The Sift: Disinformation immunity | Misinterpreted election videos | Black media map


Teach news literacy this week
Disinformation immunity | Misinterpreted election videos | Black media map


Disinformation immunity

As countries around the world await the mass distribution of two promising vaccines for COVID-19, researchers and fact-checkers are warning that a surge of disinformation could threaten their acceptance and the efforts to immunize a larger percentage of the population.

A Dec. 2 report from the misinformation research organization First Draft warned that those who create and circulate vaccine-related falsehoods often exploit “data deficits,” or the imbalance between the intense public demand for information about the injections and the limited supply of verified information about them that is also clear and accessible. For example, the complexity of the mRNA technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has made it easy for bad actors to insert the false claim that the shots alter human DNA. (They do not.)

The report lists some of the false vaccine narratives that have recently gained traction on social media:

  1. The human immune system is more effective than a vaccine (FALSE);
  2. Vaccines are fueled by “Big Pharma” profit, not public health (FALSE);
  3. News organizations are only reporting positive news about the vaccines at the behest of “Big Pharma” (FALSE);
  4. COVID-19 vaccines are a secret attempt to control the population (FALSE);
  5. The vaccines were developed using aborted fetal cells (FALSE).

While medical experts cannot be sure yet about the exact percentage of people who need to take the vaccine to successfully stop the spread of the coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States, recently said that the “overwhelming majority” of Americans need to be vaccinated to achieve widespread immunity. About 60% of Americans say they would definitely (29%) or probably (31%) get a vaccine for the coronavirus, according to a Dec. 3 Pew Research Center survey. But 21% say they do not intend to get vaccinated and are “‘pretty certain’ more information will not change their mind,” the survey found.

Note: On Dec. 3 Facebook announced that it would “start removing false claims about [COVID-19] vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts” from its platforms — but some experts worry that it’s too late for such measures to be effective against what has grown to be “a varied and powerful misinformation movement.”
Also note: Some TikTok users, including a number of doctors, have taken it upon themselves to push back against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation by sharing their experiences as participants in trials and by creating viral videos with accurate information about the shots.
Idea: Use the COVID-19 disinformation narratives identified in the First Draft report to create a student project. For example, students could poll their peers and family members to see how many have been exposed to or believed the false narratives. Students could also work in teams to trace these narratives on various social media platforms or create their own social posts with accurate information about the vaccines to counter disinformation.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which have completed their third and final trial phase, will not severely injure or kill people who take them. YES: A variety of short-lived mild or moderate reactions to both vaccines — including soreness at the injection site, headaches, fatigue, muscle aches and joint pain — have been documented during trial testing. YES: The development of COVID-19 vaccines is overseen by independent data and safety monitoring boards that can stop or pause the trials over safety concerns. YES: Trials for two vaccines — from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — were halted this fall after one participant in each experienced an adverse reaction. YES: Both trials resumed in late October.

Note: Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines entered phase three trials in July. More than 20,000 people took the Pfizer vaccine during its phase three trial, and about 15,000 people took the Moderna vaccine during its phase three trial. An equal number of people were given a placebo.


NO: The video in this post on the social media website Parler does not show suitcases of fraudulent ballots being pulled out from under a table. YES: The video shows standard ballot containers at the vote-counting center in State Farm Arena in Atlanta. NO: Election observers were not ordered to leave the room before these votes were processed or moved. YES: The ballots had previously been processed with election observers present for the Republican Party and President Donald Trump’s campaign. NO: This video is not evidence of voter fraud.

Note: This surveillance video was shared by lawyers for Trump at a Georgia Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Dec. 3. One America News Network, a Trump-friendly cable network with a history of publishing conspiracy theories and other falsehoods, broadcast the full hearing on YouTube. A clip from that coverage was later shared on Trump’s YouTube channel and elsewhere online.

★ Featured rumor resource: This election rumor claims to provide evidence of voter fraud. But does it actually? Evaluate the evidence in this post using these classroom-ready slides.


NO: This viral video does not show a contractor for Dominion Voting Systems manipulating election data in Gwinnett County, Georgia. YES: Officials say it shows a Dominion contractor transferring a thumb drive from one computer to another so that a report could be read. NO: Voting data on Dominion vote tabulating machines cannot be accessed or manipulated this way. YES: Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system implementation manager, reported that the Dominion contractor in the video, a young voting systems technician, has received death threats.

Discuss: Why is this anonymously narrated video not credible evidence of vote manipulation?


NO: This video does not show an employee of Dominion Voting Systems admitting that its election equipment is capable of manipulating votes. YES: The out-of-context video shows Dominion managers in 2017 giving a demonstration of product features that allow election officials to address issues with ballots that have been incorrectly marked, like when the oval next to a candidate's name is circled instead of filled in. NO: This is not evidence that Dominion elections equipment “can be manipulated.”

Note: Dominion Voting Systems is a frequent target of online conspiracy theorists and accusations from Sidney Powell, a former lawyer for President Donald Trump, who has publicly repeated conspiratorial claims about the election. On Nov. 26, Dominion Voting Systems published a statement listing and rebutting numerous false allegations against it.


NO: President-elect Joe Biden did not forget which foot he hurt and wear a protective walking boot on both his left and right foot on different days. YES: The photo on the left in this Facebook post has been doctored to add a walking boot and a mask. YES: The original of the photo on the left was taken in November 2018 when the Bidens adopted their dog, Major, from the Delaware Humane Association:

As the fact-check from Lead Stories (linked above) points out, this photo was posted to the Delaware Humane Association’s Facebook page more than two years ago.

Fairness and balance are key standards of quality journalism. Being fair includes reaching out to main sources or subjects in news coverage to allow them to share their points of view and respond to any claims or allegations. Balance is representing all relevant sides of an issue without giving one side undue weight or legitimacy.

This week, let’s consider fairness and balance as we examine a Dec. 3 news article (PDF here) about a jail closure in Missouri following a COVID-19 outbreak, as reported by the nonprofit news organization the Missouri Independent. What does it mean if someone “could not be reached for comment”? How do journalists report stories when a key source is unavailable or unwilling to share their perspective publicly? Grab your news goggles. Let’s go!

★ Featured News Goggles resource: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations and discussion questions related to this week’s topic.

Discuss: Is this article fair in its reporting? What steps should reporters take to try and reach a source on deadline? How should a journalist handle unsuccessful efforts to contact a source in a story? If journalists had been able to reach local sheriff’s officials, what questions should they have asked? Is this report balanced? Are any relevant perspectives or voices missing? If a key source responds to a reporter after a story is published, what could the journalists do in response?

Related: “Opinion: RNC blasts Politico over Michigan election story” (Erik Wemple, The Washington Post).

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


★ Sift Picks


“Mapping Black Media” (The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York).

This recently created interactive map and directory provide a comprehensive roundup of nearly 300 publications primarily serving Black communities in the United States. The project by the Black Media Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York aims to fill the void in information about the range and variety of Black publications across the country. The database includes digital startups as well as long-standing legacy publications like the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit, which began publishing in 1936. It also covers niche publications, media serving “West Indian and African audiences, radio stations, nonprofit newsrooms and more.”

Idea: Ask students to use the map and directory to explore the media outlets in their area. Are there any missing that students are aware of? If so, have the class contact those maintaining the list at [email protected].

Another idea: Have teams of students select an outlet from the map to analyze. What distinguishes the outlets on the map, which primarily serve Black communities, from more mainstream news sources?


Quick Picks

“In 2020, Disinformation Broke The US” (Jane Lytvynenko, BuzzFeed News).

  • Discuss: What disinformation campaigns stand out most in 2020? What does disinformation related to the pandemic, the 2020 election, protests against racial injustice, and other events have in common? What does disinformation aim to accomplish? What is the best way to combat it?
  • Idea: Divide students into groups and have each group research a different example of disinformation detailed in Lytvynenko’s piece. Ask students to consider the real-world implications of the disinformation as well as how it began, how it spread and how the average person can combat such falsehoods. Then, ask each group to report its findings to the class.

“Five myths about the news business” (David Chavern, The Washington Post).

  • Idea: As a pre-reading activity, share the five misconceptions as statements (without revealing that they are myths). Poll the class and ask students to vote on which statements they believe are true about news organizations and which they believe are false. Then, break students into groups and assign each group to research one of the myths. Direct students to compare their findings with the information presented in the article.
  • Discuss: Which misconception(s) are most important for newsrooms to address? Why? How should news organizations correct these myths?

“When a News Anchor Does the Government’s Job” (Ilana E. Strauss, The Atlantic).

  • Discuss: What do you think about this journalist's role in handling unemployment claims? Do you think journalists should routinely become directly involved with these kinds of issues?

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].

Sign up to receive NLP Connections (news about our work) or switch your subscription to the non-educator version of The Sift called Get Smart About News here.


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