GSAN: Viral rumor rundown year in review


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Viral Rumor Rundown year in review

Note: Get Smart About News will be transitioning to its summer format and will return on June 6. In the meantime, please take a moment to share your feedback about the newsletter in our annual reader survey.

Viral Rumor Rundown year in review

From Russia’s propaganda war to falsehoods about the pandemic and economy, the rapid spread of misinformation throughout this school year again underscored the importance of news literacy savvy in today’s chaotic information environment. It’s our hope that this newsletter’s focus on pushing back against timely falsehoods through our popular Viral Rumor Rundown made it easier to navigate some of the biggest news events of the past year.

The rundown dates back to the earliest issues of The Sift® educator newsletter in the fall of 2017 and has consistently been a reader favorite. In September, we tweaked the format of the rundown entries and started publishing them individually on the Viral Rumor Rundown blog to provide educators and the public with an index of illustrative examples of misinformation. We also added a “NewsLit takeaway” section beneath each example with quick explanations of relevant news literacy skills and concepts.

Here are five key misinformation observations to carry forward into the summer.
Conspiracy theories are endemic in the misinformation landscape. The prevalence of conspiratorial thinking in mis- and disinformation was on full display this year. Conspiracy narratives fueled dangerous falsehoods about COVID-19 and reckless and absurd denials of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Posts pushing well-established conspiracy theories were also part of the mix.
Provoking outrage remains a common goal of misinformation purveyors. People are generally better at detecting misinformation when they slow down and engage their logical, critical faculties. But strong emotions quickly circumvent these higher-order abilities and cause people to like and share online content too quickly. Outrage is one of the most effective emotional targets that purveyors of misinformation can use to get their messages to spread widely. Whether it’s claims that wildly exaggerate runaway gas prices or inflation, or posts designed to galvanize antipathy for a particular public figure, outrage continues to prove itself a major vulnerability in people’s information defenses.
Misinformation is increasingly cross-platform. Viral rumors have always been nearly impossible to contain within a single platform, but in recent years we’ve seen a spike in the migration of misinformation across platforms. Screenshots of false tweets may be featured in TikTok videos, which in turn are posted to Facebook. In addition to amplifying the original falsehood, this activity makes the enormously difficult task of content moderation even harder. Posts that are flagged or removed from one platform spread unimpeded on others.
Screenshots are often used to omit context. Hyperpartisans, trolls and other purveyors of disinformation online often post screenshots of alleged news reports as “evidence” for a claim. This practice serves to obscure the original source — either because that source is plainly unreliable, or because the content is being taken out of context or has been doctored in some way. For example, bad actors sometimes steal elements that originated on satirical “news” sites, and pass them off as authentic to generate quick engagement on social media.
People sometimes share misinformation with good intentions. Given the attention that malicious disinformation receives, it’s easy to assume that all false information is shared with ill intent. But that’s not true. Many rumors — even harmful ones — are spread by people who mean well. For example, as support for Ukraine emerged in countries around the world, feel-good posts about resistance to the Russian invasion proliferated online. These included inspiring (but false) anecdotes about unlikely heroes, fabricated claims of reinforcements, sensational out-of-context footage purporting to show Russian losses and fakes demonizing Russian figures. While it’s impossible to determine the motive behind the creation of these kinds of rumors, it’s clear that at least some are circulated as opportunistic “engagement bait” seeking likes, shares and followers. However, Russia has also capitalized on the falsehoods to cast doubt on credible reporting about its destruction of civilian targets and possible war crimes.
The latest entries from our Viral Rumor Rundown blog at will be featured in Get Smart About News this summer. The full newsletter will return after Labor Day. 

Thanks for reading!

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

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