trump campaign.  

Articles widely shared on Facebook are seldom paragons of truth. A particular phrase from the aforementioned article lays bare the unwillingness for many sites to dig deeply: “according to what sources told CNN.”

Sources. CNN. Basically, this entire article summarizes what another CNN article already has.

Michael Caulfield’s advice from his book “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers” to go upstream is relevant in this instance. Rednewshere.com is not the original source of this wiretapping dirt, since it references CNN. Typically, a search on Google would suffice. Putting “CNN wiretapping” searches for this exact terms in the order typed, so I tried this search technique. However, many of the results came from the initial wiretapping controversy from earlier this year.

To clear out the clutter, I used the Google “Anytime” tool. I selected the “Past Week” option, so only results from within the past week would appear.

From here, I found the CNN article among the first results.

Scanning the article in an attempt to find evidence that points to wiretapping, mainly looking for references to names, none could be found. Almost all evidence came from anonymous “sources” that spoke to CNN.

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This CNN article contains many mentions of anonymous sources. – Source: CNN.com

In fact, the term “sources” appears fourteen times in the article. This seems to be a fact-checking problem: CNN is generally considered reputable, yet they rely heavily on unnamed sources for a significant amount of their information. I tried another Caulfield technique, referring to previous work done on the subject, but all other articles so far have pointed to the CNN article.

Earlier this year, several CNN journalists resigned due to inadequate fact checking concerning a Russia investigation story. As more mentions of anonymous sources appear, is CNN still to be believed? Have they increased scrutiny in journalistic accuracy?

These questions remain to be answered, as unnamed sources still reign supreme.

Fact-check 1: Did Ted Cruz like porn on Twitter?

Sen. Ted Cruz liked a pornographic tweet from his official Twitter account, according to several tweets in my feed this morning. This sounded too good to be true. The Evangelical Cruz besmirching his reputation on an entirely public forum? Was he aware that his followers can see anything he likes?

At first, I assumed this was a politically-motivated fake news stories. Images popped up showing his Twitter account, with a porn image amongst the likes. Knowing how easily images can be doctored, I figured this was the case.

I decided to follow the Michael Caulfield method from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.

  1. Check for previous work — This refers to looking for others who have already reported on an issue. I googled “Ted Cruz porn twitter,” and a CNN article was the first result. In the article, it stated that Cruz’s spokeswoman noted that the offensive tweet was removed from his twitter. The article posted a picture of her tweet, so I decided to check out her Twitter (and Cruz’s). The next point is important, so I’ll let Caulfield explain…
  2. “Go upstream to the source — Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.” – Michael Caulfield, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers

    Since we have a public record of the whole incident from the involved players, I figured I would head to Twitter and see what was there. I first checked Cruz’s to see if the tweet could be found in his likes. No porn found. Next, I went to his spokeswoman’s account, where I found the tweet mentioned by CNN. Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 1.33.29 PM

  3. Read laterally — This step instructs fact-checkers to read what others say about a source. I had never heard of this spokeswoman, so I wanted to check that she indeed is involved with Ted Cruz. There was no check sign next to her Twitter name, which signifies a verified account. I went to Ted Cruz’s official website (which ends in .gov, adding governmental authority to information found within), where I found a post stating that Catherine Frazier had been named his press secretary. This woman and her tweet seemed to be legitimate.
  4. Circle back — As this fact-check wasn’t too strenuous or “down the rabbit hole,” I did not need to return to previous searches or start afresh.

To conclude, I was able to verify a seemingly fake Tweet by following four simple steps that provide a pathway to information literacy.

 

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