The Sift: Own worst enemy | False arson rumors | Introducing “News goggles”


Teach news literacy this week
Own worst enemy | False arson rumors | Introducing 'News goggles'

WE’RE BACK! Welcome to the first issue of The Sift® for the 2020-21 school year. We’ve made some exciting changes to the newsletter over the summer, including two additions designed to give you a steady supply of classroom-ready news literacy resources. First, we're adding a special classroom resource to each week’s viral rumor rundown intended to help you build your students’ verification and news literacy skills. Second, "News goggles" is an entirely new item that aims to help you and your students better understand the practice of quality journalism with annotations and analyses of coverage from the week before.

We’re also creating a streamlined version of The Sift for non-educators called Get Smart About News, starting next week. If you’re not a teacher and would prefer to receive that version of the newsletter, update your subscriber preferences here.

We’re glad to be back, and eager to do what we can to help you teach news literacy during this challenging and momentous year.

Our own worst enemy?

Russian foreign actors are again working to influence the U.S. presidential election, but questions loom about the true impact of their efforts to disinform and divide Americans, especially compared with the domestic flood of divisive rhetoric and misinformation.

A report last week from Axios cites increasing evidence that the Russians’ tactics for the 2020 election are similar to those they used in 2016 and 2018: they’re trying to alienate the more progressive wing of the Democratic party from its nominee; deepen racial divides; undermine Americans’ confidence in the security of elections; and exacerbate fear and confusion about medicine and health (this time, focusing on the coronavirus pandemic).

But a Sept. 7 piece by Joshua Yaffa, a Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker, raises questions about whether “the perceived menace of Russian trolls far outweighs their actual reach.” He suggests instead that the influence and abundance of “homegrown falsehoods” — together with a deeply polarized, uncertain and mistrustful public — are a far greater threat to American democracy.

Evidence for the divided, distrustful public described by Yaffa can be seen in the results of a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation survey. It found that perceptions of bias in news coverage and cynicism about news media — specifically the belief that “inaccuracies in reporting are designed to push a specific agenda” and that “the media is an active participant in the ideology wars” — have both increased as “the country’s partisan divide has intensified.”

In the end, the lesson this week might just be that when it comes to undermining democracy, Americans may be their own worst enemies.

Discuss: What counts as “bias” in news coverage and who decides? Why do people see different, and even conflicting, biases in news coverage? Do people tend to perceive media bias in their favor? Which sources of news do you trust? Why is an agreed-upon set of facts so vital to a democratic society?
  • “Understanding Bias” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
  • The Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard from the Alliance for Securing Democracy provides an up-to-date summary of the topics, narratives and specific articles being pushed by agents of the Russian, Chinese and Iranian governments and their state-run “news” outlets.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: Supporters of the antifa movement are not setting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. YES: A few people have been arrested for arson across three states in the region last week, but at least two of those arrests are not connected to the wildfires. NO: None of those arrested have been associated with the antifa movement — an informal coalition of far-left groups and other activists that opposes fascism. YES: The baseless rumors prompted groups of citizens to form patrols looking for arsonists; several armed members of one patrol stopped an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter and told him to leave the area he was covering. YES: At least four police departments in Oregon are imploring the public to not share antifa and arson-related falsehoods because they are overwhelming emergency dispatchers and causing dangerous confusion on the ground.

Note: A sheriff’s deputy in Clackamas County, Oregon has been placed on leave after he repeated false antifa-related rumors to a man recording him on video in a parking lot. Local authorities and the FBI have said the rumors are untrue. The video — which begins with the unidentified citizen asking the deputy “what have you heard about antifa?” — has gone viral as “evidence” among online communities pushing the false connection. As of Sept. 14, the video is not only still live on YouTube, it is being monetized (has ads at the beginning).

Also note: In an attempt to manufacture “evidence” of antifa involvement, bad actors online used fake “sock puppet” Twitter accounts posing as “official” antifa accounts to “claim” responsibility.

Tip: Screenshots of posts from one social media platform often go viral on another, which makes them more difficult to verify. For example, screenshots of Paul J. Romero’s false tweet (above) have been shared dozens of times on Facebook without a link back to the original tweet, which makes it difficult for people on Facebook to see Romero’s profile information or comments flagging the fact that his claims are false.

Related: “QAnon fans spread fake claims about real fires in Oregon” (Donie O’Sullivan and Konstantin Toropin, CNN).


NO: This video does not show President Donald Trump wandering in a state of confusion on the White House lawn. NO: It is not evidence that the president has dementia. YES: It is a deceptively edited clip taken from a video of Trump in 2019 walking away from reporters to wait for first lady Melania Trump.


NO: The tweet pictured above was not posted by Joe Biden’s verified Twitter account. YES: It is an image of a fake tweet.

Note: Fake tweet generator websites make it simple for anyone to create an image of a fake tweet — from any account, date and time they choose, and with any profile photo they upload. Some generators even let users input the number of “likes” and “shares” they want to appear on a fake tweet.

Also note: Many fake tweets are shared along with the claim that they’ve since been deleted. ProPublica’s Politwoops website automatically archives all tweets from public officials’ actual accounts that have been deleted, including those from Joe Biden. This archive can help debunk false claims that a fake tweet was tweeted and later deleted.

Idea: Ask students to identify signs that this tweet is not authentic (e.g. the typo in Trump’s Twitter handle, extra space before the comma and grammatical errors).


NO: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden does not want to create an additional tax on Americans’ homes, and he has not proposed doing so.

Note: This viral rumor is an example of a sheer assertion — a claim presented without any evidence. These kinds of posts are a red flag and should be viewed with skepticism.

Idea: Make “sheer assertion” a key term of the week for your students and create a space online where they can curate examples from social media. Then have them fact-check one or more of the examples, starting with a simple web search for the claim.


NO: This year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota did not cause more than 266,000 new cases of COVID-19 across the country. YES: A group of economists at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn, Germany, released a pre-publication, non-peer-reviewed draft of research (PDF) making this claim — but it relied on flawed methodology, according to a number of experts. YES: At least 290 new cases of COVID-19, and at least one death, have been connected to the rally.

Tip: Some news outlets devote coverage to interesting, shocking or sensational findings from newly released academic research, but sometimes this research does not hold up under further review in the days and weeks to follow. When looking at reporting about research findings, pay attention to the attribution for the claims (for example, “according to a new study”) and watch out for conditional language (such as “may have caused as many as”).

Related: “How to Read Covid-19 Research (and Actually Understand It)” (Sara Harrison, Wired).

Idea: Use this headline collection of initial coverage of these findings and have students rate each. Which headlines were written conscientiously, and which were irresponsible? What differences do they notice?


News goggles

This new annotation feature is designed to help your students learn to think like journalists while reading news coverage. What would their digital worlds look like if they could put on a pair of “news goggles” to see coverage through a journalist’s eyes?

This week, let’s turn our gaze to a key standard of quality journalism — sourcing. A Sept. 10 straight news article by The Associated Press, a news wire service, focuses on California’s deadly wildfires. Download our full annotations in Microsoft Word (preferred) or as a PDF for a deeper dive into the sourcing and other notable points of this report. These classroom-ready slides break down the big takeaways from our analysis for discussion.


★ Sift Picks

Hannah: “L.A. County deputies arrest radio reporter covering protest outside hospital” (Alex Wigglesworth, Los Angeles Times)

“I’m a reporter!” Josie Huang shouted Saturday night as Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies forced her to the ground while she covered a protest following the shooting of two deputies earlier that day. Huang, a public radio reporter with a local NPR affiliate, recounted her arrest — which has been widely condemned by journalists — in a gripping series of tweets that made my stomach drop.

  • Note: The sheriff’s department said on Twitter that Huang did not identify herself as a journalist. Video clips posted by Huang appear to contradict this claim. Be advised: Some clips of this arrest are disturbing to watch.
  • Discuss: Huang’s arrest raises critical questions about press freedoms and protest coverage. Journalists are sometimes targeted by law enforcement officials, even with clear identification. How should journalists identify themselves to authorities and other sources during volatile situations? Why was it important for Huang to document the interactions between protesters and law enforcement? How can law enforcement differentiate between actual journalists with press credentials and activists posing as journalists at protests? What should Huang or the sheriff’s officials have done differently, if anything?
  • Resources:

Peter: “‘It’s Out Of Control’: How QAnon Undermines Legitimate Anti-Trafficking Efforts” (Jesselyn Cook, HuffPost News).

Members of the QAnon conspiracy theory community are hijacking the issue of missing, abused and trafficked children to try to push their beliefs into the mainstream and initiate new believers. (An overview of the QAnon community is linked below.) But their misguided “crusade” is actually impeding the work of legitimate organizations working to combat the problem and spreading a lot of dangerous confusion online.

  • Note: The QAnon conspiracy theory contains highly disturbing details. Please take this under consideration before addressing this issue or sharing this reading with students.
  • Discuss: Have you noticed a spike recently in posts about missing, abused or trafficked children? How can claims that originate in the QAnon conspiracy theory — for example, that “the media” is ignoring stories related to missing or trafficked children — “go mainstream”? What other conspiracy communities have attempted to get their ideas into the mainstream? How can we work to combat this problem?

Suzannah: “Before You Can Fix Your Newsroom, You Need to Fix Your Life” (S. Mitra Kalita, Nieman Reports).

This article goes beyond coverage of how news organizations are addressing diversity, equity and inclusion issues in general by offering a dozen steps for news leaders to take individually now to improve their newsrooms, their journalism and their lives. “Take a critical look at yourself,” Kalita writes. You don’t have to be a news leader or journalist to find Kalita’s advice useful. My favorite: “7. LOVE. Look for the good in people who are different from you.”

  • Discuss: How would having a newsroom that is more diverse, equitable and inclusive improve news coverage? Have you followed any steps similar to Kalita’s suggestions in your own life?
  • Note: The American Society of News Editors annual diversity survey has been discontinued.

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.