The Sift: Betty White rumors | Jan. 6 reflections | TikTok’s ‘mystical’ algorithm

 

Teach news literacy this week
Betty White rumors | Jan. 6 reflections | TikTok's 'mystical' algorithm

 
Note: There will be no issue of The Sift next Monday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day). We’ll return to your inbox on Monday, Jan. 24.
 
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Top picks

A year after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the role of misinformation in fueling the historic attack continues to come into clearer focus, as does the extent to which falsehoods still shape Americans’ divided views of the deadly riot. Misinformation swept across podcasts, Facebook — as documented in this new investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post — and other social media platforms ahead of the attack, allowing false narratives to take root and spread. Some news organizations recently published fact-checking roundups that debunk persistent falsehoods and underscore the ongoing threat misinformation poses to democracy.
TikTok’s suggestion algorithm doesn’t just learn what intrigues us, it can also “teach” us a flattened and distorted version of ourselves, argues science journalist Eleanor Cummins in a Jan. 3 opinion piece published by Wired. Though the platform sometimes surfaces revealing aspects of our interests — even those of which we’re not entirely aware — it also has the tendency to “sort us into ever more rigid identities,” reducing our conception of ourselves to just those aspects that help the algorithm target us with ads.
 
classroom-ready icon Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to help students think critically about how TikTok’s recommendation algorithm can affect its users.
This short video from the Pew Research Center examines declining trust in news and shows how changes across the news industry in recent decades have impacted this dynamic.
 

Viral rumor rundown

Fabricated Betty White quote used to push vaccine falsehood

A tweet that says “I knew she did not just die for no reason” with a screenshot of another social media post that says “Boosters getting more effective. ’Eat healthy and get all your vaccines. I just got boosted today.’ -Betty White, Dec 28th, 2021.” The screenshot includes a URL and a social media preview that has a photo of Betty White. The words “She got the booster Dec 28th….ooooppps!” appear on the image. The News Literacy Project has added a label that says “FABRICATED QUOTE.”

NO: Betty White did not say that she got her COVID-19 vaccine booster on Dec. 28, 2021. YES: This is a fabricated quote. NO: The quote never appeared in the report from Crow River Media that is included in this viral screenshot. YES: White’s agent also told the Associated Press that she did not receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster on Dec. 28 and that the quote was fake.

NewsLit takeaway: Propagators of anti-vaccine disinformation previously have seized on celebrity deaths — including baseball great Hank Aaron; boxer Marvin Hagler; Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; and rapper DMX — to falsely impugn the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Remember: Vaccinated people also die of other causes and a significant portion of the population, including celebrities, are vaccinated. Posts that falsely connect high-profile deaths to vaccines are often attempting to exploit the public’s emotions to generate fear and distrust. This particular rumor has another red flag: The fake quote has been added to a screenshot of a social media preview for an actual article in which the quote never appeared. This lends the fabricated quote an air of authenticity without providing a clickable link, making it less likely that people will check the alleged source to confirm that the quote is authentic.

 

At-home COVID-19 tests can’t be used to test drinking water

A screenshot of a TikTok video showing someone holding an at- home COVID-19 antigen test over a sink with the water running. The text on the video says “This is true!!” and “Tap water tests positive for covid.” The News Literacy Project has added a label that says “FALSE.”

NO: Putting tap water on an at-home COVID-19 antigen test does not test the water for COVID-19. YES: Misusing home antigen tests by putting water or any other liquid on them instead of the “extraction reagent” provided by the manufacturer can lead to inaccurate or misleading results. NO: According to the World Health Organization, the “SARS-CoV-2 virus has not been detected in drinking water supplies” because “water treatment methods neutralize infectious pathogens present in the water.” YES: Many municipalities across the United States monitor wastewater (sewage) for the presence of coronavirus as a way to detect outbreaks of COVID-19.

NewsLit takeaway: This video, and similar rumors about at-home tests and water, gained enormous exposure online in a short amount of time — in part because they bring together three drivers of misinformation: fear-inducing claims, subject matter that requires specialized knowledge and compelling visuals. Strong emotional reactions, such as fear, can cause people to jump to conclusions without stopping to carefully evaluate the accuracy or authenticity of claims, or the strength of evidence presented. It’s also easy to mistake faulty “evidence” for actual evidence online, particularly when it involves science-based claims that many people lack the expertise to evaluate. Finally, the use of video in this particular example of this rumor — in which people can watch the test turn “positive” — makes it seem even more compelling.

Related: “Covid Test Misinformation Spikes Along With Spread of Omicron (Davey Alba, The New York Times).

 

Actor Ben Affleck didn’t wear this anti-MAGA t-shirt

A Facebook post with a photo of the actor Ben Affleck supposedly wearing a t-shirt that reads “Losers in 1865, losers in 1945, losers in 2020.” Next to the dates are a Confederate flag, a Nazi flag and a red MAGA hat. The News Literacy Project added a label that says “DOCTORED IMAGE” and included an image of Affleck’s authentic shirt, which was plain.

NO: The actor Ben Affleck did not wear a shirt that compared MAGA supporters to Confederates and Nazis, calling them all “losers.” YES: The authentic photo of Affleck — which was taken in 2015 — shows that he was actually wearing a plain t-shirt.

NewsLit takeaway: Digitally altering celebrities’ shirts in photos by adding political messages is a common disinformation tactic designed to spread by appealing to those who support the message. In many cases, the provocative t-shirts can be easily found for sale online, which is one possible motivation for their creation and circulation.

You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
Kickers: Journalism slang. The ending of a story or nes report, often intended to leave a lasting impression.
News engagement saw a steep decline last year compared to 2020, including drops in cable news primetime viewership, news app downloads, news website visits and social media interactions with news articles.
A new study by the Knight Foundation and Ipsos examines post-2020 views on free speech and finds that while “Americans of all walks of life appreciate freedom of speech and recognize its benefits,” not all groups feel equally protected by the First Amendment or agree on “what constitutes a legitimate expression of First Amendment rights.”
Twitter banned the personal account of Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia for repeatedly violating its COVID-19 misinformation policy. Greene was temporarily suspended from Facebook a day later.
News of NPR host Audie Cornish’s departure sparked renewed discussion about why some Black and Latino journalists are leaving the news organization. Cornish, who is joining CNN, previously co-hosted All Things Considered — NPR’s signature daily news program — and is one of several recent high-profile departures.
A man hospitalized with COVID-19 and interviewed by BBC journalists last summer was targeted with accusations and threats by vaccine deniers … twice: once after the initial report aired in July, and then again when a clip of the interview re-aired in a year-end review of pandemic coverage.
The misinformation aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 was a watershed moment in which conspiracy theories became “more personal, more cruel, and more mainstream,” says journalism professor Amanda J. Crawford.
Misinformation expert Mike Caulfield is anticipating an “acceleration and expansion” of conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation designed “to convince large swaths of the public that the 2022 elections are illegitimate” — in part to pave the way for legislative changes in preparation for the 2024 presidential election.
 

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Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) and Pamela Brunskill (@PamelaBrunskill), and edited by Mary Kane (@marykkane).

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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.