This is the latest installment of a weekly feature on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project. Each installment offers new material for teachers, students and everyone 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 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 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.

Here are lessons from the Feb. 3 edition of the Sift, as provided by the News Literacy Project.

Misinformation pandemic

As rapidly as the coronavirus has spread in recent weeks, viral misinformation about the disease has far outpaced it, reaching millions of people on every continent even more quickly.

In short, while the outbreak itself is close to being classified as a pandemic, the misinformation about the 2019 novel coronavirus has achieved that status many times over.

As worrisome as this is, coronavirus misinformation patterns can be used as a case study with students. Just as epidemiologists can glean valuable insights from outbreaks of disease, students can analyze the plethora of coronavirus rumors to refine their understanding of why and how falsehoods spread.

The two phenomena share some factors. As Charles Seife, a journalism professor at New York University, points out in the opening chapter of his 2014 book “Virtual Unreality,” the three epidemiological factors that determine how a disease spreads — transmissibility, persistence and interconnectedness — can also be used to explain the ways misinformation spreads online.

Digital information is highly transmissible (easy to replicate) and highly persistent (easy to store and search for) — and it circulates in the most interconnected information environment the world has ever known.

But coronavirus rumors and other types of alarming medical misinformation have a specific potential for virality because they tap into extremely strong emotions. Rumors about infectious diseases incite fear, causing people to react emotionally and share those rumors with loved ones out of a strong desire to protect them. Medical information is also highly specialized, which increases the likelihood that people — perhaps especially conspiracy theorists — will misunderstand information they have dug up themselves (such as the results of a mock pandemic exercise, or old patents for different strains of the coronavirus).

Finally, while photos and video related to many topics are easy to persuasively present in false contexts, images and footage of people suffering from medical conditions are among the easiest to shift to new (and false) contexts.

Note: Two other recent events generated a surge of out-of-context photos and video for the same reason: The drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last month sparked a wave of false military strike visuals, and the recent wildfires in Australia prompted years-old photos of other wildfires to circulate.

Discuss: What does it mean for a rumor to “go viral?” How is the outbreak of a disease similar to the spread of viral misinformation? What can the steps taken by medical professionals to control the spread of disease teach us about controlling the spread of misinformation?


· “How tech companies are scrambling to deal with coronavirus hoaxes” (Shirin Ghaffary and Rebecca Heilweil, Vox).


Finland teaches ‘multi-platform information literacy’

Finland has made “multi-platform information literacy … a core, cross-subject component” of its national curriculum since 2016, according to a Jan. 29 report in British publication the Guardian. For example, in math, students learn how statistics can be used to mislead. They study examples of propaganda in history, and language teachers emphasize “the many ways in which words can be used to confuse, mislead and deceive.” The school-based effort is part of a national awareness campaign that began in 2014 after Finns were first targeted by Russian disinformation campaigns online.

Discuss: Should news and information literacy be embedded across subject areas? What skills do we, as a group of students, possess to help us critically evaluate information? Which of those skills are most needed in our communities? How can we share them?

Idea: Challenge groups of students to create a news and information literacy campaign targeting a specific set of skills, or a specific group of people in their community (for example, younger siblings or grandparents) who they think need help navigating information online. Have students share their results and vote on which campaign was most successful.