Teach news literacy this week Final issue: Year in review | Vaccine magnet hoax | 'Critical ignoring'
Note: This is the final issue of The Sift for the school year. We'll return in September. Please remember to share your thoughts about the newsletter in this year’s reader survey, and have a safe and happy summer!
A perfect storm
It's hard to imagine conditions better suited for misinformation to thrive than the upheaval, isolation and confusion created by the events that unfolded over the past year. The ongoing pandemic, a national reckoning with racial injustice, a profoundly divisive presidential election and a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol created widespread uncertainty, stoking fear, anger and urgency. It was a perfect storm for rumors, conspiracy theories and political propaganda.
For this school year’s final issue of The Sift, we compiled three key misinformation insights that came into sharper focus over the last nine months.
Misinformation is driven by human needs and vulnerabilities.
Falsehoods appeal to our innate need to make sense of our world, including our desire to simplify complex realities, identify enemies and foster a sense of control, community and belonging. Falsehoods also seize on our vulnerabilities. They capitalize on cognitive biases and exploit deeply held beliefs and values to slip past our rational defenses.
Misinformation is often performative.
People who like and share things on social media are often driven by “the desire to attract and please followers/friends or to signal one’s group membership” and fail to focus on the accuracy of the information, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature. Influential people with large followings also “perform” misinformation, driving a high proportion of false narratives online for popularity, or for financial or ideological gain. Some even admit under pressure that they are not engaged in good-faith discourse and should not be considered credible sources of information.
Misinformation is participatory.
As University of Washington researcher Kate Starbird and other members of the Election Integrity Partnership have pointed out, disinformation does not just flow from influencers and political elites to audiences in a top-down fashion. False narratives are also generated from the bottom-up. Nowhere was this circular and participatory cycle more apparent than in the swarm of election fraud rumors started by ordinary people who — primed to see “evidence” of fraud — spread misinterpretations about the routine actions of election workers. This same dynamic often fuels the spread of COVID-19 vaccine rumors that are based on misperceptions of standard medical practices.
While these takeaways may seem bleak, they do offer some good news. Researchers have refined their understanding of how misinformation is generated and why people are vulnerable to it, and are developing a more accurate picture of its true costs. The pandemic and the 2020 election increased the pressure on social media platforms to take more assertive action to minimize harm and enforce their existing community standards. Educators in schools across the country and around the world worked diligently to help steer their students through an increasingly sophisticated information environment.
Misinformation isn’t going to fade as a major concern anytime soon. But the lessons learned from this past year can help better equip us as we work to curb its spread in the future.
Viral rumor rundown
NO: COVID-19 vaccines do not magnetize your arm at the injection site. YES: This is a baseless hoax based on the widely debunked conspiracy theory that the vaccines contain microchips. NO: None of the available vaccines in the United States and Canada — including Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — list any metal-based ingredients, according to AFP Fact Check.
Discuss: Why do you think this hoax challenge is so popular online? What are some ways people could get magnets to stick to one arm and not the other?
Idea: Online posts debunking this false claim are also common on social media. Challenge students to find a high-quality debunk post, then review the best ones together as a class. What makes these effective? Which does the class think is most effective? Why?
NO: Black Lives Matter did not say it “stands with Hamas,” the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. YES: The organization said, in a May 17 tweet, that it “stands in solidarity with Palestinians.” YES: Fox News published the erroneous headline in the above screenshot. YES: The headline was later “updated to more closely reflect the Black Lives Matter tweet,” Fox said in an editor’s note.
Tip: Be wary of screenshots of news coverage that are not accompanied by a link to the actual story.
Discuss: Do you think that Fox News handled this error and correction properly? If not, what should it have done differently? What questions would you ask the editors in charge of this story if you could? How widespread was this rumor? Is it still circulating online?
NO: These photos do not show Vice President Kamala Harris pretending to board Air Force One using a replica plane and a green screen. YES: They show (at left) a partial replica of Air Force One at a Secret Service training facility in Maryland and (at right) a green screen that was part of a shoot for the television show Designated Survivor in 2017.
Note: Rumors about Biden administration activities being faked or staged are offshoots of the QAnon conspiracy belief system, which includes the delusion that former President Donald Trump is secretly still president. QAnon followers contend the Biden administration is merely a performance and commonly encourage one another to “enjoy the show” — often including popcorn emojis — in reference to what they believe is the final act of an elaborate scheme to prepare the public for Trump’s apocalyptic return to power.
NO: A Gallup poll of heterosexual couples who are married or living together did not find that men are more likely than women to do common household chores. YES: The results for men and women listed in this graphic reverse the actual findings published by Gallup in January 2020. YES: Another Facebook post containing a screenshot of this graphic — purportedly from MSNBC, with the same time stamp in the bottom right corner — displays the results correctly:
An April 9, 2020, Facebook post shared by two DJs at a country music radio station in Utah shows the same MSNBC graphic with the correct results of the Gallup poll.
This school year, News Goggles has aimed to help students think like journalists while reading news coverage. We’ve covered a lot of ground in a historic year — from wildfires to COVID-19, to the 2020 election and racial injustice. There’s value in putting on a pair of “news goggles” to see coverage through a journalist’s eyes while learning about key news literacy concepts, such as journalism standards, bias, sourcing and watchdog reporting. Use this guide to look back on previous News Goggles topics. Have any favorites?
★ Featured News Goggles resource: This guide offers a full list of News Goggles from the 2020-21 school year for easy reference, compiled chronologically with key concepts and geographic locations. It also organizes News Goggles resources by related Checkology® lessons. Think of this as your News Goggles cheat sheet!
While many students learn to assess texts through close reading, Sam Wineburg of Stanford University writes that this “same strategy spells doom” when it comes to evaluating information online. In fact, Wineburg writes that “often the wisest thing to do when landing on an unfamiliar site is to ignore it.” Wineburg’s research team found that most students, when tasked with investigating a website’s reliability, “stayed glued to the site,” giving attention to things they should actually ignore, such as the “About” page and other unreliable signals of credibility. Few discovered the website’s ties with the fossil fuel industry, but those who did practiced a skill Wineburg calls “lateral reading.” Rather than giving their attention to the site itself, these students opened new tabs to look for information — just like fact-checking pros would do.
Discuss: What steps do you normally take to determine whether an unfamiliar source online is reliable? Have you ever been tricked by a website’s design or appearance, “the presence of links to established sources, strings of scientific references or the sheer quantity of information a site provides”? How can such features be misleading when it comes to evaluating a site’s credibility? What kinds of things should be ignored online?
Idea: Have students evaluate the credibility of this website (referenced above). Do they think it is a reliable source for information on global warming? Ask them to record the steps they took to evaluate this source. How many stayed on the website? How many looked up information in new tabs? Did anyone discover the site’s ties to the fossil fuel industry? Have students share their findings. Then show them how to follow the lead of professional fact-checkers by first leaving an unfamiliar website to check other sources in new tabs.
Discuss: Why do authoritarian governments restrict press freedoms and persecute journalists? Why did the Belarusian government go to such lengths to arrest Roman Protasevich? What possible punishments might Protasevich face in retaliation for his journalism?
Idea: Use Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index to study the level of press freedoms in Belarus. Then ask small groups of students to explore the index on their own, and share one thing they learned that surprised them.
Discuss: Why are press freedoms and the safety of working journalists important when newsrooms cover violent conflicts like the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas? Why would people threaten and attack journalists? What problems can arise when areas experiencing armed conflict become unsafe for journalists?
Note: The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) board weighed in on the mayor’s recent decision in a statement and said, “Although we cannot support the tactic, we applaud the mayor’s sensitivity to the lack of diversity among the people who cover city government.” The board also added: “NABJ’s history of advocacy does not support excluding any bona fide journalists from one-on-one interviews with newsmakers, even if it is for one day and in support of activism.”
Discuss: Do you think Lightfoot’s decision worked “to highlight long-standing disparity in the racial representation of newsrooms,” as she hoped? Do you agree with NABJ’s statement? Can the mayor make an important point about newsroom racial disparities but be wrong to limit interview access? How does having diverse perspectives and backgrounds represented in a newsroom improve its coverage?