The Sift: Vaccine rumors and code words | ‘Toxic Ten’ misinfo | Defining objectivity


Teach news literacy this week
Vaccine rumors and code words | 'Toxic Ten' misinfo | Defining objectivity

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Top picks

Misinformation researchers and medical experts are expecting anti-vaccination propaganda to spike online following the authorization of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. The tactics might include strong appeals to emotion, tragic stories presented out of context and the use of code words — such as "C0vid" (spelled with a zero), “wax seen” or unicorn emojis for vaccines — to skirt automated content moderation on social media.

classroom-ready icon Dig Deeper: Use this think sheet to help students consider how coded language is used to spread misinformation.
Ten “superpolluter” publishers drive as much as 69% of interactions with misinformation about climate change on Facebook, according to a new report from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. Facebook announced in February that it would add labels to some posts about climate change directing people to credible information on the subject, but “The Toxic Ten” report found that more than 90% of the articles in its sample did not carry these labels.

Discuss: How should social media platforms handle posts that contain misinformation about climate change? Should they remove them? Label them? Or try something else? Should digital ad platforms like Google’s AdSense refuse to place revenue-generating ads on websites that push climate change misinformation? Why or why not? Why do you think climate change is a common target of misinformation?

Related: “Exclusive: Twitter takes aim at climate misinformation during COP26” (Sara Fischer, Axios).
In journalism, what does objectivity really mean? The Daily Herald in suburban Chicago created an “Objectivity Council” to explore this question and reflect on how to make the news organization’s coverage “as free of bias as it can be,” writes Neil Holdway, the newsroom’s deputy managing editor. Complete objectivity, Holdway notes, “is an impossible goal.” Journalists instead “should strive for objectivity by acknowledging our biases, and endeavoring to keep those biases and our emotions out of our reporting.”

Related: “Would enhancing the BBC’s fact-checking strengthen its perceived impartiality?” (Stephen Cushion, Nieman Lab).

Discuss: Do you agree with Holdway that journalists should try to keep “biases and our emotions out of” news coverage? Can biases ever be eliminated from journalism? Can they be minimized? Holdway also writes, “Balance isn't necessarily about reporting all sides. It is about listening to all sides.” Should newsrooms devote equal coverage to views that are “simply incorrect” or “verifiably wrong?” How do balance and fairness relate to notions of objectivity? What are some features of fair and accurate news coverage?

Idea: Traditional views of objectivity in journalism have been scrutinized and debated in recent years. As a class, brainstorm a list of characteristics for quality news coverage. Compare the class list with NLP’s seven standards of quality journalism. What would students change about their lists? How would they define objectivity? Consider connecting with a local journalist using NLP’s Newsroom to Classroom volunteer directory for their thoughts on how newsrooms can minimize bias in news coverage.

Resources: “Understanding Bias” and “Practicing Quality Journalism” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

Viral rumor rundown

COVID-19 vaccines do not contain ‘luciferase’

A Nov. 1 tweet from Emerald Robinson, a White House correspondent for Newsmax, that says, “Dear Christians: the vaccines contain a bioluminescent marker called LUCIFERASE so that you can be tracked. Read the last book of the New Testament to see how this ends.” This message appears as a quote retweet of a tweet that says, “The Moderna vaccine DOES contain Luciferase.” The News Literacy Project has added a label that says FALSE.

NO: COVID-19 vaccines do not contain a bioluminescent marker called luciferase. NO: COVID-19 vaccines do not contain tracking devices. YES: Emerald Robinson, the White House correspondent for Newsmax, a conservative news outlet, pushed both of these false claims in a Nov. 1 tweet. YES: According to the Snopes fact-checking site, “Luciferase is a genuine scientific term that refers to an enzyme capable of emitting light,” such as in fireflies. YES: The enzymes are commonly used in research, including some research for COVID-19 vaccines, to trace how viruses and vaccines interact with cells. NO: The vaccines themselves do not contain these enzymes. NO: The luciferase enzymes are not related to Satan or the Book of Revelation.

NewsLit takeaway: False claims about the COVID-19 vaccines containing tracking devices are among the most common and longstanding viral falsehoods about the shots, and are often baselessly connected to references in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Robinson has a history of promoting vaccine misinformation on Twitter, where she has more than 430,000 followers. The Nov. 1 tweet (above) was removed by Twitter, and Robinson was temporarily suspended from the platform. Newsmax disavowed Robinson’s statement and later said Robinson would not appear on the air while it reviews her posts.



COVID-19 vaccines aren’t causing spikes in cancer and HIV diagnoses

A Facebook post that says, “Y’all The shot is giving ppl cancer & HIV :CHECK SC IN COMMENTS.” The News Literacy Project has added a label that says FALSE.

NO: COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause cancer or HIV. NO: Extensive data from clinical trials and from the global vaccine rollout — which now tops 7 billion administered doses — show no link between the shots and cancer or HIV. YES: Multiple screenshots of comments — referred to as SCs in the post — were shared by this same account as an attempt to “support” this claim. NO: These anecdotes aren’t evidence of a connection.

NewsLit takeaway: Rumors that mistake coincidental events — in this case, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines with anecdotes of people getting diagnosed with cancer and HIV — rely on the logical fallacy of questionable cause, or confusing correlation with causation. Additionally, this rumor commits the base rate fallacy by ignoring the typical rate at which people are diagnosed with cancer and HIV — and failing to account for the growing percentage of the population that is vaccinated. In other words, with 67% of the American population now vaccinated with at least one dose, a significant portion of people who are diagnosed with cancer — or any other health condition — will also, coincidentally, be vaccinated. These same fallacies have driven falsehoods about coincidental deaths and COVID-19 cases as well as misinformation involving the vaccinated in Israel.



Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did not repeal Florida’s school vaccine requirements

A tweet that says “Ron DeSantis announces Florida schools will no longer require vaccinations for polio, measles, and mumps…” This comment appears as a quote retweet of an Oct. 30 tweet from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that says, “In Florida, there will be no vaccine mandate for children in our schools. This is a decision that belongs to parents.” The News Literacy Project has added a label that says FALSE.

NO: Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis did not say that Florida schools will no longer require vaccinations for polio, measles and mumps. YES: DeSantis said in an Oct. 28 press conference that “in Florida there will be no mandate on school children” to get the COVID-19 vaccine. YES: The state of Florida requires children to receive a number of vaccines before they can enroll in public school, including the polio vaccine and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

NewsLit takeaway: Outrage and anger are powerful drivers of engagement on social media, and sharing comments, photos and video clips out of context can be easy ways to provoke these emotions. While this post might initially seem like an accurate representation of the retweeted statement from DeSantis, it is grossly misleading. However, social media users casually scrolling through their feeds may react without pausing long enough to figure this out — especially if they have strong feelings about the importance of vaccines or strong partisan opinions about DeSantis. If DeSantis had actually repealed all vaccine mandates for Florida schools, it would have made national headlines.

You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
NLP's FREE News Literacy Educator Network. Join NewsLit Nation.
Kickers: Journalism slang. The ending of a story or nes report, often intended to leave a lasting impression.
Boston TV news anchor Latoyia Edwards wrote about her decision to wear braids on air and why “authentic representation matters,” including in the news industry.
The Los Angeles Times created a communal digital Día de Muertos altar to help readers celebrate and remember loved ones. More than 1,000 submissions poured in.
CNN web videos are often “more polarizing or based on conflict” compared to what gets aired on TV, according to Ariana Pekary, the Columbia Journalism Review public editor for CNN.
Following a year of historic headlines on the presidential election, insurrection and ongoing pandemic, news consumption has dropped as more Americans switch off the news.
A California middle school teacher has been removed from the classroom after she taught students that former President Donald Trump is still in office, among other conspiratorial falsehoods.
New tools may soon make it easier to determine and verify key details of images online, such as when and where photos were taken, and by whom — important clues for debunking misinformation.

Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of The Sift is created by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) and Pamela Brunskill (@PamelaBrunskill), and edited by Mary Kane (@marykkane).

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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.