The Sift: Fake Trump worship | Oprah’s master class | COVID-19 info gap

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Teach news literacy this week
Fake Trump worship | Oprah's master class | COVID-19 info gap


Viral rumor rundown

NO: This photo of people appearing to pray over a golden statue of former President Donald Trump is not authentic. YES: It is a doctored version of a photo of an “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition event on Jan. 3, 2020. YES: This golden Trump statue is real and was recently on display at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida.


NO: Former President Donald Trump did not make a recent surprise visit to Switzerland. YES: This video — which was posted by a self-described “breaking news” Facebook page that traffics in conspiracy theories — is footage of Trump, when he was president, arriving at the World Economic Forum in Davos on two separate occasions, in 2018 and 2020.

Note: This video echoes themes and false narratives of the QAnon conspiracy belief system, which promotes the false claim that Trump actually won the election and President Joe Biden is either posing as president or is being played by a body double until Trump returns to power.

Related: “Police bolster security at US Capitol as QAnon theory claims Trump will become president March 4” (Will Carless, USA Today).

Tip: While a quick Google search is always a good way to learn more about a source of information, you can also check the Page Transparency section of public Facebook pages. The transparency section for the page that posted this out-of-context conspiracy video shows that the page is managed by five different users in Australia, and that its name has changed several times since it was created in September 2011.


Facebook introduced a “page transparency” feature in 2019 with information about the history and activity of pages.


NO: Boston Public Schools (BPS) did not suspend a selective program for advanced students over concerns that too many white and Asian students had been admitted. YES: The Boston School Committee voted to pause enrollments and temporarily put on hold a policy requiring prospective students to take an admissions test, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to BPS’ website. YES: The district released a proposal for changes to the program, including launching a working group to consider racial equity and other issues.

Note: Headlines and outraged reactions falsely stating the program was suspended over racial equity concerns spread online after a story by GBH News on Feb. 26. Outlets like the Media Research Center — a conservative media watchdog responsible for the Facebook post pictured above — and the right-leaning Daily Wire website picked up the report, attributing it to GBH News. GBH clarified and updated its story after it was published and the district’s superintendent provided a statement explaining the hiatus applied only to the city-wide entry process for the program. The Daily Wire also revised its story with a clarification.

Also note: Before they were clarified, the false details from the original report prompted outraged reactions that repeated the inaccurate claim on social media (see screenshots below). These examples show how falsehoods can spread further than (and independent of) corrections, because many of these reactions did not include links to the stories or updates.

These three Facebook posts repeat misleading information that was later updated and clarified. You can view a larger version of this image here.


NO: Instagram is not automatically limiting the reach of posts from the far-right conspiracy website The Gateway Pundit. YES: This is an old viral rumor that many people have posted, sometimes as a ploy for engagement to try to game Instagram’s algorithm. YES: Instagram does limit the reach of some posts that have been flagged by its fact-checking partners as false or misleading.

Note: Baseless claims about being throttled or “shadow banned” are also common on other social media platforms.

You can find a copy of this week’s examples here.

A foundational principle of quality journalism is to avoid conflicts of interest – or even the appearance of such conflicts. A conflict of interest is anything that could impact the fairness, accuracy or independence of work produced by a journalist or news organization. Failing to disclose such conflicts, be transparent about them and factor them into news decisions can erode public trust and damage a news organization’s credibility.

This week, let’s turn our attention to this key journalism standard by analyzing a March 2 news report from the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York, on the controversy over CNN host Chris Cuomo’s coverage of his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 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.

Note: New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks has also recently faced scrutiny following a BuzzFeed News report about his failure to disclose to readers relevant funding ties to a project he founded outside the newsroom and has written about in his columns. The Times reported on March 6 that disclosures detailing Brooks’ affiliation with the initiative and his resignation from this outside paid position will be added to columns that reference the project.


Discuss: Why do standards-based newsrooms take conflicts of interest seriously? What are some possible conflicts of interest newsrooms and journalists face? How should news organizations handle potential conflicts of interest?


★ Sift Picks


“Oprah Winfrey’s brilliance shows in a stunning interview with Harry and Meghan” (Tom Jones, Poynter).

Oprah Winfrey has received high praise for her interview of Meghan and Prince Harry, the Duchess and Duke of Sussex, which aired on March 7, and Tom Jones of Poynter provides a rundown of what worked particularly well. Jones, who called the conversation “a masterclass in interviewing,” highlighted Winfrey’s disclosure at the start that no topic was off-limits, that her questions were not revealed in advance and that the couple was not paid for the interview. Jones also described “Winfrey’s conversational and nonaggressive style” and noted that she asked follow-up questions at later points in the interview, leading Meghan and Harry to open up. Jones also said that Winfrey’s question about the gender of the child they are expecting allowed Harry to relax before she turned to more difficult subjects.

Related: Perspective: “Oprah proved she is greatest celebrity interviewer of all time. All journalists can learn from her.” (Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post).

Idea: Watch the first five to ten minutes of Winfrey's interview with Meghan, then discuss news literacy takeaways.

Discuss: What standards of quality journalism were at play during this interview? How do Winfrey's disclosures at the beginning of the interview and Meghan’s confirmation affect the credibility and/or transparency of the conversation? What impact would it have if a journalist shared interview questions with a source in advance? Why is paying a source for an interview (or information) unethical at standards-based news organizations? How would you describe Winfrey's interview style?

“Official Information About COVID-19 Is Reaching Fewer Black People on Facebook” (Corin Faife and Dara Kerr, The Markup).

While news reports have highlighted striking racial disparities among vaccine recipients and those affected by COVID-19, recent data from The Markup’s Citizen Browser project helps shed light on a different disparity: exposure to reliable information about the pandemic on social media. The Markup studied the newsfeeds of over 2,500 Facebook users and found that fewer Black people were shown official information about COVID-19 vaccines and safety. Only 3% of Black Facebook users were shown posts from public health agencies on COVID-19 safety or vaccination, compared with nearly 10% of Asian users and about 7% of Latino users and white users respectively, according to data from the project.

Discuss: What are some real-world consequences of The Markup’s findings? Why does misinformation thrive when credible information is scarce?



Quick Picks


“The long fuse: Misinformation and the 2020 election” (Key takeaways webinar, Election Integrity Partnership).

  • Note: This webinar breaks down a recent report by the Election Integrity Partnership and provides a closer look at its key findings, including models of narrative formation (starting at 34:00); “repeat spreaders” of disinformation (43:00); and the overwhelmingly domestic origins of 2020 election disinformation (49:50).
  • Also note: A new study from researchers at New York University’s Cybersecurity for Democracy effort showed that posts on “politically extreme” Facebook pages generate more engagement (reactions, shares and comments) than posts from sources that are closer to the center of the political spectrum. The study also found that far-right pages got more engagement than other partisan pages — and those that repeatedly shared misinformation received significantly more engagement.
  • Discuss: Why do you think YouTube played such a big role in the spread of 2020 election misinformation?
  • Related:

“BBC Apologizes for Interview With Cory Booker Impostor” (Derrick Bryson Taylor, The New York Times).

  • Discuss: Did BBC News handle the correction for this story properly? If not, what else should it do to hold itself accountable for this error and correct the record? How do mistakes like this affect a news organization’s credibility? Why might bad actors try to fool news organizations?

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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