The Sift: QAnon’s rude awakening | Inauguration rumors | Bias debate

Subscribe to the free weekly educator newsletter The Sift.


Teach news literacy this week
QAnon's rude awakening | Inauguration rumors | Bias debate


QAnon’s rude awakening

For adherents of the collective conspiratorial delusion called QAnon, Inauguration Day was all part of the plan — until the plan fell apart.

President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20 was widely seen among the QAnon faithful as the last chance to realize their outlandish and baseless core belief — that former President Donald Trump would rise as their champion to order mass arrests of members of a Satanic, child-trafficking cartel run by prominent Democrats and Hollywood celebrities. In the hours leading up to Biden’s swearing-in, QAnon believers were unfazed, predicting that the inauguration was just a ploy to bring together those who would face arrest, and that the so-called “Great Awakening” would begin just before Biden took the oath of office.

When that didn’t happen, some in the community were bewildered and angry, while others simply did what they’ve done any other time QAnon’s anonymous string of prophecies failed to come true: They recalibrated and developed new theories, such as the false and outrageous claim that Biden was already under arrest and that his swearing-in was fraudulent and had been recorded 11 hours earlier.

However, as some disinformation experts were quick to point out, the fragmenting and collapse of the QAnon community is not entirely good news. Many will likely find relief by embracing alternative conspiracy theories, while others may be particularly vulnerable to being radicalized by White supremacists and other extremist communities online.

Note: If you know someone who is or was embroiled in the QAnon belief system, it is vital to be compassionate and to understand how their false beliefs may have been meeting important psychological needs.
Discuss: What about the QAnon conspiracy is so compelling? In what ways are conspiracy theories self-perpetuating? Why is it often impossible to prove a conspiracy theory wrong to its most ardent believers?
Resource: “Conspiratorial Thinking” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

Viral rumor rundown

NO: A military band did not play “Hit the Road Jack” in front of the White House during then-President Donald Trump’s final days in office. YES: The audio track on this video has been replaced. YES: The original video was tweeted on Jan. 18 by CNN’s Jim Acosta and shows the U.S. Army Band playing “National Emblem” as it rehearsed for the inauguration on the White House grounds. YES: The fact-checking organization Lead Stories found that the source of the “Hit the Road Jack” audio is a 2012 recording of the Ohio State University Marching Band.

Note: Copies of this doctored video went viral on multiple platforms, including TikTok, Twitter and Facebook. It is increasingly common for misinformation to cross platforms, including iterations from one platform circulating on another.


NO: President Joe Biden’s administration is not affiliated with the “antifa” (anti-fascism) movement. YES: The URL “” began redirecting traffic to the White House homepage ( on Inauguration Day. NO: This is not evidence of any relationship between the antifa movement and the White House. YES: Anyone can purchase a web domain and redirect it to any other website they choose. YES: Prior to redirecting to, the site was redirecting to Biden's presidential campaign website. YES: The web domain has been intermittently active since at least 1999 and, as these search results from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine show, it was for sale as recently as Jan. 30, 2020.

Note: There is a similar URL redirect hoax at, which began forwarding its web traffic to the Wikipedia page for former President Donald Trump on Nov. 9, 2020.

Related: “ redirects to White House website as trolls needle Biden” (Stephen Shankland, CNET).

★ Featured rumor resource: These classroom-ready slides lead students through a “digital forensics” investigation of the domain using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.


NO: This video does not show National Guard troops turning their backs on President Joe Biden’s motorcade on Inauguration Day. YES: It shows National Guard members protecting the route taken by Biden’s motorcade on the way to the inauguration, including following routine protocol and facing out to watch for threats. YES: Lead Stories located the original video, which was tweeted by Ines de La Cuetara of ABC News on Jan. 20.

Idea: Present this example together with the manipulated video of the Army Band on the White House grounds. Then lead a discussion comparing the two examples. What do they have in common? How do they differ? How are the source videos similar? What methods did bad actors use to manipulate them to create disinformation online?


NO: President Biden did not sign blank papers instead of authentic executive orders after his inauguration on Jan. 20. YES: These screenshots of low-quality video make the text on the executive orders he is signing appear blank. YES: Video footage of Biden signing his first executive orders on Jan. 20 captured by AFP News Agency clearly shows text on the pages.

AFP Fact Check used screenshots from AFP video footage of Biden signing executive orders on Jan. 20 to demonstrate that the pages are not blank. The contrast on the image at right has been increased to show the text more clearly.

NO: Before he was sworn in as president, Joe Biden was not being given instructions through an earpiece on his way to the inauguration. NO: Biden was not expected to salute the Marines who were stationed at the doors of the U.S. Capitol Building when he arrived for the inauguration. YES: Biden said something about the Marines as he approached the doors, but the exact words are inaudible. YES: Baseless rumors about Biden receiving coaching via a non-existent earpiece repeatedly circulated during the 2020 campaign. YES: Similar earpiece rumors have circulated about other political candidates since at least 2000.

Discuss: Why do you think people spread rumors about political candidates — including Al Gore, George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton — claiming that they are being coached through an earpiece? What kind of impact could rumors like these have in the real world?

Ask a Journalist
Q: “How do you decide what the best sources to interview are for your story?” (Mary, 12th grade, New Jersey)

A: We love this question! Journalists are in the business of finding out information of public importance. When deciding which sources to interview, journalists first consider: What information does the public need to know to understand this topic? Who would be in the best position to know the information? Who could speak with authority on this subject? It may be elected officials, subject matter experts, everyday people or all of the above. On deadline, journalists often cast a wide net for relevant sources, putting out calls, emails and messages requesting interviews. Sometimes, journalists may end up talking to a spokesperson or representative from a particular group or agency. But in every news report, standards-based journalists should also aim to be fair. That includes making every effort to reach each source involved in a story. For instance, when reporting on a court case, journalists would be sure to contact each party involved in a lawsuit (often through their attorneys). Finally, it’s important for journalists to avoid quoting the same people over and over again in news coverage. Some journalists even periodically review their sources in previous stories to ensure that their reporting is representative and spotlights diverse voices and perspectives.

Thanks, Mary, for your excellent question! Did we miss anything? Feel free to tweet us at @NewsLitProject or email us at [email protected] so we can continue the conversation.

What should we tackle next? Submit your questions using this link, and you may see them answered in upcoming issues of The Sift!

Idea: Have students read a recent news report and circle each source quoted or cited. How many different sources are there? Why do students think these sources were included? If students had reported this story, who would they have interviewed? Are any relevant voices or perspectives missing? Why is including diverse voices and perspectives important?

Another idea: Contact a local journalist to get some thoughts on choosing sources to interview.

Resources: “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom) and Newsroom to Classroom (NLP’s Checkology directory of journalist volunteers).


★ Sift Picks


“'Transparency back to the briefing room': Psaki commits to pre-Trump press norms” (Matthew Choi, Politico).

Hours after President Joe Biden underscored the dangers of misinformation in his Jan. 20 inaugural address and urged Americans to “reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki delivered her first remarks to reporters. Given the often hostile relationship between the press and the previous Trump administration, some called the briefing “refreshingly boring.” While the eventual nature of the relationship between the new administration and press remains to be seen, Politico’s Matthew Choi points out that “Psaki signaled she wanted to bring back to the briefing room the norms of the pre-Trump era.”


Discuss: During her briefing with reporters, Psaki spoke of “bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room.” What does it mean for a government to be transparent? What does it mean for news organizations to be transparent? How can journalists hold the Biden administration accountable on this promise? Is there some government information that shouldn’t be public? Who decides?

Idea: Watch Psaki’s first press briefing as a class. Take note of the questions that journalists ask, including the first question from Zeke Miller of The Associated Press (at 4:57): “When you are up there, do you see yourself, your primary role as promoting the interests of the president, or are you there to provide us the unvarnished truth so that we can share that with the American people?” What do students think of Miller’s question, as well as Psaki’s answer? What other questions would students have asked Psaki during the briefing?


Quick Picks

“All journalists are humans with feelings and emotions and opinions and biases.” (Wesley Lowery, Twitter thread).

  • Note: Lowery is a member of NLP’s National Leadership Council, hosts the “Democracy’s Watchdog” lesson for its Checkology virtual classroom, and received the 2018 John S. Carroll Journalist Fellow Award.
  • Discuss Do you agree with Lowery that “Journalists should be judged by the fairness of their *work* - not a random tweet or passing comment or private email in which those human biases are expressed”? Why or why not? Do you agree that “There is a huge difference between objectivity of process and individual objectivity - the latter does not exist; there are no objective journalists because there are no objective people”? Can a journalist have personal opinions about a story subject and still follow a non-biased, or "objective,” process for covering that story? Can journalists express personal opinions without damaging people’s trust in the fairness of their journalism? What steps do journalists and news organizations take to minimize bias in news coverage?
  • Resource: “Understanding Bias” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom).
  • Related: “Did the New York Times fire an editor over a tweet? The Lauren Wolfe controversy, explained.” (Anya van Wagtendonk, Vox).

“Trump-ally media outlet OAN quietly deleted articles about Dominion despite publicly doubling down on election conspiracy theories” (Jacob Shamsian, Business Insider via Yahoo News).

  • Note: The overwhelming majority of errors at legitimate news organizations are minor and handled with corrections. On rare occasions, when a quality news organization publishes a story that is entirely wrong, it will “retract” the story and typically investigate how the false report got through its verification process.
  • Discuss: Why is it problematic for a news organization to remove articles without explanation? How should a news organization that aspires to be transparent, accurate and accountable handle errors or inaccurate stories? What is a “retraction” and how often do reputable news outlets issue one? What do corrections, retractions and other explanations (in the form of editor’s notes, for example) indicate about a news organization’s values? What does it mean if a news source does not publish corrections for even minor errors?
  • Idea: Assign students a news organization and ask them to analyze several recent corrections and/or editor’s notes. How are the mistakes identified and explained? What do the nature of the errors, and the steps taken to correct them, reveal about the news organization’s credibility? Are there any similarities or differences among the news organizations in the way they approach errors?
  • Another idea: Use the Dominion lawsuits as an opportunity to explore the limits of First Amendment protections, especially the concept of defamation.
  • Resources:
  • Related: “The Washington Post Tried to Memory-Hole Kamala Harris’ Bad Joke About Inmates Begging for Food and Water” (Eric Boehm, Reason).

“After Capitol attack, social studies and civics teachers struggle with real-time history lessons” (Joe Heim and Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post).

  • Note: Valerie Strauss publishes items from The Sift in her “Answer Sheet” blog.
  • Discuss: Ask students to reflect on their experiences with news coverage about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Then ask: How did you first learn about it? Did you go looking for information about the attack or did information find you, such as in your social media feeds? What sources of information did you turn to? What led you to those sources? Which sources of information did you trust? Which did you distrust? Why?
  • Idea: Ask students to make a list of questions about the attack that they are unsure about. Then in groups, have them conduct research to find answers to their questions by consulting credible, standards-based source(s), such as a news organization that follows ethical guidelines and standards that are posted publicly.

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].

Sign up to receive NLP Connections (news about our work) or switch your subscription to the non-educator version of The Sift called Get Smart About News here.


Check out NLP's Checkology virtual classroom, where students learn how to navigate today’s information landscape by developing news literacy skills.