The parody conspiracy movement Birds Aren’t Real began as a “spontaneous joke“ but has evolved into a Gen Z-led “experiment in misinformation” that seeks to neutralize absurd conspiracy theories by responding in kind. “It’s about holding up a mirror to America in the internet age,” the movement’s 23-year-old founder, Peter McIndoe, told The New York Times in a Dec. 9 profile. And though he’s publicly remained in character since starting Birds Aren’t Real in 2017, McIndoe says it’s now time to own the hoax and begin working to fight conspiracism in earnest.
Key term:Poe’s Law: An internet maxim asserting that even the most absurd parodies of extreme or far-flung views are not self-evident and can easily be mistaken for genuine beliefs.
Discuss: Is it OK to share known falsehoods as a joke? What should people who do this consider in advance? Some people, including some journalists, initially thought that Birds Aren’t Real protests were genuine, and that the movement was made up of actual conspiracy theory believers. What does this suggest about our current information environment?
Idea: Challenge your students to get to the bottom of the Birds Aren’t Real movement (and hone their advanced search skills) using this narrative-driven, interactive student mission developed by NLP in collaboration with disinformation expert Cindy Otis.
Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to help students examine how people inside and outside the movement view this parody conspiracy theory.
The number of journalists imprisoned for their work worldwide has climbed to 293 in 2021 — a new record high, according to the annual prison census by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has tracked journalist imprisonments since 1992. This year’s total is up from 280 in 2020, CPJ said, with 50 journalists jailed in China alone. CPJ noted that the rising numbers point to “a growing intolerance of independent reporting.” They offer a grim reminder of mounting threats to press freedoms worldwide.
Idea: Divide students into groups and have them explore CPJ’s database of jailed journalists. Ask students to research some of the journalists in the database and share their findings. What stories were the journalists working on? What are some of the charges they face? Why do students think the journalists were targeted?
A new report from the misinformation research organization First Draft sheds light on misleading vaccine narratives in Hispanic and Latinx communities and examines what can be done to more effectively combat these dangerous falsehoods. One key finding: Closed network apps, including Telegram and WhatsApp, play an important role in spreading misinformation across these communities, and make it easier to avoid moderation efforts. The report’s recommendations include calling for social media platforms to give researchers greater access to data and to commit to increased transparency and more equitable enforcement of community standards.
Discuss: How do factors like culture, language, nationality, ethnicity and geopolitical history affect the way mis- and disinformation circulates in different communities? What personal experiences do you have with misinformation spreading among your family members or friends?
NO: Ugur Sahin, the CEO of BioNTech — the biotechnology company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine — did not refuse to take the vaccine. YES: The video in this tweet is from an interview with the German news outlet Deutsche Welle in December 2020. YES: Sahin said in that interview that he had not yet taken the vaccine because he was not eligible at that time. YES: Sahin told The Times of London in a September 2021 interview that he and his wife were both vaccinated in January 2021.
NewsLit takeaway: Simple tricks of context and other kinds of easy manipulations — sometimes called “cheap fakes” — are extremely common and are often just as effective as more sophisticated misinformation tactics. This post also contains several traits of a conspiracy theory. The premise itself (that Sahin “refuses” to take the vaccine) is conspiratorial in nature, and the phrase “WAKE UP!” is commonly used by conspiracy theorists. The video has also been manipulated to emphasize a moment in the interview in which a reporter misspoke, saying that Sahin and his wife “played such a central role in the development of the virus” when he clearly meant to say “the development of the vaccine.”
NO: Vice President Kamala Harris did not refer to unvaccinated people as “dirty Trump people.” YES: This is a fictional quote from an article published by Real Raw News, a satirical website with a disclaimer on its “About Us” page that says: “This website contains humor, parody, and satire.”
NewsLit takeaway: Outrageous quotes make for optimal viral content online — but they are often either misleading or inauthentic. In this case, a screenshot of an insulting but fictional quote satirically attributed to Harris circulated without an actual link or reference to the satire website where it was originally published. Satire, particularly when published to resemble news reports, is often mistaken for actual news online — and at times is “stolen” with the intent to deceive others. Satirical “news” content is also sometimes plagiarized and republished without satire labels or disclaimers by clickbait websites seeking to convert outrage into quick clicks.
You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
Journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines underscored the dangers journalists face in holding power to account and the critical need for facts in a democracy in her Nobel lecture as she accepted the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, an award she shares with Dmitry Muratov of Russia. “Without facts, you can’t have truth,” Ressa said. “Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy.” (Looking to bring this into the classroom? PBS NewsHour Classroom has you covered.)
Four Chicago newsrooms are taking steps to make their work and news coverage more inclusive, launching projects that include auditing past stories and examining how biases can shape “how communities are represented in overall coverage.”
Learn how the Florida Times-Union used Instagram to engage young people and reach a more diverse audience.
Documenting the aftermath and human toll of natural disasters is a difficult but essential task for newsrooms. These journalists share what it was like to cover the recent tornado outbreak in areas in Kentucky devastated by the storms.
Great journalism can inspire, challenge and — yep! — make other journalists smack their foreheads and say, “I wish I had written that!” Check out Bloomberg Businessweek’s Jealousy List 2021 for memorable pieces published over the last year.
This annual feature from Nieman Lab asked journalists and media professionals for their journalism predictions in 2022.