The Sift: MAGA March rumors | Front-page opinion | Debunking voter fraud


Teach news literacy this week
MAGA March rumors | Front-page opinion | Debunking voter fraud


Viral rumor rundown

YES: The two photos at the top of this Facebook post are authentic aerial shots of the MAGA March in support of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14. NO: The two photos at the bottom are not from the MAGA March. YES: They are aerial shots of the crowd at the Cleveland Cavaliers championship parade in 2016. YES: Aerial photos of crowds at a 2006 march in Dallas in support of immigration and at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., also circulated online falsely labeled as the Nov. 14 MAGA March, often accompanied by claims that “the media” misrepresented the size of the crowd.

★ Featured rumor resource: Teach your students how to vet crowd photo rumors on their own by playing "Context Catcher" with these classroom-ready slides.

Note: Photos of large crowds commonly circulate out of context to exaggerate support for political causes and candidates.

Also note: Using photos of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers championship parade has been a joke trolling meme since 2017.

Related: “Who needs deepfakes when bogus crowd photos get thousands of shares on Facebook?” (Daniel Funke, Poynter).


NO: This photo was not taken at the “Million MAGA March” in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14. YES: It is a photo of a vendor at a flea market in Farmington, Pennsylvania, in September.


NO: This TikTok video does not show someone who is destroying ballots cast for President Donald Trump. YES: It is a prank in which no actual ballots were involved. NO: The man who created it is not an election worker. YES: He shared on Facebook that he works for Amazon and that is why he is wearing a high-visibility vest.


NO: This video is not evidence of voter fraud. YES: The ballots in this viral Instagram video were discarded at a polling place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma. NO: They are not valid ballots and were not secretly or illegally discarded. YES: They are “spoiled ballots” from voters who made an error — such as marking two options instead of one — and were reissued a clean ballot. YES: As the Oklahoma State Election Board pointed out on Twitter, one such voter error is visible in the video itself:

Both options — YES and NO — are visibly marked for the retention of a state Supreme Court justice on this ballot from the viral video. You can view a sample ballot for Tulsa County here [PDF].


NO: Over 10,000 mail-in ballots were not fraudulently cast by people in Michigan who died before Election Day. YES: Some people who cast absentee or mail-in ballots in Michigan before the election may have died before Election Day. NO: Those votes are not counted in Michigan. YES: Michigan is part of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a nonprofit organization that assists 30 states and Washington D.C., in keeping their voter rolls up to date, including death records.

Note: This story from The Epoch Times — a far-right publication that is affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement — relies on a single source: Richard Baris, who identifies himself as a data journalist and director of the public opinion research company Big Data Poll. Baris has made other false claims about ineligible voters in the 2020 election.

Also note: The Epoch Times later changed the above headline to “Dead People Cast Ballots in Michigan, Data Researcher Alleges,” which still uncritically amplifies a claim that lacks credible evidence. The publication also updated the story “with further comments from the Michigan Department of State as well as comments from the Public Interest Legal Foundation spokesman” and added the following “correction,” which treats the baseless assertion as though it’s true until proven false:

Discuss: Do the revised headline and correction on the updated version of the story make the story fair and accurate? If not, how should they have been written? How does the correction exemplify the “argument from ignorance” logical fallacy? What standards of quality journalism does this example fail to live up to?

Note: The Epoch Times has still not called the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The headline of a Nov. 8 report (last updated on Nov. 16) bears the headline “Election Outcome Unclear Amid Pending Recounts and Legal Challenges.” Its election map still shows six states as uncalled due to “ongoing litigation or other challenges by the candidates.” Screenshots of the map have circulated out of context online.

Related: “After Biden Win, Right-Wing Sites Still Push False Vote-Fraud Claims” (Tiffany Hsu and Katie Robertson, The New York Times).

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Nov. 11 promoted an editorial across the top of its front page about two Republican senators who criticized “Georgia’s election system” but “offered no specifics.” The placement choice above the news organization’s name is atypical — and attracted attention. The placement also raises questions about how prominently opinion pieces should be featured. Let’s take a closer look as we consider the differences between news and opinion as well as the role of an editorial board at a standards-based news organization. Time to grab your news goggles!

★ Featured News Goggles resources: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations, discussion questions and a teaching idea related to this week’s topic.


Note: An editorial board is traditionally a team that includes veteran journalists in the opinion department of a news organization. This department is separate and independent from the news department. The board is seen as the voice of the publication’s opinions, but its purpose is not to represent the views of newsroom staffers. Through articles known as editorials, this team shares opinions on major issues of public importance.

Discuss: What do you think of the front-page promotion of the editorial? Is the fact that it’s on the front page confusing? Are the opinions of editorial boards particularly valuable? Do they play an important role in shaping public discussion and debate in democracy? Why or why not?

Idea: Direct students to find a piece written by the editorial board of a local news organization. Then ask them: Where did you find it? How was it labeled? Could it have been labeled more clearly? Did the editorial support its argument with evidence?

Resources: “InfoZones” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom), “Understanding Bias” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom) and Informable® (NLP’s free mobile app).


★ Sift Picks


“The Times Called Officials in Every State: No Evidence of Voter Fraud” (Nick Corasaniti, Reid J. Epstein and Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times).

How did The New York Times conclude that there was “no evidence” of fraud impacting the outcome of the 2020 presidential race? They asked the people who would know. Journalists “contacted the offices of the top election officials in every state on Monday and Tuesday to ask whether they suspected or had evidence of illegal voting.” Here’s their key finding: “…none reported any major voting issues.”

This is how journalism works. Much of it is unglamorous — working the phones, leaving messages, pressing sources for clear answers. It can be easy to overlook the time and labor behind news reports like this one. Times reporters shed light on what made such a direct assertion in this headline possible by transparently explaining their reporting process. In doing so, they also highlighted how journalists find answers to questions of public importance.

Note: This piece generated some debate on social media over whether the Times should have dedicated so much manpower to investigating baseless voter fraud claims that many feel are more motivated by politics than substance.

Discuss: How do standards-based news organizations draw conclusions like the one presented in this headline? How did Times journalists gather information for this story? Does this story amplify a baseless falsehood about fraud, as some suggest? Or was it important for a newspaper as big as the Times to report on this? Do students like the headline? What headline would they have written for this piece?

Idea: Ask students to annotate this news report and pay careful attention to sources (the individuals or organizations that provided important or relevant information on this subject). How many sources does this report cite? Direct students to circle each source interviewed or quoted in this piece. Have them consider what makes each source trustworthy or authoritative. Are any relevant perspectives or voices left out? If so, which ones?

Resource: “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).


Quick Picks

Opinion: “The drip, drip, drip of misinformation on COVID-19 vaccine” (Claire Wardle, The Boston Globe).

  • Discuss: Vaccines have repeatedly been proven safe and effective, yet misinformation continuously circulates about them. Why? Is vaccine misinformation dangerous? If someone decides not to take a vaccine, what impact can this decision have on other people? If enough people refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine once it is released, what could happen? How are broad misinformation narratives different from specific false claims? How can too much information about an important topic be as problematic for people as a lack of information (called “data deficits” or “data voids”)?
  • Note: This interview clip with a South Dakota emergency room nurse underscores how COVID-19 misinformation can be a matter of life and death.
  • Related: “Pfizer Said a Vaccine Was Almost Here. Anti-Vaxxers Lost It.” (Kelly Weill, The Daily Beast).

“Americans Were Primed To Believe The Current Onslaught Of Disinformation” (Kaleigh Rogers, FiveThirtyEight).

  • Discuss: How can bad information actors “prime” an audience for disinformation in advance of a major event? How do “priming” and confirmation bias work together to mislead people? What made the 2020 election a perfect storm for election disinformation? How can feelings of anxiety, curiosity and uncertainty lead to an increase in false and conspiratorial beliefs?
  • Idea: Ask students to create an infographic of how the core concepts in this piece might affect people’s perceptions of the election. These concepts include “priming” (preparing an audience to think about a subject in specific ways and to accept false or misleading claims), confirmation bias (the tendency to seek and accept information that supports our existing beliefs, values and ideas about the world) and the “illusory truth effect” (the tendency to believe that there is some truth to claims we see repeatedly, even when they’re entirely false).

“L.A. Times To Settle Pay-Disparity Lawsuit” (A Martínez, Take Two, KPCC). Segment begins at 17:22.

  • Discuss: What is the class-action lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times about? How is Meg James, a Times’ media reporter, covering this story? How did the racial justice protests during the summer of 2020 impact the Times newsroom, according to this interview? How does newsroom diversity improve the coverage of a news organization? What problems can occur when newsrooms, including leadership positions, do not reflect the diversity of the communities they cover?
  • Note: In a Twitter thread on Nov. 15, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Patricia Escárcega shared her experience with pay disparities at the paper — along with the news that her pay discrimination claim was denied.
  • Related: “Our reckoning with racism” (Los Angeles Times).

“How To Teach Kids Media Literacy” (Caroline Bologna, HuffPost).

  • Discuss: What skills and abilities do media-literate people have? How do these skills help empower people? If people in a democracy are not media-literate, what might happen?
  • Idea: In groups, ask students to begin mapping out what media literacy could look like if it were implemented in their school district. Ask them to organize key skills and concepts for different grade levels.

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.