It started off as a lesson plan for her students on how to identify fake or misleading news stories that sometimes take over social media platforms like Facebook.
But then it snowballed, said Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor at Merrimack College. And within three days, her teaching tool became part of a national conversation about fake news.
“Our class lesson became this widely debated thing,” she said.
Zimdars, who teaches communication and media at the North Andover school, created a Google document she planned to share with her students this week that contained “false, misleading, clickbait-y, and/or satirical ‘news’ sources.”
The list ran the gamut. Some websites on it rely on “outrage” to spread information, while others use quirky or eye-grabbing headlines to attract readers, the document explains. Some sites on the list offer blatantly false news, while others put a pronounced spin on real events. Not all of the sources listed are necessarily fake, Zimdars wrote.
The document also gave advice on how to analyze news sources to spot indicators that they should be taken with a grain of salt, and encouraged people to “read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints.”
Zimdars decided to post the list to her personal Facebook page, since she has friends who are experts in the media industry.
“I made it public just so people could share it with colleges and students,” she said.
The decision was timely. Internet giants like Facebook and Google have been grappling with how to stem the flow of misinformation from unreliable news sources. As recently as Monday, the leading story in a Google search about “final election results” brought readers to a fake news website, according to The Washington Post.
But quickly — and somewhat ironically — Zimdars list was shared widely on social media. People started contacting Zimdars to make recommendations about which sites to add. The attention grew. National news publications started reporting on a Massachusetts professor’s “Full list of fake news sites to avoid,” and how to “keep fake news out of your newsfeed.”
Some of the headlines lacked clarity.
“Even from the original document, it said not all sites are fake,” Zimdars said. “I felt like people weren’t reading the documents thoroughly.”
Publishers of websites that made the list felt it was unbalanced, leaning too far left, and didn’t appreciate the negative attention. Others in the industry sent e-mails praising her on a job well done, she said. Zimdars’s inbox was flooded.
“It just grew — way more than I could have ever anticipated,” she said. “Personally, it backfired. It has completely disrupted my life for the last three days.”
Zimdars, who is the only one who can add to the document, said she has received e-mails from journalists and readers all over the country. As she sifts through the positive responses, she’s also trying to figure out the best way to handle the criticism or requests for removal from the list.
Some of the original submissions have been scrubbed from the document.
Zimdars is considering taking down the list for the time being, since it has spiraled out of control — and, in a sense, has been distorted through headlines into something that she said it’s not. She wants to take a more practical approach to creating a comprehensive database.
“I don’t want this to snowball in a way that it becomes counterproductive,” she said. “This is not a solution. It’s an educational tool run amok.”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.