The Sift: Be factful | Vaccine misinformation | COVID-19 comics


Teach news literacy this week
Be factful | Vaccine misinformation | COVID-19 comic

NOTE: The Sift is taking next week off and will return Dec. 7. Happy Thanksgiving!

Be factful

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 19 published updated recommendations for safely celebrating Thanksgiving during the pandemic. But COVID-19 isn’t the only viral threat people are contending with this holiday season. Baseless rumors and conspiracy theories about voter fraud in the presidential election have been spreading for months, leading many Americans to see “evidence” of fraud on and after Nov. 3 where none existed. This happened with ballot applications misperceived as actual ballots; misinterpreted video clips of workers dutifully counting votes; misguided amateur investigations of election center trash; and misconceptions surrounding when and how results are reported.

Though each of these falsehoods have been repeatedly debunked and explained, about a third of Americans — and more than three-quarters of those who support President Donald Trump — still believe that president-elect Joe Biden only won the election due to voter fraud, according to a Monmouth University poll published Nov. 18. So no matter what you’re doing to celebrate Thanksgiving, there’s a reasonable chance some of the most stubborn rumors about election fraud will come up. Here’s a quick guide to help you navigate them.

  • Spikes in votes have logical explanations. Hyperpartisan “news” outlets and social media echo chambers continue to tout groundless rumors about secret “vote dumps,” particularly involving the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and Pennsylvania. But most results reflect large batches of votes, often from cities, that were expected to heavily favor Biden. In a few other cases, spikes in reported vote totals were the result of errors — for example, a quickly corrected typo in Shiawassee County, Michigan, and a missed software update in Antrim County, Michigan.
  • Conspiracy theories about voting machines are baseless. In a Nov. 19 news conference, lawyers for President Trump falsely claimed that software run by many voting machines was created in Venezuela and controlled by its late president, Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013. They also claimed that machines made by a company called Dominion Voting Systems are designed to “flip” votes to favor one candidate and that a server with evidence of this nonexistent manipulation was seized in Germany. None of these things are true.
    • Remember: Even if it were possible for a voting machine to alter vote tallies, the results would still need to match paper ballot totals to be considered legitimate. Georgia election officials said a hand recount of votes confirmed the overall accuracy of the machine count.
    • Related: “How We Know Dominion Voting Machines Didn’t Affect the Election Outcome” (John McCormack, National Review).
  • Attempts to cast votes for dead people are uncommon and unsuccessful. While state laws vary concerning the validity of votes of people who die before Election Day but who have cast absentee and mail-in ballots, fraudulent attempts to vote on behalf of a dead person remain extremely rare.
Idea: Have students ask relatives one or more of the questions from the Monmouth University poll cited above and compare their results to the published findings.
Discuss: What role does confirmation bias play in people genuinely perceiving voter fraud in routine and innocuous aspects of the election?

Viral rumor rundown

NO: This video does not show any ballots or other election documents being secretly or improperly shredded in Cobb County, Georgia, following the Nov. 19 completion of a state-ordered recount of votes in the presidential election. YES: It shows “non-relevant materials” that contain voters’ personal information — such as mailing labels and envelopes, sticky notes and phone messages — being taken to a mobile shredding truck outside a county event center in Marietta, where the recount took place. NO: This is neither a crime nor unusual. YES: The Cobb County elections department released a statement confirming that “everything of consequence, including the ballots, absentee ballot applications with signatures, and anything else used in the count or re-tally remains on file.”


NO: President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign did not hire the mafia in Philadelphia to fabricate fraudulent ballots. YES: This is a baseless claim that originated in an unsigned, evidence-free article in The Buffalo Chronicle, a news site with a history of publishing right-wing conspiracy theories.

Note: A BuzzFeed News–Toronto Star investigation also alleged the site’s publisher previously offered to skew political coverage in return for a fee.


NO: The image in this Instagram post is not an authentic tweet from President Donald Trump. YES: It is an image of a fabricated tweet shared by an account claiming to be a paid ambassador of the conservative student group Turning Point USA.

Note: You can check the authenticity of tweets from President Trump using or ProPublica’s Politwoops website.


NO: The COVID-19 vaccines that are currently in development will not alter people’s DNA. YES: These vaccines are “mRNA” vaccines, which use a fragment of genetic material from the virus rather than a weakened or killed version of the virus, to produce an immune response. NO: There is no conspiracy to use the COVID-19 pandemic to establish an authoritarian world government. YES: Such claims are part of a sprawling, decades-old “New World Order” conspiracy theory.



After news broke Nov. 16 that early data showed a vaccine from the drugmaker Moderna was nearly 95 percent effective, fans of American singer-songwriter Dolly Parton praised her $1 million donation to help fund COVID-19 vaccine research. Major news organizations including The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and BBC News covered the story.

But let’s imagine you came across this news online by seeing an article from People magazine. Can you trust it? Is People a credible source for news about this story? How do you know? This week we’re going to examine sourcing and the use of hyperlinks in news reports as we consider what makes information credible. Grab your news goggles!

★ Featured News Goggles resources: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations, discussion questions and a teaching idea related to this week’s topic.

Discuss: What makes a news source credible? When are hyperlinks important or useful to include? How can you fact-check information in a report that has been “picked up” from another news organization? Are magazines like People more or less reliable than news organizations like The New York Times? Considering the audience and purpose of each, which source do you trust more and why?

Idea: Ask students to read an online article from a standards-based news organization on a topic of their choosing, paying special attention to any hyperlinks in the text. Direct them to take notes on which details and phrases incorporate links, where each hyperlink leads and how its inclusion impacts the news report. (Does it add context? Lead to sources? Jump to previous coverage? Offer evidence or support?)

Resource: “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).


★ Sift Picks


“A Tale of Two Pandemics: Historical Insights on Persistent Racial Disparities” (Josh Neufeld, Journalist’s Resource).

You may have read, seen or heard news reports about racial disparities regarding COVID-19, and the ways in which Black people have been disproportionately affected. But this is a different take on the story — in comic form. Josh Neufeld, a comics journalist, not only features an illustrated version of the actor Idris Elba discussing his COVID-19 diagnosis, but he also provides a look over the centuries at how Black people have been the subject of baseless claims that they are immune to diseases and how they still face racial discrimination in the U.S. health care system.

Note: In an interview about his piece, Neufeld defined his role as a comics journalist in this way: “…I research, report, and tell true-life stories — but with the added component of pictures, word balloons, and captions. The characters I portray are real people, and the text in their word balloons are actual quotes from my interviews with them.”

Discuss: What are the benefits of using comics journalism to convey information versus other forms of journalism? Can you identify the sources Neufeld includes in this piece (see “About this piece” at the bottom of the comic)? How do the 1918 influenza pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic compare?

Idea: Have students read Neufeld’s comic (PDF) as well as section(s) of the research article that served as a source. How do the two reading experiences compare? Which format do students prefer? Why?

Another idea: Ask students to examine this Nov. 21 front page from The Boston Globe and focus in particular on the graphic labeled “Since the election, President Trump has…” What do students think of this graphic, which represents another way that journalists convey information visually? Are the statistics more impactful presented in this format versus in the text of a news report, for instance? Why or why not?


Quick Picks

“Designed to Deceive: Do These People Look Real to You?” (Kashmir Hill and Jeremy White, The New York Times).

  • Discuss: How are bad actors using artificial faces to deceive people online? What other implications are there for facial generation and recognition technologies?
  • Idea: Use the Which Face is Real website to test students’ ability to detect algorithmically generated faces, then have them team up to build a project — such as a quiz, TikTok video, public service announcement, or infographic — to help others recognize them.

“News Distrust Among Black Americans is a Fixable Problem” (Tamar Wilner, Gina M. Masullo, Danielle Kilgo and Lance Bennett, Center for Media Engagement, The University of Texas at Austin).

  • Idea: Have students intentionally consume local news coverage for one week with the questions raised in this report in mind: Are local Black voices and points of view included in coverage on a regular basis? How are Black communities covered? Are Black people included in stories that are not about race? Do local news organizations produce positive stories about Black people and communities? Students could keep a log of their analyses and compare notes at the end of the week.

“How much political news do people see on Facebook? I went inside 173 people’s feeds to find out” (Laura Hazard Owen, Nieman Lab).

  • Discuss: How much news do you see on your social media feeds? What does and does not count as “news” on social media?
  • Idea: Create an assignment for students based on this study. Ask students to poll friends and family members about the first 10 social media posts they see when they open a given platform. (This piece focuses on Facebook, but you might decide to focus on a different platform.) Have them compile data for the number of posts each person would consider “news,” the sources for those posts (e.g., mainstream sources, partisan websites, anonymous user-generated content) and common topics.

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.