The Sift: Confusion breeds conspiracy | Debate rumors | News on YouTube


Teach news literacy this week
Confusion breeds conspiracy | Debate rumors | News on YouTube

NOTE: The Sift will not be published on next Monday’s federal holiday (Oct. 12). We’ll return on Monday, Oct. 19.

Confusion breeds conspiracy

When President Donald Trump tweeted at 12:54 a.m. ET on Oct. 2 that he and first lady Melania Trump had been diagnosed with COVID-19, it touched off a flood of conspiracy theories online from people seeking to make sense of the news. Some on the left and others critical of the president speculated that he was faking the diagnosis to avoid participating in more presidential debates, to gain sympathy votes or to distract everyone from The New York Times’ Sept. 27 investigative report about his taxes. Others suggested his intent was to stage a quick recovery to “prove” that the disease isn’t serious or to make himself look strong and healthy. Some on the right also thought he might be faking it to lure liberals into making disgraceful comments online, while others suggested that the Democrats infected the president to gain political power.

Disciples of the QAnon conspiracy theories read something into Trump’s diagnosis that no one else did: A cover to facilitate a “storm” of arrests to purge Washington of Hillary Clinton and other high-profile political figures who, they believe, are secretly Satanist pedophiles. (This is the core tenet of the QAnon belief system.) Unsurprisingly, they found “evidence” of this plan. In the last sentence of his tweet announcing his condition, Trump wrote, “We will get through this TOGETHER.” QAnon enthusiasts, eagerly searching for their preferred meaning, decided it was a secret code: “To get her.”

Note: People are often tempted to engage in conspiratorial thinking as they seek to make sense of major events — too often in ways that confirm their existing ideas and beliefs. In this case, a lack of transparency and a variety of conflicting accounts from the White House and Trump’s doctors have exacerbated people’s natural inclinations to engage in this type of thinking.
Also note: Several examples in today’s viral rumor rundown also exhibit and appeal to conspiratorial thinking about the president’s diagnosis.
Idea: Use these related readings to help students understand why people believe in conspiracy theories, including the fact that they offer people a sense of control by replacing a complex and messy reality with an alluringly simple and clean explanation.
Discuss: Why might people be especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories right now?

Viral rumor rundown

NO: The video in this tweet does not show bikers praying in support of President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump after they were diagnosed with COVID-19. YES: It is an Aug. 29 video of a protest against violent crimes targeting farmers in South Africa.

★ Featured rumor resource: This classroom-ready slide deck guides students through the process of fact-checking this rumor on their own, including how to use basic geolocation to verify the location.


NO: The Trump campaign did not send a fundraising email asking for donations to help the president recover from COVID-19.

Idea: Use this example to test your students’ ability to evaluate evidence for a claim. First, simply show them a screenshot of the fake letter on social media and let them react. If no one draws the authenticity into question, ask whether the image of the letter is strong evidence that the campaign actually sent such an email. In discussion, help students recognize how easy it would be for anyone to create and screenshot a fake document like this one. You might also highlight the grammatical errors and unusual word choices in the letter.


NO: President Donald Trump did not have an oxygen tank and tubing concealed under his jacket as he boarded Marine One to be taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday. YES: Trump was given oxygen at the White House on Friday before leaving for Walter Reed.

Discuss: What are some of the possible reasons that the person behind this account created this tweet? Why do you think it went viral?


NO: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden did not wear a wire during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. YES: That is a fold in Biden’s shirt (you can see this moment in context here). NO: Biden does not have a transmitter implanted in his skull to receive debate guidance. NO: Biden did not have an IV or a wire running up his sleeve during the debate either. YES: He was wearing a rosary that he wears in remembrance of his son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

Note: The actor James Woods tweeted (archived here before the video was made private) a re-recording of this Facebook video playing on a computer monitor to his 2.6 million followers.

Also note: Recording a video playing on a computer screen is an easy way to reshare a video on another platform, but it is also sometimes used to evade automated detection of videos that have been flagged as problematic in some way.




NO: President Donald Trump does not have a “neural stimulator device” attached to his head. NO: The above photo is not from the Sept. 29 presidential debate. YES: The photo has been circulating online since at least March 2016.

Discuss: Why do you think rumors about candidates utilizing secret earpieces or “brain enhancing” devices and drugs are so numerous? Have these kinds of rumors circulated about candidates in previous elections?


NO: Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett did not say that a woman should not be able to own, buy or sell property without the permission of her husband or a male relative. YES: This is a baseless assertion for which there is no evidence.


Discuss: Why do these kinds of “sheer assertions” — made anonymously and entirely without evidence — go viral online? Does the image of this Facebook post (above) contain any clues about what might have motivated the person who shared it?



News Goggles

News reports sometimes convey additional information to readers in the form of editor’s notes. Such notes may briefly explain how a news report has been updated or corrected. Some describe how a particular aspect of a story was handled and why. Others are longer and typically published alongside major articles or investigations to provide further context, clarity and background on a news organization’s coverage. This week, we’re going to examine an editor’s note published online on Sept. 27 that accompanied an ongoing New York Times investigation into President Donald Trump’s taxes and finances.

The note — written by Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times — offers a chance to see various news literacy concepts in action, including watchdog reporting, protecting sources and the First Amendment. Grab your news goggles and let’s consider the purpose of this note. Download our full annotations in Microsoft Word or as a PDF. Also, these classroom-ready slides run through important takeaways for a discussion.


★ Sift Picks

Suzannah: “How the everyday chaos of reporting on the Trump White House played out for the world to see Saturday” (Sarah Ellison, The Washington Post).

White House reporters have their work cut out for them. This report details what it was like for a pool reporter (who shares reporting with other news organizations) to cover news of President Donald Trump’s condition on Saturday. The article highlights the difficulty in trying to fact-check information on the fly for a fast-moving, urgent news story. The report also explores the delicate handling of information from an unnamed source who requested to speak with journalists “off the record” and agreed that a quote could be used as “background.” (In this case, the source was later identified by other reporters.)

Note: Legitimate news outlets have strict rules governing the use of unnamed or “anonymous” sources and typically their identities must be known to the reporter(s) and at least one editor.

Discuss: What is an unnamed or “anonymous” source in a news report? What rules generally govern their use? Does an unnamed source cited in a news report influence the report’s credibility in your view? Why would journalists sometimes need to rely on information from an unnamed source for important coverage, such as the president’s health?”



Hannah: “Many Americans Get News on YouTube, Where News Organizations and Independent Producers Thrive Side by Side” (Pew Research Center).

A revealing new study from the Pew Research Center drives home just how central YouTube has become in many Americans’ news diets. About a quarter of U.S. adults turn to the video-sharing platform for news, but only about half of the news channels on YouTube are associated with established news organizations. According to the study, independent channels — or those without a clear affiliation with an organization — post much of the remaining news content. These channels are often personality-driven and more likely to cover conspiracy theories or approach subjects with a negative tone.

Discuss: The study notes that news consumers are just about split on whether they primarily use YouTube for opinion-based content (51%) or straight news reporting (48%). Why would opinions and commentary thrive on a platform like YouTube? How can you determine if this type of content is still factual?

Idea: Ask students about their own YouTube habits and whether they use the platform as a news source. Compile a list of channels that students commonly turn to for information and challenge students to evaluate them. Do they provide straight news reports, or just commentary and opinion? Do they do any original reporting? Then have students fact-check a recent video on a channel of their choosing.


Peter: “Exclusive: Russian operation masqueraded as right-wing news site to target U.S. voters – sources” (Jack Stubbs, Reuters).

This is an important story that got buried in the avalanche of news about the first presidential debate and President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. It’s about an FBI probe into a phony right-wing “news” website — called the Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens (NAEBC) — run by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian propaganda and troll factory that interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The site mainly focuses on U.S. politics (especially divisive issues) and paid unwitting Americans to write for it.

Note: This Reuters report is based on two unnamed sources familiar with the FBI investigation.

Also note: A little more than a month ago, the FBI told Facebook about another Russian IRA imposter “news” site called Peace Data that targeted progressives and paid unwitting American writers. The site is no longer active.

Key term: Attempts to mask state-sponsored propaganda stories by getting other individuals and organizations to write and publish them is a form of “information laundering.”

Idea: Use web archives — for example the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine or — to search for saved screenshots of NAEBC and Peace Data. (E.g., search “” for shots of the homepage, or add an asterisk — '*' — to find all archived webpages that begin with this URL.) Then have students analyze the headlines and stories they find there. Why might the Russian government be interested in promoting such issues and stories?

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.