The Sift: Gen Z and ‘Birds Aren’t Real’ | Imprisoned journalists | Stolen satire


Teach news literacy this week
Gen Z and 'Birds Aren't Real' | Imprisoned journalists | Stolen satire

Note: The Sift is taking a winter break. We’ll be back in your inbox on Monday, Jan. 10.
classroom-ready icon Dig deeper: Don’t miss this week’s classroom-ready resource.

Top picks

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.
  • Resource: “Conspiratorial Thinking” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
  • Related: “The Great (Fake) Child-Sex-Trafficking Epidemic” (Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Atlantic).
classroom-ready icon 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.
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.

Viral rumor rundown

Old video used to push false claim that BioNTech CEO ‘refuses’ to take the vaccine

A tweet containing a video of BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin being interviewed. The text of the tweet reads, 'Dr Ugur Sahin CEO of BioNTech and inventor of the BIO N TECH Pfizer jab refuses to take the jab for safety reasons. WAKE UP!' The News Literacy Project has added a label that says 'FALSE.'

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.”


Fabricated quote from satire site falsely attributed to Vice President Kamala Harris

 A tweet that says “Lolol! Oh no she didn’t, she has some nerve!” and includes a screenshot of a photo of Vice President Kamala Harris with a headline that reads “Kamala Harris Calls Unvaccinated ‘Dirty Trump People.’” The News Literacy Project has added a label that says “STOLEN SATIRE.”

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.
Kickers: Journalism slang. The ending of a story or nes report, often intended to leave a lasting impression.
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.)
Though much remains unknown about the new omicron variant, widespread misinformation about it is already taking hold.
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.

Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) and Pamela Brunskill (@PamelaBrunskill), and edited by 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.