The Sift: QAnon outbreak | News Goggles | ‘Spot the Troll’


Teach news literacy this week
QAnon outbreak | News Goggles | 'Spot the Troll'

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QAnon outbreak

When people stay in their homes instead of gathering in crowded public spaces, it clearly works to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But spending more time in isolation, and online, might also be exposing people to a different kind of threat. About twice as many Americans now say they have heard of QAnon conspiracy theories compared with the period just before the pandemic, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

QAnon’s sprawling system of conspiratorial beliefs — which started on the fringes of the internet almost three years ago — has morphed and expanded over time, incorporating recent events, drawing in other conspiracy communities and offering easy explanations to people searching for answers during an uncertain time. Social media content related to QAnon has increased significantly since March, has permeated mainstream political discourse online and has actively shaped some voting preferences for the upcoming election.

Those close to people who have become consumed by the QAnon delusion describe a cult-like obsession with the conspiracy theories and a refusal to question their legitimacy. Jane Lytvynenko of BuzzFeed News gathered 200 such stories for a Sept. 18 report that illustrates how deeply QAnon beliefs can take hold and underscores the role that the pandemic has played in driving people to spend more time online.

It is tempting to consider the 53% of Americans who told Pew that they have read or heard “nothing at all” about QAnon as a positive sign. But a total lack of familiarity with the movement may leave people vulnerable to becoming ensnared by it. Social media is littered with the idioms, themes and assumptions of QAnon — references to the “deep state,” hints that COVID-19 is planned, seemingly noble posts condemning child trafficking and abuse — and social media companies appear unable, or unwilling, to contain it. Facebook made a concerted effort last month to crack down on private QAnon groups, but even after it took action, new groups quickly formed to take their place. Followers of the conspiracy also join other groups on the platform and flood those conversations with QAnon content, some of which gets shared by people who don’t recognize it as such.

If these seemingly innocuous fragments of conspiratorial narratives become widespread enough, they just might lay the groundwork for a full-blown outbreak.

Note: To date, 81 current or former congressional candidates have openly expressed support for QAnon, as have 21 current or former state legislative candidates, according to Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog nonprofit.
Discuss: Why do you think some people are drawn to the QAnon movement? In what ways are conspiratorial beliefs similar to religious beliefs? In what ways are they different? How do people maintain such unassailable beliefs in conspiracy theories in the face of contradicting facts and evidence?

Viral rumor rundown

NO: This photo does not show four mail-in ballots. YES: It appears to show four applications for a mail-in ballot. NO: Filling out multiple applications to vote by mail will not result in receiving multiple ballots. NO: Even if someone were to try to cast more than one vote — for example by mail and again in person — only one of those votes would count.

Note: Several other out-of-context photos of ballot applications and sample ballots have gone viral as “evidence” of problems with voting by mail in recent weeks.


NO: This photo does not show the California wildfires from above the clouds. YES: It is a 2018 aerial photo of a sunset illuminating clouds over Hawaii. YES: The photo also went viral with the exact same false claim (that it showed the glow of wildfires) in 2018.

★ Featured rumor resource: This short slide deck challenges students to answer questions about the example before providing a full walkthrough of how to prove it false.

Discuss: Why might someone start a rumor like this? Do you think most people who shared this knew it was false? Is this a harmless piece of misinformation? Why or why not?

Note: “Amazing” photos like this one are often used as “engagement bait” — sensational or endearing pieces of online content designed to drive likes, shares and follows on an account. Purveyors of engagement bait often blend authentic and manipulated or out-of-context photos, then seek to monetize their accounts when their following is large enough to do so.


NO: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden did not wave to an empty field upon arriving in Tampa, Florida, on Sept. 15. YES: He waved to a number of people in uniform standing nearby, out of the frame of the video.


The video in this tweet (linked above) shows Biden’s arrival in Tampa, including the wave in question. The onlookers he greeted are in the distance.

Note: Last week’s viral rumor rundown featured a similar misleading video clip of President Donald Trump that was used to falsely portray him as confused.

Discuss: Why do you think rumors about the mental fitness of both Trump and Biden are circulating online right now? Why would people create and share such rumors? What are some of the misleading tactics being used to push such rumors?


NO: The wildfires in Oregon and Washington do not “stop at the Canadian border.” YES: This map only shows wildfires in the U.S. YES: There are also wildfires burning in Canada. NO: The fires there are not as severe or numerous, largely because of lower temperatures and conditions that are wetter than those on the west coast of the U.S. YES: There is broad consensus among scientists that climate change is causing larger wildfires that burn more frequently and with greater intensity, causing more damage and loss of life.

Note: The TikTok user @wildlandmike has debunked this rumor two different times on his channel, along with another conspiratorial wildfire rumor that uses video footage of a prescribed burn out of context.


NO: McDonald’s did not stop displaying American flags in support of the Black Lives Matter movement or those who embrace the “antifa” — which is short for anti-fascist — cause. YES: McDonald’s has voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement and has reported making donations to the National Urban League and the NAACP. YES: A number of other corporations — including Olive Garden, the NFL and Kroger — have been targeted with similar rumors.

Tip: It’s always good to be skeptical of assertions without evidence (sheer assertions).


News Goggles

Public records often serve as the basis for investigative and watchdog reporting that holds the powerful accountable. This week, let’s examine how records obtained by ProPublica under public information laws shaped a Sept. 14 investigation by the nonprofit news organization. This story spotlights concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants, focusing on emails that highlight “the meat industry’s influence and access to” government officials. ProPublica’s findings offer an example of the watchdog role journalists play in a democracy.

We’ll take a closer look at the use of records alongside elements of fairness and transparency in the newsgathering process. Download our full annotations of the ProPublica report in Microsoft Word or as a PDF. Also, these classroom-ready slides pinpoint the big takeaways for a discussion with students. Grab your news goggles! Let’s go!


★ Sift Picks

Hannah: “The Social Dilemma Fails to Tackle the Real Issues in Tech” (Pranav Malhotra, Slate)

Celebrities have tweeted about it. Relatives have urged me to watch it. Whatever your take, this new Netflix documentary-drama is sure to spark debate. Malhotra’s critique (and others) on the film’s shortcomings are worth considering as you dig into its takeaways on technology, ethics and the troubling effects of social media.

Discuss: Assign the film and challenge students to reflect on the ways algorithms shape what they see online. How often do they click content recommended by sites like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok? Should this data be collected in an effort to train algorithms to keep users engaged on these platforms? How could these personalization algorithms create different realities online and drive polarization?

Resource: “Introduction to Algorithms” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).


Peter: “Spot the Troll” interactive website (Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, Clemson University).

The Washington Post reported on Sept. 15 that an arm of the conservative advocacy organization Turning Point USA was running what amounted to a domestic troll farm — paying teens across Arizona to post identical partisan messages to their social media accounts supporting President Donald Trump. Ironically, on the same day, Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, two researchers affiliated with the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University, launched “Spot the Troll,” an interactive web application that helps people learn to recognize and avoid inauthentic “troll” accounts on social media.

Discuss: How were the coordinated efforts of Turning Point Action (the affiliated group) this summer similar to those employed by the Russian Internet Research Agency in 2016 and featured in “Spot the Troll”?

Idea: Ask students to work through the examples in “Spot the Troll” and to take notes as they read through the analyses explaining the signs that indicate an account is real or run by a troll. Then, in groups, ask students to create an infographic summarizing what they learned from the site and, perhaps, share their findings online.

Related: “What Even Is ‘Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior’ on Platforms?” (Shannon McGregor, Wired).


Suzannah: “Could Ginsburg’s death be the biggest election issue facing America — and the media?” (Tom Jones, Poynter) (See: “A conflict of interest” subhead).

From a journalistic perspective, Jones raises important ethical concerns about the decades-long friendship between NPR’s Nina Totenberg and late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Totenberg is NPR’s legal affairs correspondent and is well known for her coverage of the Supreme Court.) Jones calls out their friendship as a no-no, says the relationship raises doubts about Totenberg’s work and “lends credence to all those who think the media is in cahoots with the people they cover — especially liberals.”

Discuss: Is it a problem if journalists are friends with sources or people in positions of power? How could close relationships, such as Totenberg and Ginsburg’s friendship, affect news coverage? Do you agree with Jones that Totenberg should have recused herself from covering Ginsburg or the Supreme Court, due to the friendship? Should NPR have addressed the relationship?


What else did we find this week? Here's our list.


Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Suzannah Gonzales and Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) of the News Literacy Project. It is edited by NLP’s Mary Kane (@marykkane).

You’ll find teachable moments from our previous issues in the archives. Send your suggestions and success stories to [email protected].

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Check out NLP's Checkology virtual classroom, where students learn how to navigate today’s information landscape by developing news literacy skills.