Coronavirus hoaxes continue to spread

Coronavirus viral rumor with map

NO: This map does not show day-to-day levels of sulfur dioxide (a toxic gas) in Wuhan, China. YES: It is a visualization of a NASA estimate based on past data created by, a company that provides interactive weather forecasting services. NO: This is not evidence that mass cremations are being carried out in Wuhan.

Coronovirus virus rumor about bubblewrap

NO: You cannot catch the new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) from the air in bubble wrap.

Note: This rumor is surprisingly widespread on Twitter.

Patrick Mahomes faked photoA social media post showed Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes wearing a shirt with doctored text. The doctored image included the words “The Great State of Kansas” printed on an outline of the state of Missouri.

What he actually wore

Mahomes wore a shirt that said “SHOWTIME” with his jersey number (15) in the original photo. His agent  tweeted the photo  after the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 2.

Prompted by Trump tweet

President Donald Trump made an error in a tweet after the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, saying that the champion Kansas City Chiefs “represented the Great State of Kansas…so very well.” Trump deleted the tweet and corrected the mistake in a second tweet less than 12 minutes later.

Take note

The websites Trump Twitter Archive and archive Trump’s tweets, including those that have been deleted.

Coffee order did not come with a slur

Post regarding disproven slur against police

NO: A McDonald’s employee in Junction City, Kansas, did not write “f*cking pig” on a police officer’s coffee cup. YES: A 23-year-old officer with the Herington Police Department would later say he wrote the expletive on his own coffee cup as a “joke.”

YES: The department’s police chief believed the officer’s initial claim that a McDonald’s employee was responsible for the slur and posted about the incident on Facebook, drawing national attention and news coverage..”  YES: The officer resigned on Dec. 30 after McDonald’s reviewed video footage of the order being served, which showed that no restaurant employee wrote on the officer’s cup.

Oklahoma incident

A police officer did receive a coffee with “pig” on the order label at a Starbucks in Kiefer, Oklahoma, in November.

In need of correction?

The New York Post, which is one of several news outlets that published reports about the staged incident, has published follow-up articles, but has yet to publish an editor’s note or other correction on its original story.

This is not Greta Thunberg firing a rifle

False image of Greta Thunberg firing a gun

NO: The person shooting a rifle in this video is not 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. YES: She is Emmy Slinge, a 31-year-old engineer in Sweden (the page is in Swedish.)

NOTE: If you use Google’s Chrome browser, Google will offer to translate pages written in languages other than English You can also use

ALSO NOTE: The claim that the video showed Thunberg shooting the rifle was an especially popular meme in Brazil, and Comprova, a fact-checking initiative supported by four news organizations there, was the first to debunk it (the page is in Portuguese). A reporter from Estadão, one of the news outlets involved with Comprova, contacted Slinge to confirm that she was the person in the video.

Resource: Comprova used the InVid fake news debunker browser extension to find the source video.

Satirical piece makes the rounds on clickbait sites

Plagiarized piece of satire regarding U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's children.A “satirical” story  falsely claimed that two children of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, were arrested and charged with arson for a nonexistent fire at the nonexistent St. Christopher’s Church of Allod in Maine., one of a network of satire sites run by the self-proclaimed “liberal troll” Christopher Blair, originally published this piece in July. Blair frequently provokes incautious readers online. In this post, he uses the word “Allod” in the name of the non-existent church. “Allod” is an acronym for “America’s Last Line of Defense,” another of Blair’s sites.

The item about Omar’s children has been copied (and in some cases plagiarized) by a number of clickbait sites seeking ad revenue. Links to the stories continue to be shared online, and many of those sites do not label the item as satire.

For teachers

Blair publishes absurd falsehoods, which he prominently labels as satire, but does so to troll and mock conservatives. Is this a legitimate form of “satire”? Why or why not?

If Blair’s obviously labeled pieces get mistaken as actual news, who is at fault? Is it unethical for Blair to profit from his satire through ad placements on his websites? Is it unethical for digital ad brokers to place ads on Blair’s sites? On sites that plagiarize Blair’s work?

Brexit video edit changed its meaning

viral rumor regarding Brexit

Partisans in the United States certainly have no monopoly on editing or manipulating videos and other content to make their political opponents look bad. Take this recent example from the United Kingdom.

In an appearance Nov. 5 on Good Morning Britain, Keir Starmer, a member of Parliament and the Labour Party’s shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, did not refuse to answer, or fail to answer, a question about his party’s position on Brexit — the process by which the nation will leave the European Union (“Britain” + “exit” =  “Brexit”). It was approved by British voters in 2016.

Just kidding?

The official Facebook page for the Conservative Party, which currently holds power, posted an edited version of the interview that made Starmer appear to be stumped by a question from Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan. The full footage of the interview, available on the program’s YouTube channel, shows that Starmer promptly answered Morgan’s question.

The day after the Conservative Party posted its video on Facebook, the party’s chairman, James Cleverly, in three separate interviews described the doctored video as “humorous,” “light-hearted” and “satirical.”

For discussion in the classroom:

  • Should Facebook flag this post for its fact-checking partners?
  • Should it demote it in the platform’s algorithm to stop it from spreading widely?
  • Should political parties be held to the same community standards on social media as other users?
  • Is it important for people to be able to see examples of a political figure or party engaging in misleading spin or fabrications?
  • Do you think tactics like this ultimately help or hurt the politicians and political parties that use them?

False news around al-Baghdadi’s death

Fake image of Omar crying

This week in The Sift® we examine several viral rumors related to the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State terrorist organization. Here’s our rundown:

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, did not cry, praise or offer condolences to the family of al-Baghdadi after he killed himself on Oct. 27 during a U.S. military raid. A “satirical news” website — Genesius Times — published a fictional piece last week based on this claim.  The photo of Omar used in the Genesius Times item (and in the Facebook post above) is from a news conference in April.

Note: While the Genesius Times’ tagline provides a prominent disclaimer in its header about the site’s lack of credibility (“The most reliable source of fake news on the planet”), the comments about this item on social media and on the website suggest that a significant number of people believed it.

Also note: The Genesius Times website contains ads placed by RevContent, a digital ad broker, and claims to be a participant in an affiliate advertising program run by Amazon.

Discuss: Does this website count as satire? Is its style of satire ethical?

False Paul Ryan Post

The man on the right is not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He is Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit organization that advocates for democracy in Syria. Moustafa posted this selfie to his Instagram account in May 2016 after meeting with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan to discuss the situation of civilians in Syria.

Fake CNN screenshot

CNN did not describe Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an “unarmed father of three” on a chyron during a news broadcast. CNN did not refer to the terrorist leader as a “brave ISIS freedom fighter” on screen during a broadcast. The image of CNN anchor Don Lemon in this fake screenshot is not from October 2019. It has been around since at least December 2018.

Note: As the fact check from Snopes points out, this fake screenshot appears to be an allusion to a headline on The Washington Post’s website that referred to Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar,” prompting sharp criticism.

Discuss: Do you think that this fake screenshot was created as a joke? Is there evidence that it tricked people who saw it online? Why do people manipulate screenshots of newscasts? Once a fake screenshot is created, can it be controlled online? What direct or indirect effects might this fake screenshot have when someone mistakes it as authentic?

Doctored images designed to provoke

Doctored image of Trump's parentsEvery day doctored images pop up on social media — and often go viral thanks to their provocative content. Take these two examples from the past week:

This image of Donald Trump with his parents, Mary and Fred, is not authentic. The Ku Klux Klan robes were added to a photo that was taken in 1994.

Faked face covering

doctored image of driver's licensePeople are not allowed to cover their faces for a driver’s license photo in Ontario, Canada. The photo seen in the Facebook post — of a woman wearing a face veil — was added to an image of a sample Ontario driver’s license. This rumor isn’t new; it was debunked by Snopes in 2015.

The same doctored image also appeared in 2017 in a false report by a Russian radio station that claimed it was from Brazil.

For teachers

In the first photo (Trump and his parents), what emotions does this claim elicit? How can emotions override rational responses to information?

In the case of the doctored driver’s license photo, why might this false image have recirculated in October 2019? What was happening in Canada at that time? Do you think that it will circulate again? Why or why not?

Inoculate yourself against flu shot rumors

False rumor meme about flu vaccine

Are you ready for flu season? Maybe you’ve stocked up on hand sanitizer, tissues and ibuprofen. And if you’ve already rolled up your sleeve to get a flu shot, then consider yourself well prepared.

But if you have concerns about the vaccine, it’s time to arm yourself against the viral rumors about it and learn the truth about protecting your health.

So don’t let this multi-tentacled rumor (pictured above) scare you. Its claim that “over 1,100 people died from reactions to the shot” in 2018 is utterly untrue. (In extremely rare cases, people can experience serious allergic reactions to ingredients in the vaccine.)

It also claims that some children who received flu shots have contracted polio — a once-common disease with often debilitating outcomes. The flu vaccine has nothing to do with polio, and the poliovirus is not an ingredient in the vaccine. No children have ever gotten polio from a flu shot.

Finally, that post claims that mercury is a “questionable ingredient” in the vaccine. Vaccines in a multi-dose vial may contain the preservative thimerosal, which has a trace amount of mercury. However, thimerosal is not poisonous and has been used safely in vaccines since the 1930s. There is no thimerosal in the single-dose syringes and nasal sprays often used to administer the vaccine.

Another rumor about this season’s flu vaccine falsely claims that getting a flu shot makes you “an active live walking virus.” It doesn’t. A French parody website, SecretNews, originated this fabrication in August.

Remember, just like the flu itself, false viral rumors about the flu vaccine are a perennial presence. But if you call on your news literacy skills, you can get to the truth and protect your — and your family’s — health.

Viral rumor rundown president of Finland fakeIt is true that Sauli Niinistö, the president of Finland, met with President Donald Trump on Oct. 2 at the White House. But Niinistö did not later post a video in which he said he prefers “the company of reindeer and snow.” The video, a piece of satire, features Actor Rob Paulsen, who created the video and shared it to his Instagram account.

Satire out of context

This is an example of a piece of satire that has circulated outside its original satirical context, causing confusion.

For teachers

Should Paulsen have labeled this video more clearly as a piece of satire? Is there anything he could have done to prevent it from being misunderstood if it was copied and used elsewhere online? Is it reasonable to expect the creators of satire to take steps to prevent such confusion, or is that the sole responsibility of the audience? Even if you always recognize satire, can other people mistaking a piece of satire for something real have an impact on you?

Border wall image for rumor rundown

President Donald Trump visited a newly replaced section of the Otay Mesa border wall near San Diego on Sept. 18 and praised its “anti-climb” features. The image shown here implies those features do not work. But it requires a closer look.

The border wall shown in this tweet is not the Otay Mesa wall. It is a section of border fencing in Imperial Beach’s Border Field State Park, about 10 miles to the west of Otay Mesa. The image does not show people crossing into the U.S.  It does show recently arrived members of a caravan of migrants who climbed and sat atop the fence before returning to the Mexican side of the border in November 2018.

For teachers

Use this viral rumor to teach students how to do a reverse image search and use Google Street View. Using Google’s Chrome browser, right-click the image in this archived version of the tweet and select “Search Google for Image” from the menu. Use the image search results to find a credible source and debunk the tweet’s claim. Then challenge students to locate that section of fence using Google Street View.

Border wall timeline

Show students how to use the Google Street View timeline to see when the section of fence in the photo might have been constructed. Ask them if it appears to have been updated or otherwise changed any time in the last few years? (Hint: The lighter colored section of fence appears in the December 2015 capture of the fence, but was not there in April 2009.)

Don’t let a viral meme infect you


Trump doctored imageDid you see the viral meme featuring President Donald Trump that circulated last week? It combined an old image from a Fox News program, a doctored caption and a false quote.

The president did not say the following during a phone interview on Fox and Friends:

“The Democrats can subpoena me and my administration for the next 10, 15, 20 years and we will never capitulate. They need to face the fact that I am in charge, this is my country and I will do as I please, they have no control over me. The people support me and will always support me.”

The caption “President Trump goes ballistic on Fox and Friends” never appeared on screen. Instead, a video still from an April 25 phone interview with Trump on Hannity, another Fox News program, was manipulated to add the false quote and text.

The comments on one instance of this false meme on Facebook (archived here) show not only that a number of people believe that the quote and the image are authentic, but also how people sometimes rationalize false information as “true.”

Remember, purveyors of misinformation cross all demographics and partisan identities. So if your finger is itching to “like” or share a post that confirms your closely held beliefs, take a step back. Look deeper to identify the source of the content and determine its credibility before you jump on a viral bandwagon and get taken for a ride