Discussion about mis- and disinformation online has spiked over the last two years, reflecting a heightened public awareness of the challenges presented by widespread falsehoods. According to data from the social media analysis firm Zignal Labs, mentions of “misinformation” and “disinformation” on Twitter increased 221% in 2020 compared with 2019 — largely coinciding with the rise of public conversations about COVID-19 and vaccines. Other major events, including the 2020 election and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have sustained the public’s focus on the topic.
Discuss: What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation? Is the public’s increased awareness of and focus on mis- and disinformation a positive trend? Why or why not? Is misinformation a new problem? What aspects of the problem today are most urgent? Can the problem of mis- and disinformation ever be solved? Why or why not?
Mounting criticism of Western news coverage of the war in Ukraineraises important questions about the influence of bias in news decisions during major developing stories. Some have criticized certain reporting on Ukraine as racist and called attention to story framing and word choices that portray “the invasion as the sort of thing that happens in poor countries, but not in Europe.” Even just the sheer amount of coverage, critics say, reveals a double standard in how Western media has covered this war compared to conflicts in other parts of the world.
Idea: Read this statement from the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, which highlights news coverage examples involving Ukraine that have sparked widespread criticism. What stands out to you in these examples? How can word choice impact fairness and accuracy? How might your own biases affect the way you perceive news coverage of the war in Ukraine? How can perceptions of this coverage vary in countries around the world?
Discuss: How can having journalists with diverse perspectives and backgrounds help improve a newsroom’s coverage? Why is it important for newsrooms to reflect the diversity of communities they cover? How could a lack of newsroom diversity impact coverage in your community?
Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to have students analyze an article from this week's Sift from a news literacy perspective.
NO: Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene didn’t refuse to applaud for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when he spoke to Congress via videoconference on March 16. YES: Greene clapped at four different points during Zelenskyy’s appearance, as documented in this Twitter thread (archived here) by CNN’s Daniel Dale.
NewsLit takeaway: Controversial figures are frequent targets of misleading and false claims that resonate strongly among critics and partisan groups. The more polarizing the person at the center of the rumor is, the more inclined people who oppose them may be to uncritically accept and spread damaging falsehoods. When a misleading visual — especially a video, which may seem conclusive — is involved, it can touch off a wave of viral outrage. Remember: Our rational thinking is easily bypassed when we’re highly emotional. It’s always best to pause before you share or amplify information, and this is especially true when the content provokes a strong emotional response.
NO: Congress did not vote to give itself a 21% raise. YES: The spending bill signed by President Joe Biden on March 15 included a 21% increase to the Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA), which funds the legislative office budgets — but not the salaries — of members of Congress. YES: As The Associated Press reported, “Annual salaries for members of the House and Senate will remain the same this year, as they have since 2009.”
NewsLit takeaway: Complex pieces of legislation contain details that can easily be misrepresented and used to stir outrage by tapping into widespread concerns about government waste and corruption. In this case, a highly misleading headline published by the far-right website FrontPage Magazine sparked angry reactions and viral sharing across social media and was picked up by other conservative publications.
You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
Soccer star David Beckham, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, gave control of his Instagram account, which has more than 71 million followers, to a Ukrainian doctor who runs a perinatal center in Kharkiv to raise awareness about the humanitarian impact of the war and the challenges faced by patients and medical providers there.
How did the baseless “biolab” conspiracy theory — which falsely claims that the United States is secretly developing biological weapons in Ukraine — become a fixation of far-right conspiracy communities all over the world? Ben Collins of NBC News explains in this March 18 episode of On The Media.
Don’t miss this Education Week opinion piece on how the war in Ukraine offers students an opportunity to explore the history of misinformation and the ways “people seek meaning during periods of wrenching global upheaval.”
A producer at Russia’s government-run television network, Channel One, held up a poster on live television on March 14 condemning the war in Ukraine and warning viewers not to believe the network’s lies and propaganda. Marina Ovsyannikova was immediately arrested, and some fear she could face up to 15 years in prison under the country’s new law criminalizing information that conflicts with the government’s official narratives about the invasion of Ukraine.
Authorities in Germany have asked the public not to share a viral video in which a woman recounts a fabricated, secondhand story about Ukrainians in Germany attacking a Russian boy.
Brazil’s Supreme Court banned the social media app Telegram — which is favored by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — as part of a nationwide crackdown on hate speech and misinformation.
As Russia becomes more disconnected from the global internet, fears of an emerging “splinternet” — where "we have a number of national or regional networks that don’t speak to one another" — are rising.