The Sift: Mob reality | Antifa falsely accused | Riot or coup?


Teach news literacy this week
Mob reality | Antifa falsely accused | Riot or coup?

NOTE: There will be no issue of The Sift next Monday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day). We’ll return to your inbox on Monday, Jan. 25.
WARNING: Some content in this week's issue includes disturbing language, images and video footage, including profanity, racist slurs, hate symbols and violence.

Mob reality

When the mob of extremists, conspiracists and zealous supporters of President Donald Trump violently raided the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many of its members behaved in person how they have generally acted online. They propagated disinformation, spewed hate, stoked violence, disregarded the law and overwhelmed authorities vastly outnumbered and ill-equipped to handle the onslaught. The consequences were deadly.

The crush of militia members, White nationalists, QAnon believers, “boomerwaffen” and ordinary Americans represented an alternative information ecosystem come dangerously to life — a physical demonstration of the “vanishing line between mainstream and fringe” political beliefs. The insurrection was a product of a circular and self-sustaining echo chamber of false political claims, propaganda from openly partisan media, conspiracy theories and disinformation that has been escalating — largely unchecked — for years.

Here are three points of focus for educators seeking to guide students through the news literacy implications of this shocking event.


Viral rumor rundown

NO: The facial recognition company XRVision did not identify supporters of the antifa movement among the mob who stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6. YES: The openly conservative Washington Times published a report falsely claiming that XRVision had “matched two Philadelphia antifa members to two men inside the Senate.” NO: This is not true. YES: The Times removed the story from its website on Jan. 7 and replaced it with a new version with a correction. YES: Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz cited the incorrect report in remarks he made on the House floor after the Capitol was secured and repeated the false claim that some of the rioters were “members of the violent terrorist group Antifa.”

Note: Antifa is an unofficial anti-fascism movement and not an established organization.



NO: Capitol Police officers did not simply let this pro-Trump mob through the barricades surrounding the Capitol building on Jan. 6. YES: Marcus DiPaola, the freelance journalist who shot this video and posted it to TikTok as part of his coverage of the Capitol riots, told PolitiFact that the police “definitely didn’t just open the barriers.” YES: A number of other videos show vastly outnumbered Capitol Police fighting to protect the Capitol, including at an initial barrier on the perimeter of the Capitol grounds. YES: Some video clips also seem to show police not resisting the rioters, and at least one police officer appeared to allow a rioter to take a selfie with him.



NO: This photo does not show Senate aides protecting Electoral College votes as the Senate chamber was evacuated on Jan. 6. YES: It shows aides carrying the ballot boxes from the Senate to the House chamber to be certified about an hour before rioters breached the Capitol building. YES: Parliamentary floor staff were credited with saving the ballot boxes from the mob.


NO: This video is not footage of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building. YES: It is footage of disability rights activists protesting proposed Medicaid cuts in a Republican health care bill at the Capitol in June 2017.


NO: This photo does not show crowds of Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021, the day before the Capitol riot. YES: It shows people participating in the “March for Our Lives” protest in 2018.

Note: Using photos of large crowds in false contexts is a common disinformation tactic used to exaggerate the level of support for a cause.

Also note: This same photo was used out of context to exaggerate attendance at the second “MAGA March” in December 2020 and was the subject of our featured rumor resource in the Dec. 14 issue of The Sift.

On Jan. 3, The Washington Post broke the news about a recorded telephone conversation between President Donald Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, during which the president pressed Raffensperger to “‘find’ enough votes to overturn his defeat” to President-elect Joe Biden. Other news reports on the leaked recording soon followed, with news organizations such as CNN crediting the Post as being the first to break the story.

The Post’s initial reporting — labeled “exclusive” — is, by any standard, a major story, and has even been called “the scoop of the year.” In journalism, a “scoop” refers to an important news story first reported by a particular news organization or reporter(s). (Journalists call this “breaking” the story.) This week, we’re going to explore how journalists balance the desire to be first on a competitive, quickly developing story with the need for accuracy. Let’s examine the original Post report and analyze how other news organizations chased and verified this scoop. Grab your news goggles. Let’s go!

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

Note: Information “leaked” to the press has historically played an important role in watchdog journalism to hold the powerful accountable. The New York Times recently published journalist Neil Sheehan’s account of how he obtained the leaked Pentagon Papers, a “blockbuster scoop” on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Sheehan, who died Jan. 7, asked that the story remain unpublished while he was alive.

Related: “Trump’s phone call to Georgia was illegal, immoral or unconstitutional. Here’s how some journalists decide what to call it.” (Kelly McBride, Poynter).

Discuss: How should journalists balance speed and accuracy in reporting? Why is information sometimes “leaked” or shared with journalists? Can journalists trust the information that is leaked to them? What are some ways to fact-check or verify raw information, such as a phone recording? Why might standards-based news organizations pursue certain “scoops” over others? How is the Post’s report an example of watchdog journalism?

Idea: Ask students to put themselves in reporters’ shoes and imagine that someone had sent them a copy of the phone recording. What should they do next? Should they immediately report on the recording and release it, or should they take other steps to verify this piece of raw information? Who could they contact to make sure it is authentic? How should they determine if the source of the recording is credible? Finally, how should they decide which excerpts of the hour-long call are most important to feature in a news report to be fair and accurate?

Resources: “Practicing Quality Journalism,” “Democracy’s Watchdog,” “What is News?” and “InfoZones” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).


★ Sift Picks


“How to describe the events at the U.S. Capitol” (John Daniszewski, AP Style Blog).

As journalists raced to document the historic and violent events unfolding at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, newsrooms across the country debated how to describe these events in news coverage. Stories filed by reporters included words like protest, riot, insurrection, mob and coup. In this piece, The AP Stylebook — which offers editing rules and language guidance followed by many news organizations— weighed in with a series of recommendations, including advising journalists to avoid the term “coup,” unless attributed to others, because “so far AP has not seen conclusive evidence that the protesters’ specific aim was to take over the government.” For newsrooms grappling with these decisions on deadline, this broader advice stands out: “As always, journalists should look at the events with an open and dispassionate mind and decide what language best applies.”


Note: Journalists at the Toledo Blade say management “manipulated wording in headlines, stories, and photo captions to alter the reality of what occurred” on Jan. 6, including avoiding describing rioters as Trump supporters in headlines. The Blade’s news guild announced a temporary byline strike, removing journalists’ names from stories.

Idea: Have students compare and contrast newspaper coverage from a selection of Jan. 7 front pages. Ask students to pick two to three publications and focus on word choice in headlines, photo captions and opening paragraphs. How does the news coverage describe the people involved in the Jan. 6 events (rioters, protesters, Trump supporters, extremists, insurrectionists, etc.)? How do reporters describe the events (riot, coup, insurrection, siege, protest, etc.)? What details do some reports include, but not others? Which word choices do students think are most appropriate? Why? If the class had to write a headline for this story, what would it be?

Another Idea: Read this piece from WUSA-TV, a CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., which explains what “insurrection” means. Then, in light of this definition, discuss whether students agree with The AP Stylebook’s stance on the term, which argues that using the term to describe the events of Jan. 6 could “be justified” in news coverage. 


Quick Picks

“This Pro-Trump YouTube Network Sprang Up Just After He Lost” (Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed News).

  • Note: The Epoch Times is an openly partisan, far-right media outlet that mimics the appearance of a legitimate, standards-based news organization but has repeatedly lent credence to baseless conspiracy theories. It regularly publishes highly misleading political coverage and is connected to the dissident Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong.
  • Discuss What does it mean for a news organization to be “transparent” and “independent”? How can presenting groundless conspiracy theories as valid subjects of inquiry be dangerous? What standards of quality journalism does the Epoch Times’ YouTube channel scheme violate? Why do you think these YouTube channels were able to grow such a large audience, despite lacking credibility? If a large portion of the population believes “‘they are viewing news when they are really seeing dark propaganda,’” what problems could arise? Does YouTube have a responsibility to make sure people understand the nature of the videos they are watching?

“How to reduce the spread of fake news — by doing nothing” (Tom Buchanan, NiemanLab).

  • Discuss: Does responding to or commenting on misinformation online make the problem of misinformation better or worse? Why? What can social media companies do to fix the problem of algorithms amplifying misinformation (e.g., interpreting all reactions, even those correcting or condemning a post, as signs it should be recommended to others)? How can fact-checkers and others interested in correcting the record do so without repeating and reinforcing falsehoods?
  • Idea: Ask students to reflect on their social media behaviors related to news of the U.S. Capitol events. Did they share or interact with any content on the subject? Did any of that content turn out to be false or misleading? Based on the advice in this piece, what could students have done differently, if anything? Do they agree with Buchanan’s approach to slowing the spread of misinformation?

“How a Florida reporter became a one-woman help desk for anxious seniors navigating the COVID-19 vaccine” (Kristen Hare, Poynter).

  • Discuss: Why would people turn to journalists like CD Davidson-Hiers for information on the COVID-19 vaccine? Should journalists routinely become directly involved with supporting the public in this way? Would such interactions impact public perceptions of the media?

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.