2022, the year in misinformation: News literacy takeaways

2022 Misinformation Year in Review

In 2022, misinformation continued to spread on social media and make its mark on the news cycle. From “cheap fakes” to miscaptioned videos to conspiratorial claims and rumors made entirely out of whole cloth, we review some of the biggest misinformation claims of the year and offer tips on how to better navigate social media in the new year.

1. Breaking news rumors

Even during the earliest stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, propagandists swarmed social media to muddy the waters and alter the narrative. The driving focus behind many of these rumors was to downplay the severity of the attack by claiming the war was somehow faked or staged. Social media posts used miscaptioned news footage and altered news reporting, and behind-the-scenes movie footage that had nothing to do with the war to support the false claims.

Other purveyors of misinformation took a different approach, connecting the conflict to a wide range of conspiracy theories, including that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was related to billionaire George Soros and that the United States was operating secret biolabs across Ukraine. Video game footage was also passed off as “shocking” evidence of military attacks, and a spate of rumors amplified Russian disinformation narratives, including false claims that the Ukrainian resistance is made up of Nazis.

NewsLit takeaway: Breaking news events — especially those that occur in foreign countries and during chaotic times in which information is scarce and the situation is in flux — provide ample opportunities for purveyors of misinformation to spread false claims. Russia, arguably the world’s leading producer of disinformation, has a strong interest in manufacturing confusion and doubt about its invasion. Be cautious about sharing information during breaking news cycles before it has been confirmed by credible sources.

2. Anti-vaccination falsehoods

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a rise of anti-vaccination sentiments that persisted in 2022. Vaccine denialist narratives that were prominent in 2020 and 2021 gained more mainstream traction as they were amplified by celebrities and repackaged into slick pseudo-documentary films. While many of the anti-vaccine rumors that circulated in 2022 were simply rehashed versions of previously debunked claims — a nonexistent increase in athletes collapsing, bogus claims about vaccines altering DNA, misattributed celebrity deaths and a false depopulation theory — their prevalence and proliferation meant that health misinformation continued to spread.

NewsLit takeaway: Anti-vaccination rumors infected a wide range of communities, from alternative health and wellness groups seeking “natural” remedies to anti-government followers opposed to regulations and mandates. These false rumors (like many conspiracy theories) appeal to people because they seem to provide answers during times of uncertainty, but they merely shelter people from the truth. Seek out health information from credible sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

3. Election fraud allegations

Ripples from the “Big Lie” of the 2020 presidential election continued to reverberate into the 2022 midterm contests. Some social media users repackaged familiar tropes — exaggerating mundane technical problems, misrepresenting the actions of poll workers, and spreading baseless lies about election laws — to cast doubt on the process and results.

NewsLit takeaway: Despite the false claims, very few cases of voter fraud occurred during the midterms. And election fraud falsehoods didn’t have the same impact as in 2020. One reason for this may be the rise of “prebunking” — or identifying examples of rumors that users are likely to encounter as an event approaches. The News Literacy Project produced this infographic to alert people about the types of rumors they would likely see during the midterms.

4. Economic conspiracies

The world in 2022 continued to experience interruptions in the supply chain that contributed to food and product shortages and inflation, while demand and supply imbalances led to higher gas prices. The effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic rippled throughout the global economy as well. Some social media users exploited the issues by catastrophizing their impact and spreading falsehoods about their causes. Alarmist falsehoods politicizing shortages in infant formula circulated, as did baseless claims that the U.S. was on the brink of running out of diesel fuel. Conspiracy theorists also pushed absurd claims that a government cabal was intentionally causing shortages — by representing videos of crops being burned or cows dying in a heat wave to contend these resulted from deliberate state actions.

NewsLit takeaway: Partisans and conspiracy theory communities often spin and exaggerate real world events to fit their own agendas. Following standards-based news organizations on social media can help mitigate the spread of these misleading takes. Practicing lateral reading also helps avoid conspiratorial rabbit holes.

5. Altered audio

One popular form of misinformation in 2022 involved genuine video clips with unrelated pieces of audio added to them. Anti-Biden chants and jeers were added to videos of first lady Jill Biden at a football game, former President Barack Obama at a rally, and President Joe Biden during a visit to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. Digital software capable of impersonating celebrity voices was also used to spread misinformation, such as this doctored video of former President Donald Trump appearing to praise Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, shortly after West showed support for Nazis, and this video of Elon Musk seeming to mock “crybaby liberals” shortly after taking over Twitter.

NewsLit takeaway: Deepfakes tend to attract attention, but purveyors of misinformation also can create quick and convincing videographic fakes with simple manipulations of context, or by merely swapping out the audio. These altered videos can be detected by tracking down the authentic source footage, but it’s a step few people take as they scroll through their feeds, especially when the message resonates with their existing views and biases.

6. Fake litter boxes and anti-transgender claims

One of the biggest stories of the year never happened. A baseless, transphobic internet falsehood about (nonexistent) schools accommodating (nonexistent) students who “identify as cats” made its way into school board meetings as secondhand anecdotes, then were amplified by right-wing podcasters and pundits. Influential podcast host Joe Rogan, for example, shared a claim on his show that his friend’s wife worked at a school that was forced to install such a litter box to accommodate a student; he later retracted the story because there was no evidence that it was real. Litter boxes quickly became a modern-day urban legend.

NewsLit takeaway: Confirmation bias can be incredibly powerful. The right-wing media ecosystem regularly highlighted controversies over transgender people using bathrooms, competing in sports and choosing their own pronouns. Anger and fear over this issue intensified in some partisan circles and paved the way for implausible scenarios (a school installing a litter box for a child to use instead of a bathroom) to be credulously believed and repeated as a political talking point. Be sure to check other sources of credible information before sharing a viral or controversial post.

7. Flat Earth and climate-change lies

Even as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured images of distant galaxies, social media users were busy spreading rumors that the Earth was flat. Even more disconcerting, there was a general rise in climate misinformation in 2022, including false claims maligning electric cars, a fabricated magazine cover that indicated climate change is a hoax and accusations that the media was doctoring weather maps to sow panic.

NewsLit takeaway: Misinformation relies on the rejection of credible and authoritative sources. This is exemplified in the flat Earth conspiracy theory and, more importantly, in the rejection of overwhelming evidence of Earth’s changing climate. To follow climate change developments, seek out information from standards-based news organizations and credible science sources.

Podcast special | “Sandy Hook at 10: Tragedy, Conspiracies and Justice”

On Dec. 14, it will be 10 years since a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 first graders and six adults. Soon after, conspiracy theories calling the massacre a hoax emerged. And they have persisted for a decade, thanks to amplification and profiteering by “alt-right” media figure Alex Jones.

In a special two-part episode of our podcast Is that a fact? — “Sandy Hook at 10: Tragedy, conspiracy theories and justice” — we explore the aftermath of the shooting and how what seemed like an aberration of untruths would instead develop into a bellwether for a shift in public discourse, with conspiracy theories becoming a common element of tragic events. We also discuss how victims’ families have fought back against the lies and harassment and brought about lasting change.

‘Typhoid Mary of the Sandy Hook hoax’

In part one, Elizabeth Williamson, a feature writer with The New York Times and author of Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, explains the incomprehensible need to deny reality and the lucrative market that exploits people’s vulnerability. “He is a sort of a Typhoid Mary of the Sandy Hook hoax,” Williamson said of Jones. She noted that he “has been there at every stop along our descent as a nation down the rabbit hole.” 

A father fights back

In part two, we speak with Lenny Pozner, father of Noah, the youngest victim at Sandy Hook. Pozner knew early on that the hoaxers’ movement would be widespread, lasting and harmful. So, he chose to fight back on behalf of his child and other victims. “Noah’s story will always need to be told because there’ll always be someone misusing it,” he said. “I knew that I needed to do everything that I’m able to do to help debunk, to help clarify, to tell my story as best as I can, which really is just telling Noah’s story.”

We hope you’ll listen to these compelling interviews and share them with your community, helping to make sure facts and evidence are front and center in these conversations.

For more insightful interviews about misinformation, news literacy and society, be sure to check out the first two seasons of Is that a fact?. Season One analyzes misinformation and elections, and Season Two addresses false narratives and the harm they cause.

Helping students lead productive conversations this holiday season and beyond

For those celebrating holidays this season, it can be a joyful time to get together with loved ones. However, navigating conversations with family and friends — especially any who have been misled by mis- and disinformation — can also be stressful.

Educators can help students develop the skills to confidently manage these situations, and understand and debunk misinformation they may encounter, using resources from the News Literacy Project in their lesson plans. Below is a curated selection of lessons, exercises and articles that can be useful to integrate into a middle or high school news and media literacy curriculum.

Start with our article and infographic “How to teach news literacy in polarizing times” for strategies on how to approach issues such as partisanship and credibility.

Assign

Educators can help students analyze the information landscape by assigning lessons through our Checkology®virtual classroom. These suggestions — just three of the platform’s 18 lessons for grades 6-12 — help students understand misinformation, spot conspiracy theories and discover the primary purpose of individual pieces of information.

Assign these and other media and news literacy lessons in just a few clicks. (It’s free!)

Supplementary Exercises

By assigning supplementary Checkology exercises, challenges and missions, educators can help improve students’ recognition of misinformation and strong evidence. (A free Checkology account is required to assign these exercises; register now.)

Read

These articles provide some basic skills for recognizing misinformation and confronting it — plus, they include helpful infographics for visual learners.

Discuss

Check out our collection of topics on Flip, packed with relevant classroom activities and discussion-starters. The topics below cover how to conduct conversations with empathy and respect, how to share information responsibly online and more. (Note: To add topics to a group, be sure to create a Flip account.)

By teaching classes how to apply critical thinking and news literacy skills in their lives, you’ll equip students with the ability to identify fact from fiction — an invaluable gift during the holiday season and beyond. A great starting point (especially if you are looking to fill shorter, end-of-semester days) is Checkology; get started today!

NLP: With Sandy Hook ruling, Jones to suffer consequences of his lies

In response to a Connecticut jury decision that ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his company to pay at least $965 million to those harmed by his lies about the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting, the News Literacy Project released the following statement:

“There are few things more heinous than deliberately and repeatedly spreading conspiracy theories and false information about a mass school shooting where families lost loved ones. Yet, that’s what Alex Jones did and today a jury in Connecticut is making him suffer the consequences for his lies.

“Jones spread disinformation about the murder of young children and school officials at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that caused the parents, loved ones and an FBI agent to be relentlessly harassed about the horrific tragedy. According to the Washington Post, ‘Within hours of the shooting, Jones was telling his audience that it was staged as a pretext for confiscating guns. Within days, he began to suggest that grieving parents were actors. In the years that followed, he repeatedly said the massacre was faked.’ He also used these outrageous claims for self-promotion — both to raise his profile and generate revenue.

“Now juries in Texas and Connecticut that heard all the details and defenses about the two cases have ruled against him and ordered him to pay more than $1 billion in punitive and compensatory damages. The message they sent is clear: Jones must be held accountable for spreading lies that led to the harassment of innocent and already suffering families and for distorting the national debate about one of the most urgent issues of our time. The enormous sum he must pay should serve as a deterrent to others who hope to profit from disinformation.”

‘Unite around facts’

“At NLP, our work is dedicated to helping people learn how to recognize fact from fiction. We are dedicated to stopping the spread of mis- and disinformation by providing free resources to prevent people from falling for conspiracy theories and to help them gain the skills to determine the credibility of information sources. This verdict is a major victory for those who want to unite around facts and credible information in people’s lives, and it is a bright spot in the often overwhelming fight against misinformation. We can all rest a bit easier with the knowledge that at least some purveyors of lies and disinformation who seek personal gain at the expense of the public good will be held accountable.”

Founders’ concern about fractured America relevant then, now

How are you celebrating the Fourth of July — with fireworks, a parade, a family cookout?

Try sharpening your news literacy skills! Our nation’s founders would be proud of you.

While they didn’t have to contend with the 24-hour news cycle, internet trolls or dangerous conspiracy theories, the Founding Fathers were concerned that misinformation and siloed thinking could weaken our young democracy.

In PoliticusUSA Tim Libretti, an Illinois university professor, wrote that the founders worries extended beyond meddling by foreign powers. They also were concerned about the vulnerability of the population to deceit and manipulation by their fellow citizens. However, the Founding Fathers put great stock in the people’s ability to make sound decisions based on facts that served the public good.

But John Adams had his doubts, Libretti noted. He feared that “human reason, and human conscience, … are not a match for human passions, human imaginations, and human enthusiasm.”

Factionalism, then and now

Adams wasn’t the only Founding Father with concerns. In America Magazine, a Jesuit publication, Matt Malone wrote that James Madison worried about factionalism, or the public breaking down into small, single-minded groups that act at the expense of the greater whole. And the Father of the Constitution provided an example: Tiny Rhode Island, which was beset by factionalism. “Madison believed that only a large society, occupying a vast expanse of space, could be effectively governed as a republic. If the place were too small, then like-minded people could too easily find one another and form a faction,” Malone wrote.

He quotes Madison as saying,“In the extended republic of the United States a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and common good.”

Today, millions of Americans need not cram themselves into 1,200 square miles — the size of Rhode Island — to form a powerful and destabilizing faction. Thanks to the internet and social media they can just look at their phones.

With little effort, anyone can find groups of like-minded, passionate people whose beliefs are often based on misinformation and conspiracy theories, with QAnon being one of the most widespread and dangerous. Many adherents were among the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Education is the antidote

What can you do on July 4 to stand up for the Republic? Become more news-literate so you are not vulnerable to conspiracy theories and factionalism.

And put your faith in the power of education, as Thomas Jefferson did. “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness,” he wrote in 1786.

Of course, his idea of diffusion of knowledge excluded enslaved Africans and all women.

At NLP, we strongly believe that education is the most effective and equitable approach to developing a more news-literate public. Our society relies on people who can think critically, engage responsibly with information, value our democracy and participate in keeping it robust. That’s why we hope you’ll spend some time with our resources to sharpen your ability to recognize misinformation. And please share that knowledge with your family, friends and network.

Happy Fourth of July!

Tools for recognizing information and helping others do the same

A big part of being news-literate is knowing what to watch out for and being able to recognize misinformation. That way, you can pause when you see it — and NOT share!

You can also respond to posts in replies and comments, letting others know — without amplifying —content that is false, misleading or taken out of context.

Why do people share misinformation? Bad actors and those attempting to cause confusion share disinformation, typically for personal, political or financial gain. But many people, often with good intentions, are fooled into sharing falsehoods, further polluting the information landscape.

Our misinformation infographic can help you understand what misinformation is and how to recognize it.

Talking with family and friends

While always problematic, when misinformation appears alongside pet photos and family updates on social media, it can be especially frustrating and unwelcome. It’s one thing if a stranger spreads falsehoods online. While every scenario is different, following some general best practices can help keep the conversation civil and make the interaction worthwhile. It may not be easy but talking to loved ones about false or misleading content can help them think twice about what to share in the future. Stepping into the role of fact-checker when it comes to loved ones can be tricky and stir strong emotions, so it’s worth preparing for — especially as more falsehoods seep across social media and into family and friend group chats. Check out this poster, How to speak up without starting a showdown, which outlines six steps to guide you through a conversation with family and friends.

Critical points to remember about misinformation:

  • Falsehoods always reach more people than corrections.
  • Once misinformation is online, it spreads quickly.
  • Anyone can fall victim to falsehoods.
  • There’s no such thing as good misinformation — facts matter!

‘Truth in Our Time’ events look at disinformation through cultural lens

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol have something in common ­— all are steeped in and fueled by disinformation, false narratives and censorship.

peter jennings

Peter Jennings at the 61st Annual Peabody Awards Luncheon, in 2002. Photo credit: Anders Krusberg / Peabody Awards

These dangerous forms of misinformation do more than threaten our ability to determine facts from  falsehoods; they also threaten our culture. This through line became clear during a panel discussion titled  “Truth in Our Time” held in New York City this month as part of a commemoration of the late journalist and ABC Evening News anchor Peter Jennings. David Muir, the network’s current news anchor, moderated the conversation, which featured Javier Hernández, a culture reporter at The New York Times; Gillian Tett, editor-at-large, U.S., of the Financial Times, and Alexander Shelley, music director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra.

The Centre sought to honor Jennings, a native of Canada, for his commitment to reporting the truth, and commissioned a work by composer Philip Glass for the event.  Glass’ Symphony No. 13 had its U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall the evening of the panel discussion. Muir, who worked at ABC News during Jennings’ tenure, said the day’s theme evoked the iconic journalist’s character and values. “Peter Jennings had a devotion to the truth, to fact-checking,” he said.

‘What is truth, what is the role of culture?’

Muir began the afternoon’s discussion by asking, “How can we try breaking through the competing forces of what is news, what is the truth, what is the role of culture?”

Tett, who was a Ph.D. student living in the Soviet Union in the 1990s during the Tajikistan civil war, saw firsthand how totalitarian governments silence dissension and terrorize citizens. “I got that knock on the door at midnight when the KGB went house to house,” she said. One family she knew held on strongly to their culture throughout the upheaval. “They used music to express their creativity and communicate from East to West at the intersection of the Silk Road,” Tett said. “Music can be a bridge. And I hang onto the hope that music can be a bridge.”

Hernández described how, in addition to news reporting, music and culture can tell the stories of people living through war and oppression. “It’s about the power of the individual, the power to connect people, shine a light on the truth,” he said, recalling how a musician once told him, “I play my music because music reminds me that we are all human.”

Hernández said this underscores how suppression of free speech directly impacts the arts. “Any attack on free press and journalism is an attack on musicians, books, music,” and all arts and culture.

Because art, like journalism, can express the truth, understanding that both play important roles in upholding a free society gets at the heart of news literacy. And it underscores why being news-literate matters more than ever.

Historical perspective

Previewing the evening’s concert, Shelley said that Glass “jumped at the chance” to write a symphony on the theme of truth, with other works in the program also addressing the impact of autocratic regimes on culture from a historical perspective. The Violin Concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold was written in 1945, after the composer, an Austrian Jew, fled the Nazis. “He wrote this piece when the Nazis fell and wouldn’t write it beforehand. It represents the scales falling from the eyes,” Shelley explained.

During this same time, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin asked composer Dmitri Shostakovich to write a patriotic piece to mark the end of World War II. Given the crimes of the regime, Shostakovich felt he could not write something patriotic, Shelley said. Instead, he wrote something very different. “This piece is sardonic, sarcastic. It speaks to the feeling of living in tyranny.”

The night’s encore, a late addition to the program, brought the audience back to the present and the deadly war in Ukraine. “We Do Exist” was written by Ukrainian composer Yuri Shevchenko based on the country’s national anthem. The selection acknowledges what is happening in Ukraine in a way that made it terribly real. Shevchenko died of pneumonia in a Kyiv basement last month, as the city prepared for a possible attack by Russian forces, Shelley told the audience.

NLP experts, educators speak with The 74 one year after Jan. 6 insurrection

As the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection neared, the importance of combating misinformation and its real-world impacts were as relevant as ever. How would educators teach this topic now and in the future – particularly to young people who lived to witness it?

Many of the people who participated in the insurrection believed they were fighting to protect democracy. But due to a lack of evidence that the 2020 election was stolen, most of them were misled by misinformation. How does a democracy protect itself from self-destruction when its citizens can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction? It starts with news literacy.

The 74’s Jo Napolitano spoke with Peter Adams, NLP’s senior vice president of education, and Brian Winkel, an Iowa educator, about the importance of  news literacy skills and their approaches to teaching them in this difficult climate.

To read the full piece, click here.

2021, the year in misinformation: News literacy takeaways

2021 marked another year of rapidly spreading misinformation following breaking news events, from the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to the Biden presidency. Get ready for 2022 by reviewing our news literacy takeaways from the past 12 months. You’ll be prepared to recognize and debunk falsehoods, conspiracy theories and hoaxes in 2022, and know what information to trust, share and act on.

  1. Science misinformation

    No, vaccines don’t magnetize you, increase the risk of infertility, contain tracking devices, or cause cancer and HIV. But misinformation surrounding vaccines — along with other science-based topics like climate change — continued to deluge social media feeds throughout the year.

    News literacy takeaway: Turn to credible, authoritative sources to confirm or debunk science-related content, such as NLP’s COVID-19 resources page or reputable institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And know that bad actors will even resort to cute cat videos as “engagement bait” to draw you to their sites and spread falsehoods.

  2. Protests and crowds

    Photos supposedly showing large crowds protesting or supporting controversial issues appeared frequently through the year in misleading ways. For example, this photo does not show a large crowd gathering in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021, the day before a demonstration to support former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election ended in riots. Instead, it shows people participating in the “March for Our Lives” gun control demonstration in 2018. A photo of mass demonstrations in Moscow in 1991 circulated online as “evidence” of large crowds protesting COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates in Austria in November 2021.

    New literacy takeaway: Using photos of large crowds in false contexts is a common disinformation tactic used to exaggerate the level of support for a cause. Do a reverse image search to help you find the original context of a photo.

  3. Jan. 6 rumors

    The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 resulted in a stream of misleading social media posts, falsehoods, and conspiracy theories that began immediately after the riots and continued throughout the year. A fabricated tweet in October that was attributed to Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene circulated online days after social media “sleuths” hatched a baseless conspiracy theory that she was the Capitol pipe bomber.

    News literacy takeaway: Conspiracy theorists often engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias to manufacture “evidence” for their beliefs. When you encounter a far-fetched or controversial claim, check to see if major fact-checking organizations have debunked it. Or go a step further and do your own research by practicing some basic digital verification skills, like reverse image search, lateral reading and other techniques that fact-checkers use to identify doctored images.

  4. Biden Presidency and QAnon

    QAnon followers continually promoted false claims that Former President Donald Trump actually won the election and President Joe Biden is either posing as president or is being played by a body double until Trump returns to power. In March, false claims spread on social media that video of Biden speaking to reporters at the White House was staged or manipulated using a green screen or computer-generated imagery.

    News literacy takeaway: Be aware that false claims about staged political events are often connected to dangerous and baseless QAnon beliefs. Find videos and posts that debunk the claims through a basic Google search.

  5. Misleading gas prices

    Misleading photos of unusually high gas prices have been used to try to score cheap partisan points online for years, and 2021 was no exception — particularly as prices rose from historic lows during the pandemic. A November photo from a station in Lancaster, California, displayed premium fuel costing nearly $9 per gallon. But the photo was taken out of context and did not reflect actual prices at the time. Other false and misleading examples can be found here, here and here.

  6. Empty supermarket shelves

    Supply chain problems in the news sparked numerous misleading social media posts, photos and videos, exaggerating the problem or falsely assigning blame. Posts featuring photos of empty supermarket shelves claimed that President Biden’s policies were responsible for food shortages. But the photos were used in false contexts. Some were taken in Australia and England. A photo of empty shelves in South Carolina was from 2018.

    News literacy takeaway: Viral rumors presenting photos of empty store shelves are common during disasters and other events that cause disruptions in the supply chain. Be wary of such photos and seek out trusted, standards-based news sources for accurate coverage of supply chain issues.

  7. Staged skits out of context

    Faked scenarios tied to real events and aimed at building followers on TikTok and other platforms continued as a trend. A video from November that appeared to capture a conflict among crew members on a commercial flight and a passenger demanding a seat change after another passenger refused to show proof of vaccination was actually staged for a short film.

    News literacy takeaway: This film was produced by a social media influencer with a history of creating films designed to go viral. Such videos often are published without disclosures that they’ve been staged. These videos can seem authentic at first because there are genuine cellphone videos of fights over COVID-19 rules on planes. Search online to see if a video has been debunked; the fact-checking site HoaxEye found selfies posted by the film’s creators.

  8. Vaccine harm claims

    Each development in the COVID-19 vaccines rollout — from approval by the Food and Drug Administration, to private company mandates, to the inclusion of shots for children — has sparked viral rumors. As the year began, celebrity deaths, like that of baseball icon and civil rights activist Hank Aaron, also were immediately and falsely tied to vaccines. Rather, Aaron died of natural causes at the age of 86 on Jan. 22.

    In November, a photo of a vaccination clinic in Foxborough, Massachusetts, was digitally altered to push an anti-vaccine narrative. Text in a sign in the photo said that COVID-19 vaccines were available without an appointment — but was changed to read “Don’t forget to donate your childrens (cq) organs.”

    News literacy takeaway: Many claims of vaccine harm involve sheer assertion and false context. Text on signs, for example, is easy to alter with photo manipulation software and is a common target of bad actors online. Check credible sources regarding the accuracy of any claims regarding vaccine harm, including those that tie deaths or injuries to vaccines. See our lateral reading guide for more tips.

  9. Celebrity t-shirts

    Doctored images of celebrities wearing t-shirts with provocative slogans were shared widely … again. This post featured George Clooney with a shirt that compared MAGA supporters to Confederates and Nazis. Another showed Captain America actor Chris Evans wearing an anti-Trump shirt. But in both cases the political messages had been digitally added, and the original photo of Clooney was taken in 2015.

    News literacy takeaway: Printed messages, including those on t-shirts, are particularly easy to alter and should always be approached with skepticism — especially when they spark a strong emotion or confirm your biases. Also, many of the provocative t-shirt designs that have been digitally added to celebrity photos were created for profit and sold online.

  10. Outrage bait

    Posts and tweets designed to evoke strong emotional reactions remained a fixture on social media. A tweet took a statement from Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis about COVID-19 vaccine mandates out of context to falsely push the claim that Florida schools will no longer require any vaccinations, even for polio, measles and mumps. Critics of vaccine mandates seized on the cancellation of thousands of Southwest Airlines flights in early October to spread baseless rumors that the service disruptions were due to pilots and crews refusing to work to protest the policy.

    News literacy takeaway: Outrage and anger drive engagement on social media. Users casually scrolling through their feeds may react without pausing long enough to figure out a tweet like this was inaccurate, especially if they have strong feelings about the topic. DeSantis said only that there would be no mandate for children to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The Southwest cancellations were due to air traffic control issues and bad weather. Follow our “Sanitize before you share” infographic to help you avoid unintentionally spreading misinformation.

For everyone: Understanding misinformation and how to talk to people who believe it

A news literacy learning series for older adults 

The News Literacy Project is hosting a free webinar series Understanding Misinformation and How to Talk to People Who Believe It to foster more productive conversations free of misinformation among friends and family members and across generations — particularly during the holidays. The series is sponsored by the Fore River Foundation and is being offered in partnership with AARP’s OATS/Senior Planet program. John Silva, NLP’s senior director of professional learning, and Elizabeth Price, NLP’s manager of professional learning, will lead the sessions.

These free webinars will help participants understand what misinformation is, how people come to believe it and how to effectively and compassionately communicate and debunk those beliefs. While older adults play a critical role in sorting fact from fiction and helping others to do so, everyone can benefit from resources and support to help prevent harm from mis- and disinformation.

We’ve recorded the four webinars, complemented with additional resources, in case you missed a session or want to revisit a topic. Links are below. We hope you find the program valuable as you become more news-literate and help others to do the same.

In case you missed it:

Watch session 1, The Misinformation Landscape, which discusses how to move beyond the unhelpful term “fake news” to more precisely identify the many types of misleading, inaccurate and false information that we encounter regularly. The session explores how propagators of misinformation use our emotions and cognitive biases to manipulate us. Access the presentation slides here.

Watch session 2, Essential Fact-Checking Skills, which dives into the tools and skills needed to fact-check and verify the authenticity of information as well as how to source its origins for yourself. Access the presentation slides here.

Watch session 3, Productive conversations without confrontation, which shares the skills needed to talk with someone whose beliefs are fueled by misinformation — and still have a productive, non-confrontational conversation. Access the presentation slides here.

Watch session 4, Understanding news media bias, which explores the adjacent subject of bias in news coverage and its potential to mislead and misinform the public. This session will help you think more clearly about what causes bias in reporting, what it looks like in coverage and what you can do when you encounter it in your news diet. Access the presentation slides here.

Coming up  in 2022

Please save the date for National News Literacy Week, Jan. 24-28, 2022!

NLP partners with We The Veterans to offer misinformation webinar

Misinformation and disinformation target all of us, with purveyors of falsehoods often exploiting our deeply held values and beliefs, including patriotism. That’s why the News Literacy Project is partnering with We the Veterans, a nonpartisan nonprofit created by veterans and military families, to present a free webinar, Exploring the misinformation landscape: Understanding how and why people believe false information, Wednesday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. ET.

We are honored to have the opportunity to reach this audience, but you do not have to be a veteran, active military or a family member to participate. The webinar is open to all.

In this session, John Silva, NLP’s senior director of professional learning and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, will discuss how to move beyond the unhelpful term “fake news” to more precisely identify the many types of misleading, inaccurate and false information that we encounter regularly.

Silva will explore motivations behind different propagators of misinformation and different ways that they use our emotions and cognitive biases to manipulate us into believing something is true. In  addition, he will demonstrate key fact-checking and verification skills for identifying misinformation. By getting to a deeper understanding of misinformation, we all can become less susceptible to it and more likely to prioritize reliable, verified sources of news and information.

About We the Veterans

We the Veterans is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization created by veterans and military family members, united for democracy and committed to building a more perfect union. Its mission is to harness the strength of veterans and military families to support the pillars of American democracy. We the Veterans unites private and public sector experts and leaders to find solutions to our country’s biggest challenges. The organization’s programming is designed to engage and empower the veteran community, supporters and allies to take action in their local communities and beyond.

 

Season two of ‘Is that a fact?’ podcast launches today

We’ve just launched the second season of NLP’s Is that a fact? podcast, and this time we are going beyond examining misinformation’s ability to mislead to look at the origins of false narratives and the actual harm they have caused. The new episodes will explore how fictional information  emerges and then bubbles to the surface to misdirect the country’s civic and cultural discourse.

As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approach, we look back at the untruths and myths that surround that fateful day. One of the core catalysts of 9/11 misinformation was the film Loose Change. Our first guest, Esquire magazine correspondent John McDermott told us, “remains probably the single most popular piece of conspiracy media ever created.” He explains how the film started a movement of conspiracy theorists that planted the seeds for today’s Qanon believers.

The second guest, James Meigs, former Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief, discussed how his team of journalists debunked many of the myths propagated by  Loose Change even before the film came out. “What was really powerful about Loose Change wasn’t the specific claim,” said Meigs. “It was the overall mood of the filmmaking …  It had really cool music. It had all this slow motion. It had this very compelling narration, even if a lot of it didn’t make a lot of sense. It was quite powerful to watch.”

9/11 impact: A personal perspective

Our final guest, Ann Van Hine, whose husband was a firefighter killed the day of the terrorist attacks, explained how she deals with the anniversary in personal terms.  “Everybody has a part of that day. Everybody knows where they were. Everybody has a memory, but you’re actually talking about the day that my daughter’s dad died, the day my husband died. I told my girls early on, if people started saying weird stuff about September 11th, which happened as time went on, then just blow them out of the water. Just say flat out with no preparation for them, ‘My dad was one of the firefighters killed that day.’ Cause that’ll suck the air out of the room. Not to be mean, but sometimes people need a reality check.”

We hope you’ll listen. Over the rest of the season, we’ll examine false narratives about the misperceptions that Democrats and Republicans have about each other, the Sandy Hook shootings, race relations and more. Please join us every other Wednesday for new episodes of Is that a fact? Listen here or on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Amazon Music and wherever podcasts are available.