Here is the fourth installment of a new weekly feature on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project. Each installment offers new material for teachers, students and everybody else who wants a dose of reality.

You can learn about the News Literacy Project and all of the educational resources it provides in this piece, but here’s a brief rundown:

Founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the News Literacy Project aims to teach students how to distinguish between what’s real and fake in the age of digital communication and a president who routinely denounces real news as “fake.”

Now the leading provider of news literacy education, it creates digital curriculums and other resources and works with educators and journalists to teach middle school and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and provides them with the tools they need to be informed and engaged participants in a democracy. It uses the standards of high-quality journalism as an aspirational yardstick against which to measure all news and information. Just as important, it provides the next generation with an appreciation of the First Amendment and the role of a free press.

The following material comes from the project’s free weekly newsletter, the Sift, which takes the most recent viral rumors, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and journalistic ethics issues and turns them into timely lessons with discussion prompts and links. The Sift, which publishes weekly during the school year, has more than 10,000 subscribers, most of them educators.

New lessons from the Dec. 9 edition of the Sift, as provided by the News Literacy Project:

Manipulating social media is still too easy

Despite the steps that social media companies have taken in recent years to limit the spread of misinformation and combat coordinated inauthentic activity, two reports published last week serve as important reminders of how easy it still is for bad actors to manipulate online audiences in ways that can have a substantial impact on people’s political beliefs.

The Guardian uncovered a plot to use 21 far-right Facebook pages as conduits for pushing links to inflammatory Islamophobic articles hosted on 10 ad-heavy websites. People running the revenue-generating scheme persuaded the administrators of the 21 pages — who live in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Austria, Israel and Nigeria — to allow them to post content directly to the accounts, reaching a combined 1 million people around the world. (As part of their investigation, published Dec. 5, reporters Christopher Knaus, Michael McGowan, Nick Evershed and Oliver Holmes were able to confirm the identity of one person involved in the operation.)

The network repeatedly targeted candidates on the political left at critical points in national campaigns, The Guardian found. In addition, it singled out Muslim politicians, including Mehreen Faruqi, an Australian senator; Sadiq Kahn, the mayor of London; and Ilhan Omar, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, who was the subject of 1,400 posts to the 21-page network over a two-year period.

On Dec. 5, researchers from the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence released a study demonstrating how easy it is to purchase artificial engagement on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. The research was an attempt to test these companies’ effectiveness at stopping paid influence campaigns designed to game their algorithms and deceive their users about the popularity of posts.

For 300 euros (about $330 U.S.), the researchers bought 3,530 comments, 25,750 “likes,” 20,000 views and 5,100 followers on 105 posts on the four platforms. They were purchased from 16 companies (11 in Russia, two in Germany and one each in France, Poland and Italy) that sell artificial social media engagement. In all, 18,739 accounts were used to manipulate the four platforms. Though the researchers reported the results of these purchases to the social media companies, 95 percent of the for-hire accounts were still active three weeks later, and most of the engagement metrics remained intact.

Facebook “was best at blocking the creation of accounts under false pretenses” but “rarely took content down.” Providers of the fake likes, shares, comments and followers found that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, “was the easiest platform to manipulate”; inauthentic engagement on the photo-sharing site also cost the least. YouTube was “the worst at removing inauthentic accounts and the most expensive to manipulate.” Twitter emerged as the best at responding to the fake engagement, removing half the likes and retweets that were purchased.

False inflammatory stories and coordinated artificial engagement online were major features of social media manipulation during the 2016 presidential election. These investigations suggest that we can expect more of the same during the 2020 campaign.

Related: “The Toxins We Carry” (Whitney Phillips, Columbia Journalism Review).

Note: Not all accounts involved in for-hire engagement arrangements are fake or automated. Many are run by people who agree, perhaps in exchange for payment, to like, share, watch and comment on content posted online.

Discuss: What effect might fabricated news stories have on our political conversations? Who is likely to be affected the most by the activities exposed by the Guardian’s investigation? Can fake engagement (likes, shares, views and comments) distort people’s understanding of political issues and priorities? Should companies that sell such services be banned? What could social media companies do to combat the “for-hire manipulation industry?”


Viral rumor rundown

NO: Holiday cards addressed to “a recovering American soldier, c/o Walter Reed Army Medical Center” do not get delivered to a hospitalized American soldier. YES: Walter Reed used to accept such mail, but the practice was discontinued for security reasons after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. YES: In 2011, Walter Reed Army Medical Center merged with the National Naval Medical Center to create the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Like all military hospitals, it does not accept mail sent to unnamed hospitalized military personnel (the U.S. Postal Service either returns such mail to the sender if an address is available or opens it in a postal facility to determine if a return address can be found). YES: Well-intentioned people have shared this viral social media post for over a decade, and it tends to recirculate every year during the holidays.

Note: While many viral rumors target negative emotions — such as fear, anger, outrage and disgust — and are spread to advance an ideological agenda, some elicit positive emotions, such as hope, and are spread for altruistic reasons.