Teach news literacy this week
QAnon’s faithful | Local reporter harassed | Twitter’s new warnings
NOTE: This issue of The Sift is the last of the school year. We'll return in September. Have a safe and happy summer!
Conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic can be described in a variety of ways —alarming, outlandish, dangerous — but they shouldn’t be surprising. Even the Plandemic “documentary” that suddenly swept its way across social media earlier this month did so on a path paved with fragments of pandemic conspiracy theories that were already in circulation.
But as a report by Adrienne LaFrance in the June issue of The Atlantic points out, if one theory has established conspiratorial thinking as an “acceptable” option in the modern marketplace of ideas, it’s QAnon.
Born in the aftermath of the Pizzagate debacle with two cryptic, anonymous posts published to the controversial message board 4chan in October 2017, QAnon has grown into a large and nebulous belief system. Its “leader,” known only as Q, is “a purportedly high-ranking government official.” At its heart is the baseless notion that President Donald Trump is secretly working to bring about a “Great Awakening” to expose an elite cabal of child sex abusers — including prominent political figures in Washington — that has been concealed by intelligence agencies, or “the deep state.”
In many ways, QAnon is a quintessential conspiracy theory: It offers its adherents simple explanations in place of complexity, a coherent entity on which to place blame for the transgressions of modern life, and a sense of control and populist purpose. But in other ways, it seems to have tapped into deeper veins of moral gratification: an apocalyptic vision of a renewed America that resonates deeply with evangelical Christian beliefs about the End Times. (Indeed, at least one church has been founded on QAnon belief principles.)
Whether they see QAnon as prophecy, as self-described “research” or as an “open source intelligence operation,” its followers have grown so numerous, and pushed its rhetoric so persistently on so many fronts online, that its most anodyne permutations — vague references to a coming reckoning for immoral Washington elites — are disturbingly present in mainstream discourse. They appear as Q icons and slogans at political rallies and are popularized by an increasing number of social media influencers and public officials.
As it has grown, QAnon has expanded to absorb other conspiracy theories, explain away its own inconsistencies and incorporate new developments, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. So-called wellness influencers are spreading QAnon talking points alongside posts that tout unfounded “cures” or praise “holistic living.” And an April 8 “Q drop” — a post, said to be by Q, on an internet message board — had this cryptic message:
Discuss: What are the characteristics of conspiratorial thinking? How can entirely baseless conspiracy theories “feel” so right to some people? What role does evidence play in conspiracy theories? Why do you think conspiracy theories tend to arise during periods of great social and economic change? How do fear and anger contribute to the belief in conspiracy theories?
Viral rumor rundown
NO: The video in this tweet does not show protests in Germany against vaccines and the so-called New World Order (a nonexistent totalitarian world government featured in a number of conspiracy theories). YES: It is footage from July 23, 2017, of thousands of protesters in Warsaw, Poland, objecting to judicial reforms that many felt compromised the power of the Supreme Court.
Idea: Download and use this video walkthrough to help guide students through a fact check of this false tweet:
Discuss: Do you think the person sharing this tweet was kidding or serious? Is there a way to know for sure? Does it matter if some people believe that this tweet is true? What might be the consequences of that belief? Does the intent of the person who created this, or the people who shared it, change the potential impact of the false claim?
NO: It’s not true that meat packers have tested positive for COVID-19 in greater numbers than health care workers. YES: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 4,913 cases of COVID-19 were reported among workers in U.S. meat and poultry processing plants by the end of April. YES: CDC data also show that as of April 14, 9,282 cases of COVID-19 were reported among U.S. health care workers. YES: Some people who have shared and commented on this claim have gone beyond calling these (false) numbers “interesting” and have suggested that they are connected to a coordinated effort to create a food shortage or raise prices.
NO: A “5G installer” did not find “COV-19” inscribed on the inside of 5G mobile network circuitry. YES: A video featuring a man in a hard hat, a face mask and an orange jacket standing in front of a cell tower and holding an old cable television circuit board (with “COV-19” inscribed on one component) went viral on YouTube and Facebook last week. NO: There is no connection between 5G mobile technology and COVID-19.
Note: This video — which may have been created to parody conspiratorial beliefs about 5G networks — is a good opportunity to have students explore questions about satire as a potential source of misinformation.
Discuss: Could this video have been made as a joke? Why do you think it was shared by conspiracy theory accounts online? How often do you see people criticize something by imitating or parodying it in posts on social media? Who is responsible if some people take these satirical posts seriously?
NO: These are not two mail-in ballots sent to a voter in California. YES: They are Republican sample ballots from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh and its suburbs). YES: The Allegheny County Board of Elections provides sample ballots on its website. NO: There is no evidence that these were mailed to a single voter in a single household.
Note: News events — particularly those that are controversial — often inspire viral rumors. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was in the news on May 8 when he signed an executive order requiring that the state automatically send every registered voter a mail-in ballot for the Nov. 3 elections.
Also note: This post includes two common tactics used to encourage virality: It claims (on Facebook) that “FB keeps deleting this” and tells people to “make it go viral!” These are both red flags that indicate the post deserves careful scrutiny.
Idea: Use this example to help students learn how to evaluate claims and evidence. Show students this screenshot of the original post and ask them to write down their initial reaction to it. Then take a quick poll on this question: Does this post provide evidence for its claim? Guide a follow-up discussion to highlight the fact that even though the photo might seem like evidence for the claim, it could have easily been taken from another context. Finally, share the image with students and ask them, in groups, to check it out further using whatever means or methods they wish. Then ask those groups that found something significant — whether through a close analysis of the image or through lateral reading that guided them to a fact check — to tell the class what they did.
Three to teach
A television reporter’s videos of an “Open New York” rally — in which he is seen beset by hostile protesters chanting “Fake news is not essential” — spread across social media last week, drawing support from fellowjournalists and garnering national (and international) attention.
Kevin Vesey, a reporter for News12 Long Island, covered the May 14 event in Commack, New York, posting videos on Facebook Live and Twitter. While the majority of those present were peaceful, he said on Twitter, some complained about his coverage of a similar protest a couple of weeks earlier. They also approached him too closely, he said, and called him “the enemy of the people.”
“I'll probably never forget what happened today,” Vesey said on Facebook. “I was insulted. I was berated. I was practically chased by people who refused to wear masks in the middle of a pandemic. All the while, I was there to tell THEIR story.”
In a Facebook post that evening, the Setauket Patriots, a conservative group that organized the rally, said that it “would like to apologize on how you were treated,” adding that the people harassing Vesey were not part of the group “in any way, shape or form.”
According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Suffolk County, where Commack is located, had 38,117 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on May 18 — the sixth-largest number on the county level in the United States.
Note: Local journalism has been hard hit amid the economic fallout of COVID-19, with a number of news organizations worldwide laying off or furloughing staff, reducing the frequency of their print editions or shutting down altogether.
Discuss: Do you think this incident was important or significant enough to become a national news story? Why or why not? Is there a pattern of hostility toward reporters? If you think that there is, what is the cause? How do incidents like these affect press freedom in the United States?
Twitteris adding labels and warning messages to some tweets with “disputed or misleading information related to COVID-19,” the company said in a May 11 blog post — including to tweets sent before the policy was announced. Labels, which appear on tweets with “potentially harmful, misleading information,” link to fact-checked information from trusted public health sources. Warnings advise users that the tweet’s content conflicts with public health guidance; users must click through the warning to see the tweet.
The new policy allows the platform to deal with content about COVID-19 that may be misleading but doesn’t come under its definition of “harm” (referring to the pandemic, this means a direct contradiction of guidance from health authorities in ways that “pose a risk to people’s health or well-being”). It is designed to “provide additional explanations or clarifications in situations where the risks of harm associated with a Tweet are less severe but where people may still be confused or misled by the content.”
After Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity and a co-author of the May 11 blog post, tweeted about the new policy, he was pressed to clarify whether it would apply to tweets from world leaders. “These labels will apply to anyone sharing misleading information that meets the requirements of our policy, including world leaders,” he replied.
Note: In February, Twitter revised its rules to include the addition of labels and warnings to tweets containing “synthetic and manipulated media.”
Discuss: Do you think Twitter was right to create a system of flags for misleading tweets that may not cause severe harm but could cause a lesser harm or confuse people? Do you think it’s important for Twitter and other social media platforms to allow people to repeat unverified and disputed claims about COVID-19? Can such claims result in harm? If you were in charge of site integrity at Twitter, what would your COVID-19 policies be?
While 58% of Americans report being “well-informed” about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, more than a third (36%) say they feel “overwhelmed” by all of the information (and misinformation) circulating about the pandemic: That’s a key finding from a new survey conducted by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of the Gallup/Knight Foundation Trust, Media and Democracy initiative.
The survey was conducted over the internet between April 14 and April 20 with a random sample of 1,693 members of the Gallup Panel (a research panel designed to be representative of the U.S. adult population); the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Among other findings in the report, published May 11:
Almost 80% of respondents said that “false or inaccurate information about the coronavirus has been a major problem.”
Almost half (47%) named “the Trump administration” as the primary source of misinformation about the pandemic; a third (33%) named “the mainstream national news.” But when respondents’ second choices were added in, “social media websites and apps” was the combined “winner” (the first choice of 15% and the second choice of 53%, for an overall total of 68%), followed by the Trump administration (the second choice of 7%, for an overall total of 54%).
Respondents were evenly divided (42% for both) over whether social media platforms should immediately remove posts that are suspected of containing coronavirus misinformation or whether they should leave the posts up until the information in them is either confirmed or debunked.
In addition, younger adults (18-34) were more likely than older adults (55+) to say they are overwhelmed, though the reasoning for this was unclear.
Trust in news organizations played a part in responses, the survey found: Those with a favorable opinion of the media were “nearly twice as likely as those who view it negatively to say they are well-informed, 79% to 41%.”
Discuss: The World Health Organization describes the overwhelming spread of information — and misinformation — about COVID-19 as an “infodemic.” How would you describe your experience with this “infodemic”? How difficult is it to find credible information about COVID-19? How often do you encounter information that you’re not sure about? Where do you encounter questionable information? Have mainstream news outlets gotten anything wrong about the pandemic? If so, what was it?
Idea: Have students review the Gallup report and replicate it by asking people 18 and older in their households the questions featured in the report. How do students’ results compare with the survey findings?