Learn about news literacy this week Year in review | Vaccine magnet hoax | 'Critical ignoring'
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A perfect storm
It's hard to imagine conditions better suited for misinformation to thrive than the upheaval, isolation and confusion created by the events that unfolded over the past year. The ongoing pandemic, a national reckoning with racial injustice, a profoundly divisive presidential election and a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol created widespread uncertainty, stoking fear, anger and urgency. It was a perfect storm for rumors, conspiracy theories and political propaganda.
For this issue, we compiled three key misinformation insights that came into sharper focus over the last nine months.
Misinformation is driven by human needs and vulnerabilities.
Falsehoods appeal to our innate need to make sense of our world, including our desire to simplify complex realities, identify enemies and foster a sense of control, community and belonging. Falsehoods also seize on our vulnerabilities. They capitalize on cognitive biases and exploit deeply held beliefs and values to slip past our rational defenses.
Misinformation is often performative.
People who like and share things on social media are often driven by “the desire to attract and please followers/friends or to signal one’s group membership” and fail to focus on the accuracy of the information, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature. Influential people with large followings also “perform” misinformation, driving a high proportion of false narratives online for popularity, or for financial or ideological gain. Some even admit under pressure that they are not engaged in good-faith discourse and should not be considered credible sources of information.
Misinformation is participatory.
As University of Washington researcher Kate Starbird and other members of the Election Integrity Partnership have pointed out, disinformation does not just flow from influencers and political elites to audiences in a top-down fashion. False narratives are also generated from the bottom-up. Nowhere was this circular and participatory cycle more apparent than in the swarm of election fraud rumors started by ordinary people who — primed to see “evidence” of fraud — spread misinterpretations about the routine actions of election workers. This same dynamic often fuels the spread of COVID-19 vaccine rumors that are based on misperceptions of standard medical practices.
While these takeaways may seem bleak, they do offer some good news. Researchers have refined their understanding of how misinformation is generated and why people are vulnerable to it, and are developing a more accurate picture of its true costs. The pandemic and the 2020 election increased the pressure on social media platforms to take more assertive action to minimize harm and enforce their existing community standards. Educators in schools across the country and around the world worked diligently to help steer their students through an increasingly sophisticated information environment.
Misinformation isn’t going to fade as a major concern anytime soon. But the lessons learned from this past year can help better equip us as we work to curb its spread in the future.
Viral rumor rundown
NO: COVID-19 vaccines do not magnetize your arm at the injection site. YES: This is a baseless hoax based on the widely debunked conspiracy theory that the vaccines contain microchips. NO: None of the available vaccines in the United States and Canada — including Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — list any metal-based ingredients, according to AFP Fact Check.
NO: Black Lives Matter did not say it “stands with Hamas,” the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. YES: The organization said, in a May 17 tweet, that it “stands in solidarity with Palestinians.” YES: Fox News published the erroneous headline in the above screenshot. YES: The headline was later “updated to more closely reflect the Black Lives Matter tweet,” Fox said in an editor’s note.
Tip: Be wary of screenshots of news coverage that are not accompanied by a link to the actual story.
NO: These photos do not show Vice President Kamala Harris pretending to board Air Force One using a replica plane and a green screen. YES: They show (at left) a partial replica of Air Force One at a Secret Service training facility in Maryland and (at right) a green screen that was part of a shoot for the television show Designated Survivor in 2017.
Note: Rumors about Biden administration activities being faked or staged are offshoots of the QAnon conspiracy belief system, which includes the delusion that former President Donald Trump is secretly still president. QAnon followers contend the Biden administration is merely a performance and commonly encourage one another to “enjoy the show” — often including popcorn emojis — in reference to what they believe is the final act of an elaborate scheme to prepare the public for Trump’s apocalyptic return to power.
NO: A Gallup poll of heterosexual couples who are married or living together did not find that men are more likely than women to do common household chores. YES: The results for men and women listed in this graphic reverse the actual findings published by Gallup in January 2020. YES: Another Facebook post containing a screenshot of this graphic — purportedly from MSNBC, with the same time stamp in the bottom right corner — displays the results correctly:
An April 9, 2020, Facebook post shared by two DJs at a country music radio station in Utah shows the same MSNBC graphic with the correct results of the Gallup poll.
While many students learn to assess texts through close reading, Sam Wineburg of Stanford University writes that this “same strategy spells doom” when it comes to evaluating information online. In fact, Wineburg writes that “often the wisest thing to do when landing on an unfamiliar site is to ignore it.” Wineburg’s research team found that most students, when tasked with investigating a website’s reliability, “stayed glued to the site,” giving attention to things they should actually ignore, such as the “About” page and other unreliable signals of credibility. Few discovered the website’s ties with the fossil fuel industry, but those who did practiced a skill Wineburg calls “lateral reading.” Rather than giving their attention to the site itself, these students opened new tabs to look for information — just like fact-checking pros would do.
Note: The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) board weighed in on the mayor’s recent decision in a statement and said, “Although we cannot support the tactic, we applaud the mayor’s sensitivity to the lack of diversity among the people who cover city government.” The board also added: “NABJ’s history of advocacy does not support excluding any bona fide journalists from one-on-one interviews with newsmakers, even if it is for one day and in support of activism.”
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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