This is the latest installment of a weekly feature on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project, which 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.”

The 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.

The News Literacy Project also offers a program called Checkology, a browser-based platform designed for students in grades six through 12 that helps prepare the next generation to easily identify misinformation. Now, during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the project is offering access to Checkology Premium at no cost to educators and parents in the United States. In just two weeks of the offer, more than 1,100 educators and parents in 49 states and the District have registered to use the platform with as many as 90,000 students.

You can learn more 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 is 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 lessons come from Monday’s edition of the Sift and relate to the pandemic that has shut down public life in much of the world, including in the United States.

Conspiracy outbreak

A baseless conspiracy theory about covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, migrated from fringe Internet communities into more mainstream conversations last week, spreading dangerous doubt about the seriousness of the pandemic in cities across the United States and around the world.

The theory — that the pandemic is a staged hoax or “false flag” event — had emerged among anti-vaccination and QAnon communities online by mid-March. But the idea was galvanized on social media after a powerful March 25 New York Times report featuring video of Colleen Smith, an emergency room doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, who provided a firsthand account and video of conditions at the hospital the day before, when 13 people died of covid-19.

Three days later, on March 28, Twitter user @22CenturyAssets tweeted: “#filmyourhospital Can this become a thing?” Hours later, the far-right talk radio host Todd Starnes tweeted (archived here) a video of “not much happening” at the Brooklyn Hospital Center — his neighborhood hospital, he says — to highlight “what’s really going on out here instead of what the mainstream media is telling you.”

By the next day, more than a dozen photos and videos said to have been shot outside hospitals across the United States and around the world had been tweeted with the #FilmYourHospital hashtag. In posts on April 1 and 2, influential QAnon adherents attempted to discredit Smith on Twitter and YouTube, falsely claiming she did not work at Elmhurst, misinterpreting her background in medical simulation training, and picking apart the video she provided to the Times.

Also fanning the flames of the #FilmYourHospital conspiracy movement was a March 30 acknowledgment by CBS News that it had erroneously used several seconds of footage of a crowded hospital in Italy in a March 25 report (go to 0:45 for the clip) about the impact of covid-19 on hospitals in New York City. CBS News has offered no further explanation about its mistake.

Note: Safety and patient privacy concerns have largely prevented the news media from providing the public with photos and videos from inside hospitals, where the realities of the pandemic are most apparent. That may help explain why this has become such a focal point of conspiracy communities online.

Also note: Another widespread conspiracy theory falsely connecting 5G cell towers to covid-19 spiked online last week, leading to a spate of viral rumors — including a variety of false claims that governments are faking the public health crisis to distract people and push through dangerous new technologies.

Related:

Discuss: Why are people drawn to conspiracy theories? In what ways could these conspiracy theories about covid-19 be dangerous? What can we learn from the way the false notion that the pandemic is a hoax went mainstream with the #FilmYourHospital hashtag? How can we work to stop such theories from spreading? Can people be inoculated against conspiratorial thinking? How?

Tracking the public using mobile data

Google announced on Friday that it had started publishing “aggregated, anonymized” data to help public health officials better understand how to reduce the spread of covid-19. The company’s covid-19 Community Mobility Reports portal provides a snapshot of activity (for example, pings from cellphones and other mobile devices that have Location History services turned on) based on this data for six general location categories — including parks, transit stations, workplaces and residences — compared with baseline activity on a corresponding day between Jan. 3 and Feb. 6.

Some countries have used such data to track and combat the spread of the coronavirus — some in aggressive ways that overtly infringe on individual privacy. South Korea, for example, sends text messages sharing the location history of individuals who have been diagnosed with covid-19. In Taiwan, the government has instituted an “electric fence” that notifies the police when someone in quarantine leaves their residence or turns off their phone.

Note: In addition to Google, several other companies have released location data and analyses. On March 24, Tectonix, a data visualization firm, tweeted a map it had created with X-Mode, a location tracking services company, showing where vacationers went after visiting Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for spring break. New York Times reporters analyzed a location data set of 15 million cellphone users provided by Cuebiq, a data intelligence company, and published their findings on April 2 and 3.

Discuss: How do privacy laws differ around the world? Is it ethical for advertisers to use location data to target consumers? Should governments make exceptions to privacy laws to fight the spread of covid-19? Is the release of aggregated, anonymized data — meaning that the tracked movements and contacts are not linked to an identifiable individual — ethical? Why or why not?