Critical Linking - A Fake News Inspired Thesis Project

My thesis project for the University of Missouri - St. Louis' Design Program focused on internet literacy, and discerning between real and fake news online. It is called Critical Linking.

Let's begin with an example of Confirmation Bias, which is our tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of something we already know & believe. 

Confirmation Bias is like seeing a cab driver driving recklessly, and thinking to yourself, “Man, all cab drivers are terrible drivers.” And then every time you see a cab driver doing something dumb on the road, you think, “See! Cab drivers! They’re the worst!” When in reality you just don’t notice all the respectable, law-abiding cab drivers because you aren’t looking for it. 

The same thing applies to how we consume information online. If you read something that contains evidence that confirms what you already think, you become less and less likely to seek out or value opposing research on that subject. Confirmation Bias effectively gives us a black & white view of the world, with no gray areas in which to agree.

When this project began in September 2016, we were in the midst of the 2016 election cycle. Fake news articles and images flooded social media, and everyone seemed to be taking anything anyone put on the internet as fact. I was also trusting of images like these, until I did a quick google fact check.
Everything you see on this page is made up, purposefully misleading, or straight up photoshopped. 
All of them are fabricated quotes. 

But it wasn't just political stuff. Fake science and fear-mongering posts that people share accompanied with things like, “Better Safe Than Sorry!!!” or “Just in case...” written next to them. These are things that are shared with good intentions, but that could be easily debunked if people just stopped and thought critically about it for a moment.No, mars is not going to be as big as the moon tonight. And yes, Americans can get the Zika virus.
So I did a bunch of research. It was interesting to research internet literacy on the internet- it was easy to find creditable, peer-reviewed sources. An overriding theme was that people like to hear what they already think, but coming from someone else. That is why it is so hard to stop a political rumor. Our social media creates an echo chamber of reverberating thoughts and ideas, and it becomes a self-validating circle. The design challenge was to give people the exact opposite- My purpose was to tell them what they didn’t want to hear, and get them to think. 

“Pre-existing perspectives and beliefs can lead people to bend and exaggerate the meaning of images and raw video — or to harbor sharply divergent perspectives on news coverage.”
— The News Literacy Project, Peter Adams
Thinking while on social media is hard. And not fun. The first step was the creation of a sitemap. The website should give people the tools to look at the content they are consuming and know what they are looking at, but also emphasize that they hold power to stop the spread of misinformation. 

This challenge has two prongs. Digital Literacy & Personal Responsibility. In many cases, people don’t necessarily realize that they are sharing incorrect information. Information that is framed in a way that makes it seem believable, and easy to overlook the elements that don’t add up. Or conversely, people share things they are aware might not be correct, but don’t think it is a big deal. They believe their actions have no repercussions because they are only sharing it on their personal pages.
From here, I distilled these categories into more digestible chunks of information.
To get people to dig deeper and think harder, I chose the easy-to-remember acronym D.I.G. It is not only simple, but fitting. 

DEVELOP critical thinking skills
IDENTIFY the author
GAUGE how the content and your own views may be biased
Naming the project came next, and was a long process. For the longest time I was stuck between calling it “Dig Deep” and “Critical Linking.” The two directions were vastly different- Dig Deep was fun and cute and completely non-threatening, while Critical Linking was smarter and more sober. Critical Linking also focused on the most important aspect of my project- self reflection.
The logo is a combination of two interlocking links, reverberation patterns, and a brain. Through lots of trial and error, all three elements eventually came together without overpowering one another, or being too fussy. The Critical Linking logotype is set in
Fira Sans Bold and only ever appears in black and white.

Next challenge was the website. criticallinking.net heavily relies on its visual language to convey information. The biggest obstacle? Getting people to read. How do you metaphorically get adults to eat their veggies? Hitting the correct tone with the imagery could keep people on the website a little longer, and maybe get people to read a little more. The first approach to this problem was to photograph objects, and then rip them from their context– however it didn’t translate. It was too rough and gritty.

I introduced small model train people to help illustrate the more complex ideas and definitions on my website, and then used them again in the website headers and in the stop motion. The imagery finally worked together to say what it needed to say.
These tiny people represent how small we are next to the problems we face online. Yet, they are playful and non-threatening. And they have a nostalgic quality to them. These small, strange scenes keep your attention.

Small toys and objects are also used to create these scenes, but unlike before, are photographed on a red paper backdrop to create texture and visual interest. A photography teacher once told me, “If you can’t make it big, make it red.” 
The color red is also the international color for stop, compounding on the theme of “stopping and thinking.”

The single ransom word groupings conveyed the idea that these fake news articles are holding people hostage. Whether it is with emotionally charged buzzwords, or fantastical images. It also doubles as a metaphor for how information is gathered from many different sources. These ransom-style letters and words are recurring element not only in the website, but with the motion piece.
To draw people to the website, I researched some often mis-attributed famous quotes and gave them their proper ascription. The quotes are well-recognized enough to get viewers to do a double take. 
This misquote is my favorite, because Ulrich is actually an American historian of early America and the history of women and a professor at Harvard University.

To add a real-world component to this project, I created small paper handouts and stickers. 
The handouts are meant to mimic a religious tract that you might find stuck under your windshield wiper at the grocery store. But instead of offering you eternal salvation, they prompt you to think about your behavior online. And just like a tract, they either mimic something recognizable or are bright and shout-y. All three designs say the same thing on the back: THINK BEFORE YOU SHARE. and the web address.
The final piece was a small website I created to house everything. The first component of the website is the stop motion. It is at the top of the website to act as an introduction. This video is also posted on social media to get people to come to the website.
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On the website, everything is broken into “D-I-G”, Develop, Identify, Gauge.
But before getting into the main content, there is a vocabulary section to explain some terms that people might not be as familiar with. Each section header is a still from the motion, and each section contains questions based on the site map from before. These questions will help readers figure out whether or not an article is creditable or not. Most importantly, the website is mobile friendly because most people use their phones and mobile devices to browse social media. ​​​​​​​
As well as explaining DIG, the website has an Frequently Asked Questions section. This section is a rhetorical back & forth explaining why the average internet user should care about Critical Linking. It explains that it is meant to challenge you to be a good citizen of the internet. Being responsible for what we share online isn’t always easy, but if everyone makes a small effort, our online communities become a nicer, more accurate, place to live. This is the page I link to on social media using “Fake Quotes” to get people to go to my website.
Lastly, in reference to the donkey and the elephant who can’t hear each other, this project is not meant to be a finger pointing at one side or the other. As I mentioned at the beginning, this project was born from the pre-election circus, but is meant to encompass all facets of viral media. However, in light of events post Nov. 11, this project took a more political turn. Everyone could benefit from some critical linking. Luckily for most of us, we still have our ears. So while it may look difficult, Critical Linking points out the obstacles that lay before you, making it that much easier to forge a path forward.
As a fictional FBI agent once said, “The Truth is Out There.” We just have to find it. 




Thanks to everyone who helped along the way, especially my classmates and professors (Jen McKnight & Gretchen Schisla). 
Critical Linking - A Fake News Inspired Thesis Project
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Critical Linking - A Fake News Inspired Thesis Project

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