The Sift: Practicing information hygiene | Coronavirus misinformation | COVID-19 journalism

  News Literacy Project
The parallels between the spread of the new strain of coronavirus and the spread of misinformation and confusion about it — between the actual pandemic and what the World Health Organization called an “infodemic” — offer a number of important and urgent lessons in news and information literacy. Just as COVID-19 has thrown the weaknesses of our global health infrastructure into stark relief and dramatically raised the stakes of our personal choices and habits, the outbreak has underscored defects in our information infrastructure and is emphasizing the potential impact of our choices and habits online.

Much of the public health messaging in the last week has focused on the importance of practicing good hygiene (for example, the #WashYourHands hashtag that trended across social media platforms) and on the need to “flatten the curve” by engaging in “social distancing.” At the same time, we all need to focus on “information hygiene” and flattening the curve of dangerous falsehoods online by taking proactive steps to reduce their spread. Our decisions about which pieces of information to “like” and share can have a surprising impact on others.

For example, a false claim about ways to avoid the virus or cure COVID-19, however well-intentioned, may cause someone to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak or the recommendations of public health officials. Or something posted to social media as a joke might, after being “liked” and shared a number of times, be taken seriously and exacerbate public confusion and panic about the crisis. (Remember, “likes” are also known as “passive sharing,” because many platforms’ algorithms suggest things you “like” to your followers.)

As this crisis unfolds, more and more people will be asked to stay home, meaning that more and more people will be online more than ever before: searching for answers and trying to make sense of the events around them. It is essential that we bring the same seriousness and sense of responsibility to our roles as creators and sharers of information as we do to our roles as conscientious stewards of public health.

For more examples of misinformation about the pandemic, see this issue’s viral rumor rundown and this running list from Jane Lytvynenko of BuzzFeed News.
Note: Discussing the COVID-19 pandemic with students is also an opportunity to explore the ways the crisis has ignited a familiar cast of known “bad actors” in the information ecosystem. Hucksters are peddling bogus supplements and miracle cures, some of which are dangerous; disinformation agents and conspiracy theorists are pushing elaborate falsehoods; trolls are sowing confusion; extremists are promoting agendas of hate; opportunists are using misinformation to generate social media engagement; hackers are exploiting public fear and uncertainty to compromise accounts and install malware; and millions of ordinary people are inadvertently amplifying misinformation out of a well-intentioned attempt to help their friends, family members and followers online.
Also note:  Social media companies are struggling to combat COVID-19 misinformation — partially because many of their systems for policing misinformation were created to address coordinated campaigns, not a global viral misinformation outbreak from ordinary people (which means monitoring misinformation in dozens of languages and national contexts). Still, they are also taking unprecedented steps in the right direction.
Discuss: What responsibilities come with free speech? What kinds of speech shouldn’t be permitted in a free society? Should all social media platforms ban and remove medical misinformation? Why or why not? Should social media companies treat misinformation about climate change (an issue where there is scientific consensus) the same as they do misinformation about COVID-19? Why do you think crises and tragic events tend to spark conspiracy theories?
Resource: “Sifting Through the Coronavirus Pandemic,” an information literacy hub created by Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at Washington State University. (Note: While we fully endorse Caulfield’s SIFT method, it is not affiliated with this newsletter.)
Also note: The News Literacy Project is working on a resource response for educators teaching news literacy during this outbreak. In the meantime, you can start by reinforcing these five tips with students:
  1. Recognize the effects of your information decisions.
    Just as your decisions and actions can inadvertently spread the virus itself, your conduct online can influence others and have consequences in the real world.
  2. Take 20 seconds to practice good information hygiene.
    Like the time recommended for effective hand-washing, 20 seconds is all that is needed to eliminate a significant chunk of the misinformation we encounter: Scan comments for fact checks, do a quick search for the specific assertion, look for reliable sources and don’t spread any unsourced claims.
  3. Filter your information sources.
    The World Health Organization cited the “over-abundance of information” (PDF) as a cause of the current “infodemic.” While a diverse and varied information diet is generally important, so is the ability to focus your attention on credible sources.
  4. Learn to spot misinformation patterns.
    Rumors about this virus often cite second- and thirdhand connections to anonymous people in positions of authority, such as health or government officials. Don’t be fooled by “copy-and-paste” hearsay.
  5. Help sanitize social media feeds.
    Flag misinformation when you see it on social media. Failing to do so leaves behind an infected post that will influence those who see it after you.
NO: COVID-19 does not cause pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lungs). NO: Holding your breath for 10 seconds is not a reliable test for pulmonary fibrosis — or for COVID-19. YES: Drinking water is generally good for you, and proper hydration is important during treatment for any infection. NO: Frequently drinking water does not prevent infection from the current strain of coronavirus by washing the virus into your stomach.

Note: Like many viral rumors, this one includes a request to “send and share” this falsehood to “family, friends and everyone.” You should be skeptical of user-generated material that cites sources that are anonymous or unfamiliar, especially if it explicitly asks you to share it widely.

Also note: There are numerous “copy-and-paste” style viral rumors — many of them citing second- or third-hand advice from an authoritative source — circulating via social media, email and text message about the virus.

Also note: There are at least a dozen iterations of this “advice” circulating online, including one that says it is from an “internal message” to the “Stanford Hospital Board.” In a post on March 11, Stanford Health Care debunked this (scroll to the bottom of the webpage).
NO: Dark skin color and higher levels of melanin — the natural pigment that gives human skin and hair its color — do not protect people against infection from SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. NO: People with African ancestry are not “genetically resistant” to this strain of coronavirus. NO: Race and ethnicity do not affect how vulnerable people are to the virus or how quickly they recover from it. YES: This false claim has surfaced on several unreliable websites in recent weeks; it has also made its way onto social media, including YouTube.

Note: One of the most influential amplifiers of this dangerous and false claim (WARNING: racist tweet) is John McAfee, who founded the computer security company McAfee Associates in 1987 and has more than 1 million followers on Twitter.
NO: Neither the initial discovery of these illnesses nor official declarations about them by health authorities align to the years listed in this photo (which is also circulating as a viral copy-and-paste message). YES: Some of these illnesses were active during the years listed, which do correspond to midterm or presidential election years in the United States. NO: The list in the photo doesn’t include “every election year”; midterm elections were held in the United States in 2006.

Note: Another false conspiracy theory claims that the outbreak of COVID-19 “started immediately after impeachment failed.” This is not true. SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in China in late 2019. President Donald Trump was acquitted of two articles of impeachment on Feb. 5, 2020.
NO: The man in the lead photo on this story from the “satirical news” website Viral Cocaine did not “drop dead” on the street in New York City’s borough of Queens. YES: The photos show a man who appears to have collapsed on the sidewalk in Flushing, Queens, on March 3. YES: He was wearing a surgical mask. NO: The incident was not related to COVID-19.

Note: Photos and videos of people who are unwell in public, along with speculation about COVID-19 as the cause, will almost certainly continue to circulate on social media. For example, a man passed out on a train platform in Brussels prompted several bystanders to shoot video of the incident and to speculate that the new strain of coronavirus was the cause:

But as Thomas Mulder, a Dutch journalist and digital forensics investigator, determined in this tweet thread, Belgian transit authorities confirmed that the man was drunk, not sick. Similar rumors about people collapsing in China circulated after the virus was first identified there, but some lack conclusive evidence about their authenticity (which presents challenges for fact-checkers).

Also note: Viral Cocaine contains a number of clear signs that it is not a reliable source of news — for example, its tagline is “when the lie is more entertaining” — but when links from the site are shared online, its “stories” look similar to actual news reports. In addition, because the site features “endless scrolling” (older stories automatically load when the scroll bar reaches the bottom of the page), the “About Us” information in the website’s footer — which states that the site is a “satirical news blog” — can be all but impossible to view. (WARNING: The site contains ads, which generate revenue for its owners each time someone visits one of its pages. Please avoid visiting or driving traffic to this site.)
NO: The COVID-19 test does not cost $3,200. YES: After a Miami hospital tested a man who had developed respiratory symptoms following a recent trip to China (and was found to have the flu, not COVID-19), he received a notice from his health insurance company that the cost of his emergency room visit and his test for the flu — not for COVID-19 — was $3,270. NO: Blood donors are not tested for SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. NO: There have been no reported cases of a respiratory virus, including SARS-CoV-2, being transmitted by blood transfusion, according to the Red Cross.
The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting a shift in the practice of journalism. Reporters, editors and producers, who typically work in newsrooms or studios, are now working from home or social distancing while covering the news — including the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. After an attendee at a journalism conference in New Orleans earlier this month “tested presumptively positive” for the virus, other journalists who were at the conference stayed home for a period and their newsrooms underwent deep cleaning.

The pandemic has posed other challenges to journalism, an industry already under stress: At The New York Times, ad bookings are down. At The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, 22 newsroom positions are being cut. (That could bring the reporting staff to 14 people; in the late 1990s, there were more than 300 newsroom employees.) And The Stranger, a Seattle alternative biweekly, tweeted, “90% of our revenue—advertising, ticketing fees, and our own events—is directly tied to people getting together in groups. The coronavirus situation has virtually eliminated this income all at once.”

Yet despite these challenges, and amid criticism that news coverage induces panic, local journalists across the country are pressing forward to provide accurate and prompt information and to debunk rumors. A number of news organizations have dropped their paywalls for COVID-19 coverage, with newsroom leaders saying that it is their mission “to deliver local news that serves the public” and “our responsibility to keep you informed.”
Discuss: What role do standards-based local news organizations play during a crisis like this? Do you think they should lift their paywalls for COVID-19 coverage? Why or why not? How can newsrooms sustain themselves if they make their reporting free?
Idea: Provide students with links to several reports from local news outlets about the effects of COVID-19 on their communities. Then ask the students to write a journal entry describing what the impact on the community might be if that coverage did not exist.
A Russian-backed disinformation operation running more than 270 social media accounts and pages was uncovered in West Africa by investigative reporters at CNN working with two researchers from Clemson University. A “troll farm” in Ghana — based at a compound outside Accra, the capital — consisted of 16 people who worked exclusively on mobile phones to exacerbate racial divisions in the United States, CNN reported on March 13, while at least eight people were doing the same in Lagos, Nigeria. They were hired by a purported nongovernmental organization, Eliminating Barriers for the Liberation of Africa (EBLA), and the first accounts were created last July.

Focusing on racial issues in the United States, the workers, most of whom were in their 20s, shared links to stories about controversial topics, such as the use of excessive force by police, and posted inflammatory comments on Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) and Twitter. The accounts and pages on the three platforms had a combined total of more than 340,000 followers.

Ghanaian police raided the compound in Accra on Feb. 6, and posts stopped appearing that day. On March 12, Facebook removed 49 Facebook accounts, 69 Facebook pages (a public profile created for businesses, causes, celebrities and organizations) and 85 Instagram accounts associated with the operation, and Twitter took down 71 accounts.

Seth Wiredu, a Ghanaian who lives in Russia, told CNN that he financed EBLA with his own money; Ghanaian authorities said that the funding came from Russia, and both Facebook and Twitter noted Russian involvement.

One of the workers in Ghana who spoke with CNN said that Wiredu has encouraged his employees to open new accounts.
Discuss: How could Russia benefit from deepening racial divisions in the United States? What portion of the social media accounts you interact with on a regular basis are operated by people whose identities you know for certain — and what portion are operated by people you don’t know? Can this type of activity alter public dialogue and disrupt U.S. elections? What other effects might these kinds of campaigns have? Is this campaign consistent with previous Russian disinformation efforts?
Idea: Have students divide into groups and spend 15 minutes researching the history of Russian propaganda. Then have each group share their findings.
Related: “State Department blames ‘swarms of online, false personas’ from Russia for wave of coronavirus misinformation online” (Tony Romm, The Washington Post).
The Philadelphia Inquirer has redesigned the opinion pages in its print edition to better distinguish opinion pieces from news articles. The new formatting for the pages also appears in the Inquirer’s digital edition, which replicates the print layout onscreen; it includes “a standing sidebar glossary that explains the difference between editorials, op-eds and columns” and labels, such as “Letters to the Editor,” “Column” and “Op-Ed,” Erica Palan, the Inquirer’s deputy opinion editor, wrote in a March 10 tweet thread.

“We constantly hear from people who don’t understand the difference between our content and the news stories in the rest of the paper,” Palan wrote, adding that the new features “help explain what we do.” She called the redesign a “milestone” and said it was the result of months of discussions. “It’s a conversation we have almost daily,” she wrote. “In some ways, we’re much better at making this distinction online (in headlines and other treatments).”
Note:  A news outlet’s “digital edition” is different from its website.
Also note:  Opinion pieces do not aspire to be unbiased. They intentionally offer a specific point of view and often try to persuade people to adopt or support that view. News reports strive to present information fairly and accurately, to avoid bias, and to include sources that offer context from a variety of perspectives.
Resource:  NLP’s mobile app, Informable, includes a mode with over 30 examples to help you hone your ability to separate news from opinion.
Discuss: What is the difference between opinion and news? Why is it important to know the difference? Are there different types of opinion journalism? If yes, what are they? Do you think news outlets need to do a better job of making people aware of the difference between news and opinion? Do you think your local news organization needs to more clearly label its opinion pieces? Why or why not?
Idea: Have students examine the opinion pages of other news organizations with both a print edition and a website. Ask them to take note of how the opinion pieces are labeled in the print edition. Compare that with the ways those labels are conveyed online, including on the outlet’s website and in pieces shared on social media.
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
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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