The Sift: Biolabs and ‘fact-checks’ | Megachurch rumor | Journalist killed in Ukraine


Teach news literacy this week
Biolabs and 'fact-checks' | Megachurch rumor | Journalist killed in Ukraine

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Top picks

A longstanding Russian disinformation narrative alleging that the United States is financing bioweapons labs has resurfaced during the war in Ukraine and taken hold among conspiracy theory communities, including QAnon adherents. The Russian government has for years tried to legitimize a variety of baseless assertions that the U.S. is developing biological weapons, including at labs in Ukraine. In reality, the labs were partly established to secure Soviet-era weapons, while also working to ensure that “dangerous pathogens do not fall into the wrong hands.”

Russia is pushing fake “fact-checking” videos of fabricated examples of misinformation as a tactic to spread disinformation and uncertainty about its invasion of Ukraine, according to an investigation by Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub and ProPublica. These fake debunk videos are designed “to inject a sense of doubt among Russian-language audiences as they encounter real images” of the war, including those showing Russian losses. The investigation found that some of the videos contain metadata proving that both the alleged “fake” and the authentic footage were created together — not independently, as would be the case with actual pieces of viral misinformation.
About 90% of Americans think social media makes it easier to spread misinformation, harassment and extreme viewpoints, but they are divided over how — if at all — to address harmful and false content online, according to a new report by the Gallup polling firm and the Knight Foundation. Americans’ complex attitudes about internet regulation do not always neatly follow party divides, but many share deep concerns about technology, with 62% of U.S. adults saying elected officials “pay ‘too little’ attention” to tech issues, the report found.
  • Discuss: Did any of the report’s findings surprise you? How do you think social media has impacted social and civic life? List some positive and negative effects. How should social media companies decide what content to prohibit? How often should these policies be reevaluated and updated? How much do you trust information on social media? What steps can you take to verify information before sharing it?
  • Idea: Have students take this quiz to see how their views compare with survey respondents on who — if anyone — should regulate harmful and false content online.
classroom-ready icon Dig deeper: Use this interactive slide deck to further explore Americans’ views on social media, free speech, internet regulation and civic life.

Viral rumor rundown

Footage of body bags shows climate change protest, not Ukraine

A tweet that says “This guy had one job” with a video that shows a television news journalist who appears to be reporting on casualties in Ukraine, with what looks like rows of body bags in the background. The video appears to have a caption that reads “Ukrainian health ministry: 57 dead, 169 hurt across Ukraine as Russia launches attack.” During the clip, one person under a tarp can be seen moving. The News Literacy Project has added a label that says 'CLIMATE CHANGE PROTEST IN AUSTRIA.'

NO: The footage in this video is not a news report about casualties in Ukraine. YES: It is footage taken from a Feb. 4 report from Oe24, an Austrian media outlet, about a climate change protest in Vienna. NO: The audio in this video is not from the original report. YES: The audio matching the original footage was removed and replaced with audio taken from a Feb. 24 NBC News segment about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

NewsLit takeaway: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a surge of false conspiracy claims, including that the war is being staged (see here, here and here). While it’s impossible to know if any of these claims originated with Russian disinformation agents, spreading doubt about the reality of the situation in Ukraine is broadly aligned to Russian interests. It’s also worth noting that viral rumors sometimes evolve as they circulate — and that this isn’t the first time this footage has been used to push baseless conspiratorial claims. It circulated in early February to push the absurd idea that COVID-19 deaths were being staged. Since then, different versions of the footage have gone viral alongside claims that it shows staged Ukraine casualties. The addition of the NBC News audio track and caption about Ukraine is simply the latest version of the footage to circulate online.

Related: “Ukraine invasion: False claims the war is a hoax go viral” (Shayan Sardarizadeh and Olga Robinson, BBC News).


No, ‘megachurches’ aren’t neglecting to support Ukrainians

A Facebook post of a meme that says “Funny how we haven’t seen a single American mega church offer anything to the Ukrainians….” The News Literacy Project has added a label that says 'FALSE.'

NO: It’s not true that megachurches in the United States have failed to offer support to Ukrainians during the Russian invasion. YES: Fact-checkers have confirmed that a number of American megachurches “are actively soliciting and distributing relief” to Ukrainians affected by the war.

NewsLit takeaway: People and partisan groups often find ways to use major news events like the war in Ukraine to score political points. Megachurches and celebrity pastors — including Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, which is pictured in this meme— have previously been targets of misinformation, particularly in the wake of disasters. This post is also a good example of how a “sheer assertion” — or a claim made without evidence — can be shared widely when it connects with people’s existing beliefs and biases.

You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
Brent Renaud, an American journalist and filmmaker, died March 13 after being shot while on assignment in Ukraine — the first foreign journalist reported dead while covering the war.
TikTok may be known for short, funny videos, but clips focused on the conflict in Ukraine are flooding the app, presenting new and urgent challenges to content moderators, who are struggling to keep up. (Learn more about what makes TikTok vulnerable to misinformation in this new report from the Media Manipulation Casebook.)
White House officials recently briefed top TikTok stars about the war in Ukraine, a recognition of the app’s “rise as a dominant news source.”
What started as an evidence-free Facebook post about a supposed $10 million donation to Ukraine by actor Leonardo DiCaprio “snowballed” into a false viral news story, providing “a case study in how bad information can bubble up from the online fringes to mainstream media outlets.”
Teachers are helping students make sense of the Russian invasion of Ukraine by answering questions, offering context, addressing concerns — including worries about being drafted for war — and providing tips for spotting misinformation.
False and misleading information is easy and cheap to produce compared with quality information, argues Richard L. Hasen in this March 7 New York Times op-ed. But we can’t regulate our way out of this problem, argues Jay Caspian Kang, in a separate March 7 opinion piece from the Times. Instead, we need to build “an educated and resilient public that can spot and then ignore” misinformation.
Only 21% of the top editors across 240 major news organizations are women — far below the 40% of journalists who are women in these markets, according to a recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Nearly two years after George Floyd’s murder sparked a “racial reckoning” in American newsrooms, some journalists are reflecting on news organizations’ efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Their experiences highlight that “meaningful, sustainable, and lasting change — especially when it comes to institutional racism and discrimination — takes time,” writes Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez.

Thanks for reading!

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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