GSAN: Be factful | Vaccine misinformation | COVID-19 comics


Learn about news literacy this week
Be factful | Vaccine misinformation | COVID-19 comic

NOTE: Get Smart About News is taking next week off and will return Dec. 8. Happy Thanksgiving!

Be factful

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 19 published updated recommendations for safely celebrating Thanksgiving during the pandemic. But COVID-19 isn’t the only viral threat people are contending with this holiday season. Baseless rumors and conspiracy theories about voter fraud in the presidential election have been spreading for months, leading many Americans to see “evidence” of fraud on and after Nov. 3 where none existed. This happened with ballot applications misperceived as actual ballots; misinterpreted video clips of workers dutifully counting votes; misguided amateur investigations of election center trash; and misconceptions surrounding when and how results are reported.

Though each of these falsehoods have been repeatedly debunked and explained, about a third of Americans — and more than three-quarters of those who support President Donald Trump — still believe that president-elect Joe Biden only won the election due to voter fraud, according to a Monmouth University poll published Nov. 18. So no matter what you’re doing to celebrate Thanksgiving, there’s a reasonable chance some of the most stubborn rumors about election fraud will come up. Here’s a quick guide to help you navigate them.

  • Spikes in votes have logical explanations. Hyperpartisan “news” outlets and social media echo chambers continue to tout groundless rumors about secret “vote dumps,” particularly involving the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and Pennsylvania. But most results reflect large batches of votes, often from cities, that were expected to heavily favor Biden. In a few other cases, spikes in reported vote totals were the result of errors — for example, a quickly corrected typo in Shiawassee County, Michigan, and a missed software update in Antrim County, Michigan.
  • Conspiracy theories about voting machines are baseless. In a Nov. 19 news conference, lawyers for President Trump falsely claimed that software run by many voting machines was created in Venezuela and controlled by its late president, Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013. They also claimed that machines made by a company called Dominion Voting Systems are designed to “flip” votes to favor one candidate and that a server with evidence of this nonexistent manipulation was seized in Germany. None of these things are true.
    • Remember: Even if it were possible for a voting machine to alter vote tallies, the results would still need to match paper ballot totals to be considered legitimate. Georgia election officials said a hand recount of votes confirmed the overall accuracy of the machine count.
    • Related: “How We Know Dominion Voting Machines Didn’t Affect the Election Outcome” (John McCormack, National Review).
  • Attempts to cast votes for dead people are uncommon and unsuccessful. While state laws vary concerning the validity of votes of people who die before Election Day but who have cast absentee and mail-in ballots, fraudulent attempts to vote on behalf of a dead person remain extremely rare.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: This video does not show any ballots or other election documents being secretly or improperly shredded in Cobb County, Georgia, following the Nov. 19 completion of a state-ordered recount of votes in the presidential election. YES: It shows “non-relevant materials” that contain voters’ personal information — such as mailing labels and envelopes, sticky notes and phone messages — being taken to a mobile shredding truck outside a county event center in Marietta, where the recount took place. NO: This is neither a crime nor unusual. YES: The Cobb County elections department released a statement confirming that “everything of consequence, including the ballots, absentee ballot applications with signatures, and anything else used in the count or re-tally remains on file.”


NO: President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign did not hire the mafia in Philadelphia to fabricate fraudulent ballots. YES: This is a baseless claim that originated in an unsigned, evidence-free article in The Buffalo Chronicle, a news site with a history of publishing right-wing conspiracy theories.

Note: A BuzzFeed News–Toronto Star investigation also alleged the site’s publisher previously offered to skew political coverage in return for a fee.


NO: The image in this Instagram post is not an authentic tweet from President Donald Trump. YES: It is an image of a fabricated tweet shared by an account claiming to be a paid ambassador of the conservative student group Turning Point USA.

Note: You can check the authenticity of tweets from President Trump using or ProPublica’s Politwoops website.


NO: The COVID-19 vaccines that are currently in development will not alter people’s DNA. YES: These vaccines are “mRNA” vaccines, which use a fragment of genetic material from the virus rather than a weakened or killed version of the virus, to produce an immune response. NO: There is no conspiracy to use the COVID-19 pandemic to establish an authoritarian world government. YES: Such claims are part of a sprawling, decades-old “New World Order” conspiracy theory.



★ NewsLit Picks


“A Tale of Two Pandemics: Historical Insights on Persistent Racial Disparities” (Josh Neufeld, Journalist’s Resource).

You may have read, seen or heard news reports about racial disparities regarding COVID-19, and the ways in which Black people have been disproportionately affected. But this is a different take on the story — in comic form. Josh Neufeld, a comics journalist, not only features an illustrated version of the actor Idris Elba discussing his COVID-19 diagnosis, but he also provides a look over the centuries at how Black people have been the subject of baseless claims that they are immune to diseases and how they still face racial discrimination in the U.S. health care system.

Note: In an interview about his piece, Neufeld defined his role as a comics journalist in this way: “…I research, report, and tell true-life stories — but with the added component of pictures, word balloons, and captions. The characters I portray are real people, and the text in their word balloons are actual quotes from my interviews with them.”


Quick Picks

“Designed to Deceive: Do These People Look Real to You?” (Kashmir Hill and Jeremy White, The New York Times).

“News Distrust Among Black Americans is a Fixable Problem” (Tamar Wilner, Gina M. Masullo, Danielle Kilgo and Lance Bennett, Center for Media Engagement, The University of Texas at Austin).

“How much political news do people see on Facebook? I went inside 173 people’s feeds to find out” (Laura Hazard Owen, Nieman Lab)


Thanks for reading!

Your weekly issue of Get Smart About News 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).

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