The Sift: Vaccine disinfo | Fake GameStop tweet | Top editor turnover

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Teach news literacy this week
Vaccine disinfo | Fake GameStop tweet | Top editor turnover


Viral rumor rundown

NO: Baseball icon and civil rights activist Hank Aaron did not die as a result of taking the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. YES: Aaron died of natural causes at the age of 86 on Jan. 22 — more than two weeks after receiving the vaccine on Jan. 5. NO: There has not been “a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly” people who recently received a vaccine, as this post from anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims. YES: Norway has registered 33 deaths since the end of December among people age 75 and over who received one dose of the vaccine. NO: Norway health officials found no evidence of a direct link between the deaths and the vaccine. YES: In Norway, about 45 people die every day in nursing homes.

Note: Many vaccination programs around the world are prioritizing vulnerable populations, especially elderly people in assisted living facilities, many of whom have serious diseases. This group has higher mortality rates than other sectors of the population. As this age cohort is vaccinated, it is inevitable that some deaths will happen around the same time as vaccinations.

Also note: Women — especially those who are pregnant or lactating — are being targeted with dangerous misinformation by anti-vaccination communities online.



NO: The World Health Organization did not update its recommendations and say that “you do not need to wear a mask.” YES: This is a complete fabrication falsely claiming the statements were made by WHO officials at a Jan. 22 press conference.

Note: This false claim first appeared as an unsupported statement in a short entry on a WordPress blog with a history of making unsubstantiated claims.

Related: “The Perils of Pandemic Doomsaying (and Other Covid Messaging Mix-Ups)” (On the Media, WNYC).


NO: The verified Twitter account of the Black Lives Matter movement did not post this tweet. YES: It is a doctored image of a tweet in which the text has been altered:

This image comparison by fact-checkers at Lead Stories shows the fake tweet (left) and an authentic tweet (right) with the light settings for both increased, making the digital “artifacts” that result from image manipulation apparent. Note that some fake tweet generators do not leave behind such artifacts, so an absence of such markings does not indicate authenticity. h/t to NLP’s @romaisphotos

NO: This is not an authentic tweet from SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. YES: It is a fabricated screenshot of a fake tweet that was posted to r/WallStreetBets, the Reddit forum that helped drive up the price of GameStop stock in an attempt to execute a “short squeeze.” YES: Musk did energize the r/WallStreetBets Reddit page when he tweeted the word “Gamestonk,” referencing an internet meme, on Jan. 26.

Tip: Because they don’t exist in a Twitter user’s actual feed, fake tweets circulate as screenshots, often along with the claim that they were deleted. Though screenshots of authentic tweets that have since been deleted do occasionally go viral, they are very often saved to an authoritative internet archive, such as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Fake tweets are also typically captured by different Twitter users at different times in different time zones, producing screenshots with different timestamps and engagement metrics (retweets, quote tweets and likes). Because fake tweets are generally copies of one artificially generated image, the engagement metrics are the same.


NO: This is not an authentic Fox News headline. YES: It is a doctored screenshot in which the headline has been altered.

Tip: Be wary of screenshots of news coverage shared on social media without any accompanying links to the story. They are often misleading or false.


As local and regional newsrooms shrink, more news organizations rely on reporting from bigger outlets with a broader reach, including wire services, such as The Associated Press (AP) and Reuters. These “wires” help newsrooms provide stories from the wider world to their local audiences. Wire stories also help get information quickly to readers, as they are often among the first news reports available during breaking news events.

With such an interconnected newsgathering ecosystem, you can’t always assume that a story published by a news organization was also written by that news organization. Some stories require a closer look. Grab your news goggles, and let’s examine some recent examples!

★ Featured News Goggles resource: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations, discussion questions and a teaching idea related to this week’s topic.

Discuss: Why would a news organization rely on stories from a wire service? How can you tell if a news report from a wire service is credible?

Idea: Ask students to look at the national and international section of a local news website or newspaper. What kind of stories are published there? Who wrote these stories? Do any come from a wire service? How are wire service stories labeled? Why would knowing the provenance, or origin, of a news report be important for readers?

Related: “When wire services make mistakes, misinformation spreads quickly” (Salem Solomon, Poynter).

★ Sift Picks


“Search is on for new leaders in journalism’s upper echelons” (David Bauder, The Associated Press).

Several major news organizations, including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, ABC News and Reuters, are looking for new leadership after their current top editors and executives announced departures or retirements. This AP report provides a useful overview and rundown of the situation. The openings present a significant opportunity for a generational leadership shakeup among mainstream media organizations, which are in the midst of grappling with race and diversity issues in their newsrooms.

Note: The Los Angeles Times recently published an investigation into the alleged mistreatment of Black and female employees at CBS TV stations. In a separate piece, Jennifer Barnett, former managing editor of The Atlantic, wrote an essay on Medium describing the barriers she faced as a woman holding a high-ranking position at a respected publication and what she saw as unequal treatment afforded to male editors.

Discuss: Why is it important for a news organization to have diverse leadership that reflects the communities it covers? How can having diverse leaders affect news coverage?

Idea: Ask students to analyze the leadership at a local news organization and try to determine whether the demographics of newsroom leadership match the demographics of the communities that the news organization covers. If so, reach out to someone in the newsroom to see if students can interview them about their diversity, equity and inclusion policies. If not, encourage students to report their findings to the leadership of the local newsroom and ask for comment.



Quick Picks

“Trump Taught Teachers Conspiracy Theories. Now They’re Teaching Them To Students.” (Julia Reinstein, BuzzFeed News).

  • Discuss: Are teachers immune to misinformation? How does misinformation fuel “pseudo-controversies”? How should pseudo-controversies be handled by teachers in school?
  • Idea: Have students research pseudo-controversies — such as vaccine safety, climate change or the integrity of the 2020 presidential election — that arise in school settings. Then compile a list and ask students to discuss their experiences in classroom settings with these topics. Have they ever had a teacher who presented a pseudo-controversy as a legitimate debate? What happened?

“Hospital incursions by Covid deniers putting lives at risk, say health leaders” (Ben Quinn and Denis Campbell, The Guardian).

  • Discuss: Why are people filming inside of hospitals and confronting medical staff in the United Kingdom? Have similar confrontations taken place in the United States? How can such misguided actions cause harm? How are these false beliefs formed?
  • Idea: As a class, create a short poll designed to test the accuracy of respondents’ beliefs about COVID-19. Then ask students to administer the poll to as many peers, friends and family members as they can. Compile and analyze the results.
  • Note: A COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was briefly shut down on Jan. 30 after a group of about 50 protesters who oppose COVID policies gathered at the entrance.
  • Resource: “Conspiratorial Thinking” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

Opinion: “Online Harassment Toward Women Is Getting Even More Insidious” (Nina Jankowicz, Wired).

  • Note: This piece is based on a new report published by the Wilson Center about online disinformation campaigns against women.
  • Discuss: How does online harassment and abuse uniquely target women? What do online trolls hope to accomplish by targeting women in politics, for instance? What other factors can influence the type and degree of harassment women experience online? How do harassers avoid social media platform detection? Based on Jankowicz’s findings, what steps could platforms, lawmakers and employers take to curb this harassment and to support women who have been targeted? Are there any steps women can take to further protect themselves?

“Spurred by Black Lives Matter, Coverage of Police Violence Is Changing” (Adeshina Emmanuel, Nieman Reports).

  • Discuss: What is the “framing” of a news report? How can the way an event is framed affect public perception? Are statements made by official sources, such as police departments, always accurate? When people criticize journalism for being “extractive,” what do they mean? According to Emmanuel, how can journalists tell “more in-depth stories about victims of police violence”?
  • Idea: Have students read part or all of The Washington Post’s six-part special report “George Floyd’s America” and share their thoughts. How is its framing, sourcing and context different than other reporting they have seen about Floyd’s death? Does it have unique value for the public?

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.