The Sift: Misinformation ‘Casebook’ | Election rumors | Targeted voters


Teach news literacy this week
Misinformation ‘Casebook’ | Election rumors | Targeted voters


Misinformation ‘Casebook’

Misinformation, from falsehoods to conspiracy theories, threatens our public health and the integrity of our elections. Now, a new online resource lays out specific examples of coordinated misinformation efforts and explains how they work. The Media Manipulation Casebook maps out current and previous “media manipulation and disinformation campaigns” to help educators, journalists, researchers and others understand how to detect and debunk them. The project was created by a team of researchers at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and led by Joan Donovan, its research director.

The resource features a collection of more than a dozen case studies that analyze misinformation campaigns — including where they originated, and when and how they spread. One case study details how “distributed amplification” led to the viral spread in May of Plandemic, a video purporting to preview a “documentary” involving a variety of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Another case study on the February 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, explains the way bad actors online pushed disinformation about the identity of the suspected shooter as news of the incident unfolded. A couple of case studies describe “butterfly attacks” — which occur when imposters pretend to be a member of a group in an effort to divide, confuse and spread disinformation among the group.

Note: Some of the casebook’s researchers are hosting online sessions to discuss their work as part of Disinformation Awareness Week, which begins Oct. 26.
Discuss: Why are breaking news events and political contests breeding grounds for misinformation?
Idea: Pick five case studies and evenly divide students into five groups, each of which will examine one case study and become “experts” on it. Ask students to note how the misinformation spread, the tactics used, any new concepts and terms, where the misinformation appeared, and whether standards-based news organizations reported on the misinformation. Then have one member of each group share what they learned about their case with students from other groups.
Resources: “Misinformation” and “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

Viral rumor rundown

NO: The photo (above left) of the rappers Ice Cube and 50 Cent wearing “Trump 2020” hats is not authentic. YES: The photo (above right) of Ice Cube, wearing a hat with the Big3 basketball league logo, and 50 Cent, wearing a New York Yankees hat, is authentic. YES: Ice Cube tweeted the original photo on July 6. YES: Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, tweeted and later deleted the doctored image on Oct. 20. YES: Ice Cube recently discussed his “Contract With Black America” with the Trump campaign. YES: 50 Cent criticized Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s plan to raise taxes on people making more than $400,000 a year in a recent post on Instagram (warning: foul language).

Note: Photos that include messages printed on clothing and signs — including placards, protest signs and billboards — are easy to manipulate. They are a common type of doctored image.

★ Featured rumor resource: Eric Trump deleted this tweet hours after he posted it. So how can you know he really tweeted it? Can you find a copy of this deleted tweet online that you can be certain is legitimate? These classroom-ready slides use this example to teach students how to search web archives to find deleted webpages, including tweets.


NO: This image is not an authentic tweet from President Donald Trump. YES: This is a fake tweet that circulated following the release of controversial footage involving former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (a personal lawyer for Trump) caught up in a prank by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Note: The Twitter account that shared this fake tweet contains clear signs that it’s unreliable, including its name — “Rogue WH Snr Advisor” — and profile bio (which reads “Top 10 Twitter account according to my blog ‘The Top 10 Accounts on Twitter’”).

Also note: Convincing images of fake tweets are extremely easy to produce. If you see a screenshot of an outrageous tweet by a public figure, remain skeptical.

Tip: Deleted tweets from President Trump and other public officials are tracked and documented on ProPublica’s Politwoops website.


NO: The video clip in this Facebook post does not show a Maryland poll worker changing votes on a ballot. YES: It shows an election worker darkening an oval that the voter had filled in too lightly, following the accepted protocol in Montgomery County, according to local election officials.

Note: Baseless rumors about voter fraud have become increasingly common in the weeks leading up to the election.


NO: President Trump did not say “good” in response to Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s comment that the current administration has lost track of the parents of 525 children it detained at the border. YES: Trump said to the moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News, “go ahead.” YES: Lawyers tasked with searching for families separated at the border by the Trump administration say they are still trying to locate parents for 545 children (not 525, as Biden said). YES: Many people shared the inaccurate quote on Twitter last week.

Note: Confirmation bias — or the tendency to process information through the lens of our own biases — can cause people to conclude things that aren’t true from footage of the candidates. For example, another rumor last week circulated after a viewer misidentified a notepad on Joe Biden’s podium as an iPad.


NO: Biden did not say he’s going to tax 401(k) retirement accounts. YES: Biden has proposed changing the current tax deduction for 401(k) plan contributions to a standard refundable tax credit estimated at 26%. YES: This change means each taxpayer would receive a flat benefit for contributions, rather than one increasing in proportion to their taxable incomes. This would increase the tax benefit for people with lower incomes and reduce the benefit for people with higher incomes.

Note: This is a “sheer assertion,” or a claim made without any sources or other forms of attempted evidence.

Discuss: Why do you think “sheer assertions” go viral online? Have you ever been tempted to believe a social media post making a claim without any evidence?


Journalists at the Sacramento Bee, a major daily newspaper in California, say they are pushing back against a controversial proposal that could tie their pay to the page views and number of clicks that their online stories attract. News of the proposal sparked swift criticism online last week, especially among journalists, who condemned the policy as “demeaning,” “shameful” and “so appalling.” A petition to “Stop Pay-for-Clicks” at the Bee has attracted more than 1,800 signatures as of Oct. 26.

In a letter dated Sept. 30 and posted to Twitter on Oct. 19, members of the Sacramento Bee News Guild — a group of unionized Bee employees — wrote that such a policy would “create incentives to pursue clickbait headlines over in-depth, accountable journalism that serves the community.” This week, let’s examine the controversy at the Bee by comparing two news reports mentioned in the letter. The first, according to the letter, represents the kind of headlines that generate reader complaints and do little to serve the newsroom’s regional audience, while the other exemplifies local watchdog reporting. Grab your news goggles. Let’s dive in!

★ Featured News Goggles resource: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations and questions on this week’s topic.


★ Sift Picks

Hannah: “False Political News in Spanish Pits Latino Voters Against Black Lives Matter” (Patricia Mazzei and Jennifer Medina, The New York Times).

From lede to kicker, this important piece offers striking — and disheartening — examples of how misinformation ahead of the election is pitting “Latino and Black voters against one another” through a range of tactics, such as citing racist language, exploiting fears of socialism and relying on difficult-to-track messaging platforms like WhatsApp. One key target? Latino voters in Florida, a battleground state in an election cycle that stands out from others for the “scale and extreme nature of misinformation.” Though there are growing efforts to offer Spanish-language fact-checks, this news report underscores the very real consequences of allowing misinformation to spread and sow fear and division.

Discuss: Why would disinformation efforts be targeting Latino and Black voters specifically? What type of emotions are effective for dividing people? What type of emotions tend to be stoked by racist content? How can misinformation discourage someone from voting at all?



Peter: “Facebook Promised To Label Political Ads, But Ads For Biden, The Daily Wire, And Interest Groups Are Slipping Through” (Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac, BuzzFeed News).

One of the most substantive changes that Facebook made to the way it handles political ads following the 2016 U.S. presidential election — when Russian operatives and others targeted voters on the platform — was to add “Paid for by” disclosures to “all election-related and issue ads on Facebook and Instagram in the US.” But researchers with the NYU Online Political Ads Transparency Project have repeatedly discovered political ads that do not have these disclosures and are not archived in the platform’s Ad Library. The data is provided to the team at NYU by more than 6,000 people who have voluntarily installed its Ad Observatory browser plug-in, which scrapes Facebook ad data. The missed ads have been criticized as a lapse in Facebook’s transparency and accountability for the targeted political advertisements it sells.

Note: The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 23 reported (paywall) that Facebook has asked the team of NYU researchers to shut down the Ad Observatory plug-in and has threatened further action if they don’t comply.


Discuss: How much transparency should Facebook provide about the political ads it sells? Why might Facebook not want any independent monitoring of the political ads it sells?

Idea: Have students explore the NYU Ad Observatory data for political ads related to the 2020 election in their home state.


Suzannah: “Wall Street Journal Opinion and News Side Divided on Hunter Biden” (Gene Maddaus, Variety).

This Variety report highlights conflicting coverage by the news and opinion sides of The Wall Street Journal over Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, his son Hunter and an alleged Chinese business deal of Hunter’s. Maddaus points out that the recent friction — with “the opinion columns hyping the story and the news pages playing it down” — adds to “ongoing tension between the two sides of the paper.” Nearly 300 news staffers signed a letter to the publisher earlier this year, criticizing the opinion side for insufficient fact-checking, transparency and evidence, and arguing that it was damaging the news organization’s brand. The editorial board responded that it would not cave to pressure from the newsroom.

Note: At standards-based news organizations, the news and opinion departments typically operate independently from one another. The letter called for more separation at the Journal, according to Variety.

Also note: Kimberley Strassel, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, hosts a lesson on arguments and evidence for NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom.


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).

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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.