GSAN: 2024 press freedoms | TikTok’s ‘Operation Watermelon’

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2024 press freedoms | TikTok's 'Operation Watermelon'

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Top picks

An illustration of two raised hands holding a microphone and pen while in handcuffs. The hands are beneath the words “World Press Freedom Day.”
Reporters Without Borders released its annual press freedom ranking on May 3 — World Press Freedom Day. Illustration credit: MURGROUP/Shutterstock.
Top pick 1

Reporting conditions for journalists are worsening in many places around the world under mounting political pressure from governments and other groups in a consequential election year, according to Reporters Without Borders and its 2024 press freedom ranking. RSF found that the environment for journalism is “satisfactory” in only a quarter of the 180 countries and territories included in its findings.

The annual World Press Freedom Index weighs five indicators to determine conditions for practicing journalism in each country. The political indicator, which evaluates pressure from the state and other political actors, fell the most in this year’s ranking, dropping an average of 7.6 points on a 100-point scale worldwide — “a worrying trend” amid widespread elections, RSF said. RSF noted that some political groups are stoking distrust of journalists through threats and insults, while others are “orchestrating a takeover” of the media ecosystems in their countries. The group’s findings also pointed out that political actors often push propaganda and disinformation campaigns.

Norway (1), Denmark (2) and Sweden (3) topped the index as countries with the best press freedoms, while Afghanistan (178), Syria (179) and Eritrea (180) — countries with plummeting political scores — ranked at the bottom. The United States (55) fell 10 spots, with RSF citing the decline of local news, mass layoffs across the industry and growing distrust of the media, among other factors.

Top pick 2

What role does the First Amendment play in the Israel-Hamas war protests sweeping across American college campuses? It’s complicated and largely depends on context, legal experts and university officials say. Unlike public universities, private universities are not required to uphold First Amendment protections and often set their own protest policies. And while some demonstrators may think of campus tent encampments as a form of speech, court rulings have found that such tactics can be restricted, even on public property. The same goes for occupying a building — like the one pro-Palestinian demonstrators seized at Columbia University — which one legal expert told The New York Times is an activity that a court would not see as protected under the First Amendment.

Top pick 3

False allegations about noncitizens voting illegally have emerged as a key disinformation narrative ahead of this year’s election — and figured prominently in a recent political maelstrom triggered by a sensational rumor at the U.S.-Mexico border. A Mexican migrant aid organization found itself at the center of a viral controversy when images spread on social media of what appeared to be a flyer from the organization encouraging migrants to vote for President Joe Biden. But the group said the flyer was a fabrication and pointed to the presence of anti-immigration activists posing as volunteers on the day the images went viral as further evidence of it being a crude fake. Experts also expressed skepticism about the authenticity of the flyer, citing its awkward phrasing, grammatical errors and outdated information.

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RumorGuard Rundown


Time magazine cover altered to depict Trump with devil horns

A post on X reads, “They gave President Trump devil horns, they know he is the end of their era. Seeing Donald Trump in TIME tells me everything I need to know. He already won and they are just trying to make it acceptable for everyone,” and features an image of former President Donald Trump on the cover of Time magazine, positioned so that the “M” in Time resembles horns behind his head. The News Literacy Project has added a label that says, “MANIPULATED IMAGE.”

NO: This is not a genuine Time magazine cover

YES: This image was digitally manipulated to make it appear as if former President Donald Trump was positioned on the cover so that the “M” would give him devil horns. 

YES: Time did feature Trump on the cover of its May 2024 issue, but his head was lower and not centered in front of the “M.” 

YES: Time magazine has previously acknowledged that the “M” in its name has given the coincidental appearance of a set of horns on numerous previous cover subjects, including Trump in 2016 when he was named Person of the Year.

NewsLit takeaway: Tracing an image back to its original source is an easy way to confirm or debunk the authenticity of viral social media content. In this case, comparing the viral image that includes devil horns with the official version of the Time cover found on the magazine’s social media feed and website shows it has clearly been altered.

Purveyors of misinformation effectively spread falsehoods by creating and spreading content designed to reinforce people’s preconceived beliefs. For those who think that Trump is unfairly treated by the media, for example, this doctored image likely felt true. And when people are misled by confirmation bias, it can result in those beliefs becoming stronger, even though they may be partially based on false content. Remember, when a social media post elicits a strong emotional reaction, it’s a good indication that it’s time to take a pause and check another source.

False claims that Biden lost the 2020 election recirculate online

A Facebook post reads, “Look what I found this morning” and features an image of President Joe Biden below the text, “SCREENSHOT BEFORE THIS GETS DELETED. 46 of 50 states have now recounted and CONFIRMED that Biden lost
the vote in their state. The media has not said ANYTHING about this and continues to ignore it.” The News Literacy Project has added a label that says, “CONSPIRATORIAL NONSENSE.”

NO: Forty-six out of 50 states did not find that President Joe Biden lost the 2020 election after recounting their vote tallies. 

YES: Biden received more Electoral College votes than former President Donald Trump did — 306 for Biden to 232 for Trump — and Congress certified the results.

YES: Recounts were conducted in 2020 in specific counties in Wisconsin, Arizona and Texas, and statewide in Georgia, and none found significant discrepancies in the initial totals, confirming Biden’s victory. 

NewsLit takeaway: In 2024, expect purveyors of disinformation to rehash old falsehoods about the 2020 contest to manufacture doubt about the integrity of elections. While these claims remain just as false as when they first circulated, propagandists work to create an “illusion of truth” by persistently repeating them.

In this case, the false claim also referenced a few ideas that are common in conspiracy theories. By evoking the idea of censorship (i.e., “SCREENSHOT BEFORE THIS GETS DELETED”) and a media blackout (i.e., “The media has not said ANYTHING about this …”), this claim feels like forbidden information, which may prove intriguing at first glance. However, a logical examination of this rumor provides a simple explanation. The reason standards-based media outlets did not cover this is not because they were censoring it but because it simply didn’t happen.

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Pro-Palestinian activists are flooding video comment sections on TikTok with keywords related to Gaza in a movement known as “Operation Watermelon,” though some have questioned whether their tactics are a form of online harassment. 
Russia has shifted its focus to the Israel-Hamas war — and increasingly is making use of TikTok — in its ongoing efforts to spread disinformation in the U.S.
The Pulitzer Prizes were announced on May 6, and ProPublica was awarded in the prestigious public service category for its coverage of billionaires wooing U.S. Supreme Court justices, “pushing the Court to adopt its first code of conduct."
A recent poll found that about half of American adults express a serious concern that newsrooms will include inaccurate information or disinformation in their 2024 election coverage.
Meet 16-year-old Quinn Mitchell, an aspiring journalist who has directed incisive questions at presidential candidates and recently wrote about the importance of Gen Z journalism.
Text-to-video tool Sora just reached a new first: a completely AI-generated music video from an indie pop artist that shuttles viewers through a couple’s life.
A basement office. A small team. Thousands of Black newspapers. Learn more about efforts at Howard University to digitize a rich archive of publications dating back to the 19th century.
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Your weekly issue of Get Smart About News is created by Susan Minichiello (@susanmini), Dan Evon (@danieljevon), Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams), Hannah Covington (@HannahCov) and Pamela Brunskill (@PamelaBrunskill). It is edited by Mary Kane (@marykkane) and Lourdes Venard (@lourdesvenard).

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