The Sift: Election aftermath | Ballot misinfo | “Latino vote”


Teach news literacy this week
Election aftermath | Ballot misinfo | 'Latino vote'


Election aftermath

Misinformation and conspiracy theories thrive when curiosity and controversy are widespread and conclusive information is scarce or unavailable. The deeply polarized 2020 presidential election not only produced these conditions, it sustained them as ballots in a number of swing states with narrow vote margins were adjudicated and carefully counted.

To be sure, viral rumors swirled in the aftermath of Election Day. People who had been primed by partisan rhetoric to expect voter fraud leaned into their own biases. They misinterpreted isolated moments on livestreams of the ballot counting process in counties in several swing states, mistakenly saw “evidence” of rogue ballots being delivered in vague video clips, and were exploited by bad actors who readily circulated staged, manipulated and out-of-context content designed to mislead.

But the impact of these falsehoods was blunted by the work of professional fact-checkers, disinformation researchers and standards-based news organizations — and by social media platforms, which improved their content moderation efforts for the election. Facebook and Twitter took more effective actions against misinformation than either had previously. (However, Twitter indicated that with the election over, it would stop using warning labels on false or misleading tweets about the election outcome but continue its use of labels that provide additional context.) YouTube was more lax, allowing videos containing false claims about the election — including those that it acknowledged undermine trust in the democratic process — to remain live but without ads.

The days of uncertainty sparked isolated protests and some arrests, including two armed Virginia men. But for all the unresolved questions and still-rampant falsehoods, it seems, at least so far, that the worst-case scenarios were averted, even in an otherwise historic election with record turnout.


Note: Misinterpreting videos of the vote counting process at locations across the country is a textbook example of confirmation bias.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: The video in this viral Facebook post does not show election workers stuffing ballots in Flint, Michigan. YES: It is a video showing alleged ballot stuffing in Russia in 2018.

Note: A 2019 study by researchers at the Stanford History Education Group found that 52% of high school students “believed a grainy video claiming to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries,” which was actually shot in Russia, “constituted ‘strong evidence’ of voter fraud in the U.S.”

★ Featured rumor resource: How can we figure out where this video originated? One way is to capture a screenshot of the video and use it to do a reverse image search. These classroom-ready slides show your students how to do this.


NO: The video in this Facebook post does not show election workers in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, illegally filling out blank ballots. YES: It shows them transcribing votes on ballots that were damaged by an extractor so they could be scanned. YES: This is a normal process. NO: This was not the only clip of Delaware County election workers transcribing ballots to go viral as false evidence of fraud last week.

Also: NO: Elections officials in Fairfax County, Virginia, did not switch “100,000 votes from Trump to Biden.” YES: An election official in Fairfax County, Virginia, made a clerical error that inflated Biden’s vote total by 100,000. YES: The error was corrected within 10 minutes. NO: Some states controlled by Democrats did not inexplicably stop counting votes once Trump was leading so the results could be manipulated.

Note: An election worker in Atlanta went into hiding after a video clip went viral as “evidence” for the baseless claim that he had discarded a ballot. He actually discarded a paper with voting instructions, according to election officials in Fulton County, Georgia.

Related: “Is My Vote Being Counted? Check the Livestream.” (Sarah Holder and Laura Bliss, Bloomberg).


NO: The video in this tweet does not show 80 Virginia ballots for President Donald Trump being burned. YES: It shows a bag of sample ballots from the city of Virginia Beach being burned. YES: Unlike the sample ballots in the video, authentic Virginia ballots have bar code markings, according to Virginia Beach officials.


Images released by the city of Virginia Beach demonstrate distinct differences between legitimate ballots (right) and the sample ballots that appear in the false viral video (left).


NO: This video does not show a person delivering or moving ballots outside of a ballot counting location at the TCF Center in Detroit. YES: It shows a photographer for WXYZ-TV, the ABC affiliate in Detroit, using a wagon to transport his equipment outside the convention center. YES: This rumor appeared on the Texas Scorecard, a partisan blog, before it was amplified by conservative YouTube show host Steven Crowder during his Nov. 4 livestream.

Related: “YouTube says it will allow videos with false or misleading election results, but won't advertise on them” (Rachel E. Greenspan, Business Insider).

Note: In a similar incident, a crowd outside of the election center in Maricopa County, Arizona, believed cases in the back of a van were fraudulent ballots when they actually contained camera equipment belonging to a Fox News crew.


NO: Ballots for the 2020 election were not found in a dumpster in Spalding County, Georgia, as this Facebook post claims. YES: There were empty envelopes from mail-in ballots in a dumpster outside the elections office in Spalding County.

Also: NO: A state trooper in Arizona did not find 50,000 ballots for Trump in a dumpster. NO: 500 mail-in ballots for Trump were not “dumped” at a Marysville precinct in Michigan. NO: 27% of mail-in ballots from urban areas in Florida did not go undelivered.


President Donald Trump spoke during the early morning hours of Nov. 4 following Election Day, alleging fraud and claiming victory even as results in several states were still uncertain. News organizations that sent mobile news alerts about Trump’s remarks varied in how they handled the claims. Let’s take a closer look at word choice and framing as we consider how these factors shaped some news organizations’ approach to reporting on the president’s remarks in their efforts to be fair, accurate and fast. Grab your news goggles, and let’s go!

★ Featured News Goggles resources: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations and questions on this week’s topic.


Discuss: What thoughts do you have about how these five news organizations worded their alerts? Which alerts did you think were the best? Why? Which, if any, were problematic? Why? Did any of the word choices show potential bias? If so, how could those alerts have been more accurate?

Idea: Have students review the Nov. 4 post-Election Day front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — which featured a headline criticized as a “both sides” approach that spread inaccurate information — along with other front pages collected by Poynter. Do students agree with how the Journal-Constitution handled the election uncertainty? Why or why not? Do they agree or disagree with the criticism aimed at the headline? How does it compare with the other headlines? Which headline do students think is best? If the class had to write a headline for this story, what would it be?


★ Sift Picks


“Election results - PBS NewsHour special coverage” (Yamiche Alcindor, PBS NewsHour).

On election night, Yamiche Alcindor, PBS NewsHour’s White House correspondent, delivered a breakdown of “the Latino vote” that many news organizations did not grasp in their coverage. “Latino voters are — we say it’s one big group — but they’re so different,” Alcindor told her colleague Judy Woodruff. “As someone who grew up in Miami, I can tell you that Cuban Americans who vote mostly for Republicans in Miami are much different than Puerto Ricans who live in Central Florida and Orlando as well as Mexicans who are living in Texas as well as all sorts of other Latino voters.”

This nuanced description of “Latino voters,” who are too often treated as a monolithic group in mainstream news reports, demonstrates how journalists from diverse backgrounds can help make coverage more representative, accurate and responsive to the public’s information needs.

Note: Alcindor was not the only journalist to note that this group is frequently overgeneralized. Check out these tweet threads by Esmeralda Bermudez, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Patricia Mazzei.

Discuss: How are Latinos covered in election and non-election news reports? How could a diverse newsroom help improve coverage? How good of a job have your local news outlets done at building a diverse team in the newsroom?

Idea: Have students compare post-Election Day, front-page coverage of Latino voters from two Miami newspapers: The Miami Herald and its Spanish-language sister publication, El Nuevo Herald. How do the publications refer to Latinos? Why does one use “Latinos” more broadly, while the other calls out the Cuban American vote (“el voto cubanoamericano”) in particular? How might differences in readership explain these word choices? Which front page does the class think is most effective, informative and accurate? Why?

Resource: “Understanding Bias” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).


Quick Picks

“With many children still learning from home, kid-focused news products aim to fill some gaps” (Rachel del Valle, Nieman Lab).

  • Discuss: Should “kid-focused” news sources differ from traditional news content? If so, how? Is news coverage aimed at young people important? What type of media — podcasts, student-centered newscasts and shows, print products, etc. — do your students tend to use to get their news? Why? Do they choose their news sources or do those sources choose them, through shares and suggestions on social media?
  • Idea: Divide students into small groups and ask them to review and compare the different “youth-focused media sources” mentioned in this piece. Which do they like the best? Why? What topics would they like to see covered more? Consider sharing their feedback with these news sources.

“Joe Scarborough cheers sleepless Steve Kornacki after MSNBC calls it for Biden: 'Big pay raise, baby!'” (Sara M. Moniuszko and Kelly Lawler, USA Today).

  • Discuss: Why do some people trust Kornacki's data and coverage over other television journalists? What makes a journalist trustworthy? Did your students and their families have a go-to source for election coverage? How did they choose it?

“Opinion: Why can’t a generation that grew up online spot the misinformation in front of them?” (Sam Wineburg and Nadav Ziv, Los Angeles Times).

  • Idea: How would your students assess their own abilities to recognize misinformation online? Poll the class to see what steps it would take to determine a source’s credibility. Do students mention outdated tips referenced in this opinion piece, such as viewing dot-orgs as reliable or using a website’s “‘About’ page to determine credibility"? Show students how to follow the lead of fact-checking pros by first leaving an unfamiliar website and “opening new tabs and checking other sources.” What could students do to help eradicate these outdated strategies among their peers?
  • Note: Examples included in this recent report from the Stanford History Education Group might be helpful for students as they develop a strategy for teaching others.

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.