The Sift: Misinformation generation | Ballot rumors | L.A. Times’ ‘history of racism’


Teach news literacy this week
Misinformation generation | Ballot rumors | L.A. Times' 'history of racism'


Misinformation cuts across generations

Two new studies tap into the growing interest in generational differences when it comes to misinformation savvy. The big takeaway? While it’s easy to blame others for spreading so-called fake news, young and old alike struggle to navigate today’s tangled information landscape.

A report from the Reboot Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes critical thinking, examines the online behaviors of 150 respondents across two age groups: those 60 and older and younger adults ages 18 to 30. The study paints a nuanced picture of how age might impact a person’s ability to shun clickbait, recognize legitimate news headlines and assess the credibility of websites. Older Americans, for instance, preferred clickbait headlines over neutral headlines more than their younger counterparts, but old and young both overestimate their own skills in identifying unreliable websites.

A separate study released last week zeroes in on coronavirus misinformation and suggests that younger Americans are more likely to buy into false claims about the virus. The study, a joint project of researchers from Northeastern University, Harvard University, Rutgers University and Northwestern University, surveyed 21,196 people about 11 bogus claims related to COVID-19. The youngest group – ages 18 to 24 — had an 18% probability of believing virus-related misinformation, compared with just 9% for those 65 or older. (But it’s worth noting that a 2019 study found that those over 65 shared nearly seven times as many false articles during the 2016 presidential campaign cycle as the youngest cohort surveyed.)

Taken together, these studies suggest there are no easy answers or single generational culprit for spreading falsehoods online. Instead, recognizing that everyone is vulnerable to viral misinformation can help efforts to curb its spread.

Note: Not all misleading content is created equal. Claire Wardle and the team at First Draft offer a helpful guide that suggests ditching umbrella labels like “fake news” in favor of more nuanced terms such as misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.
Resource: “Misinformation” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
Idea: Have students replicate part of the Reboot Foundation report by discussing their own confidence in detecting unreliable websites. Then, have them peruse two websites (here and here) to decide if they can be trusted. Challenge students to defend their reasoning before revealing that neither website is a reliable source of information. In fact, both are funded by groups with significant conflicts of interest, despite efforts to appear objective. Refer to the Reboot study for a more detailed overview of why these websites should not be trusted.
Another Idea: Ask students to discuss online habits with older relatives and compare how they determine what information can be trusted. Do both the students and their older relatives always read content carefully before sharing it on social media? Or have students take NLP’s “Should you share it?” quiz and compare their results with those of older relatives.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: The envelopes in these photos do not contain ballots. YES: They are empty envelopes that once contained mail-in ballots from the 2018 midterm election, and were retained for 22 months under state law. YES: They were recently discovered in a landfill in Petaluma, California, near Sonoma. NO: They are not related to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. NO: Mail-in ballots will not be sent out in Sonoma County until early October.

Note: In a separate incident, nine mail-in ballots cast by voters in the military — seven of which were for President Donald Trump — were erroneously discarded on Sept. 14 by a temporary staff worker in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, who may have thought they were invalid. The discarded ballots were found in a waste basket by another elections official and the incident was reported to law enforcement agencies. NO: The FBI did not say that the discarded Pennsylvania ballots were found in a ditch.


NO: This is not an authentic tweet from President Donald Trump. YES: It’s a fake tweet created to look like an authentic tweet from Trump. YES: As a Republican candidate for president in March 2016, Trump said, at least twice, that then-President Barack Obama should let the next president pick a Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016.

Note: Online fake tweet generators make it easy to create convincing images of tweets from any account one chooses. When these fake images go viral, they are often accompanied by a claim that the tweet has since been deleted, to explain why it doesn’t appear in the feed of the person being impersonated.

Tip: Tweets that are actually posted then deleted by public figures are archived on ProPublica’s Politwoops website. Trump’s tweets and public comments are also archived on and in the Trump Twitter Archive.

★ Featured rumor resource: Use this short slide deck to work through this example of misinformation with students. The slides first challenge students to complete a quick search to see if they can determine whether the alleged Trump tweet is authentic. Then they learn other strategies and tools they can use to verify the authenticity of tweets from public figures.

Another tip: Fake tweets allow the creator to enter a date, time stamp and engagement metrics. So when multiple screenshots of a controversial tweet have identical numbers of retweets and likes and the exact same date and time stamp, it’s a red flag. The date and time stamp on authentic tweets display in the end user’s local time zone, and the engagement metrics change constantly.


NO: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden did not use a teleprompter during an interview with José Díaz-Balart on Noticias Telemundo on Sept. 15. YES: Biden was watching video of a Telemundo viewer asking him a question. NO: Biden did not later say, “I lost that line,” when the screen went black. YES: Biden said, “I lost that lady.”


NO: Joe Biden did not botch the Pledge of Allegiance in a recent speech. YES: The above quote is technically accurate, but taken significantly out of context. NO: Biden was not trying to accurately recite the pledge when he said this. YES: Video of the speech clearly shows that this meme is misleading.


NO: A Christian group that Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is affiliated with did not inspire Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale on which the popular television series is based. YES: Barrett has connections to People of Praise, an interdenominational, faith-based organization whose members are assigned an adviser to help guide their life decisions. YES: The group once used the term “head” for advisers who are men, and “handmaid” for advisers who are women. YES: People of Praise endorses the belief that husbands are the heads of their households. YES: The group stopped using the terms “head” and “handmaid” some time after Atwood’s novel became popular. YES: Atwood told The New York Times in 1986 that the novel was inspired by “a Catholic charismatic spinoff sect, which calls the women handmaids.” YES: In subsequent interviews about the book, Atwood has indicated that a different organization that refers to wives as “handmaids” — called People of Hope — was the inspiration for her novel. YES: Newsweek published a report (original here, corrected version of the story here) on Sept. 21 with a headline that included the false claim that People of Praise (the group to which Barrett belongs) was Atwood’s inspiration.

Note: The original headline on the Newsweek article was “How Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise Group Inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’” It was later revised to “How Charismatic Catholic Groups Like Amy Coney Barrett's People of Praise Inspired 'The Handmaid's Tale.'” Select passages of the original piece, including the lead, were also changed and Newsweek added a correction to clarify the update.


Idea: In groups, have students search social media platforms to investigate and document this rumor. Each group might then produce a summary, timeline, map or other representation of how this false claim emerged and spread online.

Discuss: Did Newsweek handle the correction and updating of its Sept. 21 article in a clear, responsible manner? What, if anything, could it have done differently?


News Goggles

News organizations race to relay information to audiences as quickly as possible when major stories break. One way they do this is by sending breaking news alerts to people who have their apps installed on their mobile devices. This week, we’ve selected a sample of alerts sent on Sept. 23, following the decision by a grand jury not to charge any officers in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky — and to charge one of them in connection with shooting into a neighboring apartment.

Let’s use our news goggles to examine these alerts and consider what factors shaped their wording in journalists’ efforts to be fair, accurate and fast. Download our full annotations in Microsoft Word or as a PDF. Also, these classroom-ready slides pinpoint the big takeaways for a discussion with students.

Related: “How the media handled Wednesday’s Breonna Taylor ruling” (Tom Jones, Poynter).

Idea: Have students compare and contrast headlines of Breonna Taylor coverage from a selection of Sept. 24 front pages published across the United States. What details do some include, but not others? Which headline does the class think is the best? Why? If the class had to write a headline for this story, what would it be?


★ Sift Picks

Hannah:  “What To Do If Your Family Or Friend Shares Misinformation On Facebook” (Brittany Wong, HuffPost).

Stepping into the role of fact-checker when it comes to friends and family on Facebook can be tricky, but it’s a scenario worth prepping for as more falsehoods spread online. According to the experts cited in this article, the tone and method of your response — public comment versus private message — are key considerations. They also recommend avoiding “gotcha” moments, finding common ground and doing your homework before setting the record straight.

Discuss: How does creating a “gotcha” moment differ from taking a more empathetic approach to pointing out misinformation online? What kind of post or message would you respond best to if someone contacted you over something that you’ve shared on social media?

Idea: Have students bring in an example of a friend, relative or stranger sharing a piece of misinformation on social media. Then have students fact-check the claim and gather trustworthy sources before coming up with several possible scenarios for addressing the situation. The best scenarios will include establishing common ground and using tactful language. Run through the scenarios together and decide as a class which responses students would be most receptive to if the roles were reversed.


Peter:  “Editorial: An examination of The Times’ failures on race, our apology and a path forward” (The Times Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times).

The Los Angeles Times' editorial board on Sunday published a “self-examination” and a broad apology for what it described as the paper’s “history of racism” and its inadequate coverage of communities of color. The editorial said The Times has at best displayed a blind spot and “at worst an outright hostility” to the city’s nonwhite population. The problem, according to the editorial, is “both rooted and reflected in a shortage of Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian and other people of color” in the newsroom. The piece is part of a larger project at the paper to examine its “treatment of people of color — outside and inside the newsroom — throughout [its] nearly 139-year history.” The project was also prompted by a recent national reckoning on systemic racism.

Note: This is a good opportunity to teach students what an editorial board is, and the differences between an editorial and a column.

Also note: This tweet thread from L.A. Times reporter Esmeralda Bermudez highlights the lack of Latinos in leadership positions at the paper.

Discuss: Should other news organizations with a history of coverage that was racist or harmful to communities of color also apologize? How can newsrooms work to ensure their newsrooms, including their leadership, are diverse? Should the demographics of a newsroom match those of the community it serves? How might more representative demographics affect coverage?

Idea: Have students annotate this editorial, underlining anything they find particularly notable and highlighting sections that raise questions. Collect questions from the class and include them in a tweet or an email to The Times’ editorial board.

Another idea: Have students examine historical coverage by their own local newspaper (or another local outlet) and decide whether they believe a similar self-examination and apology are warranted. After confirming no such piece or series has already been published, contact newsroom leaders to make the case for one to run in the future.


Suzannah: “Maria Ressa Says Disinformation Is More Insidious Than We Think” (Gregory Barber, Wired).

Let me disclose up front that I am a Maria Ressa superfan. Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of Rappler, an independent news website in the Philippines, has been in the crosshairs of the Rodrigo Duterte administration. She was convicted of cyber libel — a ruling viewed as a politically-motivated effort to curtail journalism — and faces possible imprisonment. Still, Ressa continues to be a brave, tireless crusader for democracy and the truth, and serves as a worldwide symbol of press freedoms. This article details Ressa’s views about Facebook and the need for the company to do more to combat falsehoods, while also touching on her approach toward embracing her fear.

Related: “Maria Ressa: Facebook is ‘biased against facts’” (Brian Stelter, CNN’s Reliable Sources).

Note: Ressa is a member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a new watchdog group.

Another note: Rappler is a Facebook fact-checking partner. In an interview with Wired’s Steven Levy about his book, Facebook: The Inside Story, Ressa said, “We work very closely with Facebook and I keep saying we're frenemies.”

Resource: “Press Freedoms Around the World” (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).

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.