GSAN: Cranky Uncle + vaccines | Instagram ‘news’ | Election misinfo


Learn news literacy this week
Cranky Uncle + vaccines | Instagram 'news' | Election misinfo

Note: There will be no issue of Get Smart About News next Tuesday. We’ll return to your inbox on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

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An illustration of four hands each holding voting ballets and two hands reaching up.
At least 40 national elections will be held around the world this year, affecting billions of people. Illustration credit: Biscotto Designs/

There is a “high risk” that mis- and disinformation will affect elections in some 40 countries around the world this year, according to media and political experts. Disinformation not only contributes to the erosion of trust in institutions but can also cause people to turn away from all information, leading to less-informed voters, according to political and disinformation researcher Carme Colomina. The rapid development and widespread availability of generative AI technologies have also increased the potential for more sophisticated and convincing election-related falsehoods.


What causes people to fall for misinformation? While the answer is complex, psychologist Lisa Fazio said one reason is because it’s appealing to the brain. False narratives can “provide simple answers for what’s wrong [in the world] and how they can fix it,” she said.

Psychologically speaking, a person who has internalized misinformation can correct their beliefs, but it’s difficult — especially if the falsehoods are closely tied to a person’s identity and emotions, Fazio said. Examining information, including where it comes from, and taking a pause when a social media post affects emotions are ways to prevent the spread the misinformation.


What young people consider to be “news” on Instagram may depend on how they feel, according to a new study by Dutch researchers who interviewed 111 Instagram users between the ages of 16 and 25. While young people in the group were mostly aware of characteristics of news, there was a significant gap between what they thought was news and what felt like news in their Instagram feeds. Some participants dismissed nearly everything on Instagram as not news while others came up with categories like “debatable” or “social” news to describe some posts. Others said that what counts as news is a personal determination, or anything that presents something novel. The researchers concluded that emotional considerations “are at least as important for users as their reasoned, cognitive arguments.”

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Outdated footage falsely linked to recent Japan earthquake

A post from an account bearing the name “Breaking News” on X reads, “7.2 magnitude earthquake see underwater #earthquake #Japon #Tsunami #BREAKING_NEWS #JapanEarthquake.” It is accompanied by a video shot underwater. The News Literacy Project has added a label that says, “INDONESIA, 2023.”

NO: This video does not show underwater footage from an earthquake that hit Japan on Jan. 1, 2024. YES: The video shows an undersea tremor from an earthquake in November 2023 in the Banda Sea off the coast of Indonesia. YES: The earthquake that hit Japan destroyed buildings, left tens of thousands without power and killed more than 160 people.

NewsLit takeaway: Natural disasters elicit strong emotions and prompt a spike in public curiosity, making them an easy target for purveyors of misinformation, who misleadingly use genuine photographs and videos from previous events. This is a particularly popular trend among engagement bait accounts, or social media accounts whose primary purpose is to elicit clicks and views. Here are two methods you can use to detect, or better yet, avoid, these deceptive posts.

  • Check the source. Standards-based news outlets aren’t perfect, but they have policies and procedures to verify the authenticity of visuals before they publish them. Erroneous visuals are exceedingly rare in news coverage from reputable outlets.
  • Use reverse image search. Plugging an image (including a screenshot of a video) into a reverse image search engine, such as Google Images, TinEye or Yandex, is a quick way to determine the original context.

Epstein document release spurs spate of fakes and falsehoods

A collage of three screenshots shows a post on X featuring an image that appears to show former President Donald Trump with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein that reads, “Donald Judas Trump was a regular on flights to Epstein Island and his name appears on the #EpsteinClientList and the MAGAt’s can’t deal with the truth of that,” and a Facebook post featuring images that appear to show the Obama family on a coastline with a building from Epstein’s private island in the background that reads, “Outta all the places to take a family photo.” Another X post says, “Jimmy Kimmel being mentioned in the Epstein documents” with what appears to be a screenshot of a court document. The News Literacy Project has added a label that says, “DOCTORED AND FABRICATED.”

NO: This is not a genuine photo of former President Donald Trump and the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein on a private plane. YES: It is an AI-generated image. NO: This is not a genuine photo of former President Barack Obama and his family on Little St. James, Epstein’s private Caribbean island. YES: It is a doctored photo of an Obama family vacation in Hawaii with a distinctive building from Epstein’s island added to the background. NO: Prominent television host Jimmy Kimmel was not named in the court documents related to Epstein that were released in two batches on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4. YES: This screenshot of text is a fake, created to match the appearance of the actual documents.

NewsLit takeaway: As a court prepared to release documents related to Epstein, purveyors of disinformation played into the guilt by association fallacy and conjured up falsehoods that appeared to link various celebrities and politicians to him. Furthermore, these false claims were spread in the days and hours leading up to and immediately following the documents’ release, when many people were expecting news that could harm or expose particular political figures or celebrities. This kind of anticipatory environment is ripe for exploitation by bad actors: people are impatiently scrolling their feeds, seeking information and subconsciously looking to confirm their biases. This makes fabrications and baseless claims easy to push and quick to spread.

The Gateway Pundit, a far-right conspiracy website, published at least 40 pieces last year pushing baseless claims about 2020 voter fraud in Muskegon, Michigan. The false stories didn’t provide any evidence, but they did provide a spike in site traffic that reached 1.5 million, more than double the previous month.
“Do your own research” is a popular motto among conspiracy theorists, but a new study found that people who search a false claim online are more likely to get results that reinforce false claims.
Deepfake audio will affect the election and X (formerly Twitter) is going to disappear by the end of this year, according to 2024 predictions by MediaWise director Alex Mahadevan in this Poynter column.
Chinese disinformation in Taiwan — including a bogus narrative about the government harvesting blood from Taiwanese citizens to make an American bioweapon — is spreading ahead of Taiwan’s next election.
Florida’s surgeon general has a history of amplifying COVID-19 vaccine misinformation — and has now called for their use to be halted altogether, citing … misinformation.
The Cranky Uncle online game was originally developed to counter climate misinformation, but the concept of a cranky uncle was universally understood, so UNICEF requested a new vaccine-focused version of the popular game.
When it comes to content moderation, Substack typically has a hands-off approach — but the platform agreed to remove some pro-Nazi newsletters after facing pressure from its users.
“The media” is an easy target for people to blame their frustrations on, but this rundown of impactful local journalism in every state last year underscores the important role that news organizations play in protecting the public’s interest.
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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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