Not long after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, a remarkable edition of The New York Times hit the streets with the massive headline, “Iraq War Ends.”
The spoof print edition was distributed in several cities. An accompanying website that looked very much like the Times’ was also launched.
“In an elaborate operation six months in the planning, 1.2 million papers were printed at six different presses and driven to prearranged pickup locations, where thousands of volunteers stood ready to pass them out on the street,” the Yes Men later said.
The whole thing took lots of people, lots of organization, and some cash.
Now, thanks to a new website launching today by two people at the MIT Media Lab, you can create your own spoof version of the Times or any other news website in a matter of minutes.
No Photoshop skills required. No army of volunteers needed. Just NewsJack it.
“This gives average citizens the ability to make commentary on the media effectively and easily,” says co-creator Dan Schultz, a master’s student in the Media Lab who’s also working on another project called Truth Goggles, which recently advanced to the next round of the Knight News Challenge.
(Disclosure: I edited Schultz’s blog posts when I was managing editor of PBS MediaShift and Idea Lab and we’ve stayed in touch.)
“If they wish there was a specific story on the front page of The New York Times, they can now make that happen and see how it feels,” Schultz said by email. “Obviously it will only be seen by a small group of people if it’s seen at all, but the sentiment is there.”
Visitors to NewsJack can enter the URL of any site they’d like to hijack. The NewsJack homepage also offers quick links to The New York Times, CNN and Fox News to enable people to quickly try the tool.
Users click on the portion of text or image they’d like to replace and enter new text or a new URL for an image or hyperlink. Save the changes and they show up on your edited webpage. When you’re done making edits, NewsJack generates a shortened URL to your hijacked page that you can share.
“A lot of the front end remix code was built using Mozilla’s Hackasaurus, which is a remixing bookmarklet focusing more on learning about the Web,” Schultz said.
NewsJack gathers data about the changes made by users as a way to “give some insight about the kinds of things people like to change,” he said.
It’s easy to see how the tool could be used to easily gin up a fake news webpage for the purposes of playing a trick or executing a hoax. Schultz acknowledges that the project “started as an exploration in a Yes Men style détournement.”
But he and co-creator Sasha Costanza-Chock, an assistant professor at the MIT Center for Civic Media, also see it as a useful and powerful tool in helping teach people about media.
“There’s a long history of this kind of work — I did my first ‘headline remix’ in high school in the 1990s, in a media literacy class taught by Chris Sperry, who has done a great deal with Project Look Sharp,” he said. “In those days we did remixes by physically cutting up the headlines in print newspapers and reworking them to change the frame.”
“[NewsJack] has evolved into a critical media analysis tool, and we’re working with a local organization called Press Pass TV to develop some workshops to help urban youth think about how the media frames their communities (i.e. calling out language like ‘convicted drug users’ and ‘gang bangers’ vs ‘community members struggling with drug addiction’),” Schultz said. ”The tangible result of these workshops will be ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of news articles.”
The idea is to enable people to rewrite news articles with the language they would prefer to see. That process will encourage them to “think carefully about the framing choices made by the journalist, and to make changes in places where they feel changes are appropriate,” Schultz said.
Costanza-Chock said the initiative with PPTV will invite participants to “reimagine how the murder of youth (especially youth of color) might be reported on in ways that are more respectful of their lives, their families and communities, and the structural racism and inequality that negatively impacts life chances for youth of color in the USA.”
Schultz outlined four other possible use cases:
1) As part of a critical thinking tookit in contrast with Truth Goggles. While TG is focused on credibility, this would be focused on empowering people to fight back against unfair framing. Users of NewsJack are reminded that there is more than one way to say the same thing, and that framing and word choice has implicit meaning.
2) A satirical tool — something that makes it possible to start dialogue and make social commentary (this is the Yes Men style). In fact, the tool was originally inspired by the Yes Men’s special edition of The New York Times.
3) A vanity tool — people will probably end up just putting pictures of their cats on the front page of CNN.
4) A research tool — what happens when the headlines from Fox News are put in the template of The New York Times? Do people read content or do they read brands?
Just to give you a sense of what you can do with NewsJack, here’s a look at a slightly altered version of the top part of the Poynter homepage:
Yes, NewsJack is pretty fun to play with… just use it wisely.