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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 the April 20 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.

Bill Gates target of covid-19-related conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories falsely linking Bill Gates to the covid-19 pandemic were mentioned 1.2 million times on TV and social media from February to April, according to an investigation published April 17 by the New York Times.

These falsehoods — tracked by Zignal Labs, a media analytics company — include YouTube videos (the 10 most popular have racked up almost 5 million views) and more than 16,000 Facebook posts that have accumulated almost 900,000 “likes” and comments.

The theories — which selectively and inaccurately knit together quotes from Gates’s speeches and interviews, his connections with people such as Jeffrey Epstein and Bill Clinton, and details from grants and other activities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — advance wildly false schemes accusing the Microsoft co-founder of having foreknowledge of the pandemic, actually engineering the pandemic, and using the pandemic for profit or to institute population surveillance and control mechanisms.

An example is a YouTube video posted on March 21 by the Law of Liberty Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. It pairs a quote from Gates’s 2010 TED Talk with a comment he made during a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) last week to advance the apocalyptic theory that Gates is the Antichrist and is using the pandemic to usher in the End Times. As of April 20, it had almost 1.9 million views.

The theories have also gotten traction among anti-vaccination activists, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who have seized on the moment as an opportunity to air their long-standing opposition to Gates’s vaccination advocacy efforts. Influential partisans have also amplified aspects of the false theories.

Laura Ingraham, host of Fox News’s “The Ingraham Angle,” and Emerald Robinson, a correspondent for the conservative website Newsmax, have both repeated conspiratorial claims on Twitter. And former Trump adviser Roger Stone (who has been ordered to report to federal prison by the end of this month) invoked a number of them in an April 13 radio interview with Joe Piscopo on New York City’s AM970 “The Answer,” part of the conservative Salem Media Group. Stone’s baseless comments were then repeated, unchallenged, by a report in the New York Post that has been shared almost 7,000 times on Facebook.

Discuss: Are some conspiracy theories more dangerous than others? Should social media companies allow conspiratorial content to spread on their platforms? What has made Bill Gates a target for such widespread conspiracy theories? What is the impact on the national conversation of news coverage that repeats false claims without challenging them? What impact might these conspiracy theories have on the public reception of a vaccine for covid-19, should one be developed?

‘Othering’ covid-19

Xenophobic incidents, racism and attacks on Asian Americans — based on false narratives that covid-19 came from the “other” — are sadly predictable, says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education and advocacy organization in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Here is how the contagion of irrationality works,” he wrote in an April 13 column. “Someone blames it on China. By extension, the blame extends to the Chinese people. In a diverse country like America, blame — by pure ignorance — is extended to Chinese Americans (many who have never been in China); and because the ignorant do not discriminate between the varieties of Asian cultures, blame extends to all Asian Americans.”

It’s a view shared by Russell Jeung, chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) published on April 14, he discussed the role of news organizations in reducing such attacks — by, for example, providing broader coverage of Asian Americans and using accurate terms (such as “covid-19” instead of “the Chinese virus”).

Having reporters who are culturally sensitive and can communicate in communities where English may not be widely spoken can also help, he said. Jeung and his graduate students have analyzed xenophobia and discrimination in covid-19 news coverage, and he has helped to collect firsthand accounts of anti-Asian violence.

Among the patterns they saw in global English-language news reports about the pandemic were these: First came racialized memes about eating Chinese food (including eating bats, which were a possible source of the coronavirus) and wearing masks (a common sight in Asian countries during flu season). Those were followed by reports on cancellations of Lunar New Year events and the decline of Chinese businesses.

Next came worldwide reports about racism against Asians. Media outlets “could be contributing to the xenophobia by calling the virus the ‘Chinese virus,’ calling it the ‘Wuhan virus,’ by showing pictures of Chinese people wearing masks when they’re talking about the virus, or running stories about conspiracy theories,” Jeung told CJR. (The Jan. 27 issue of the Sift referred to covid-19 as the “Wuhan coronavirus”; other news organizations used the same language around that time.)

But when he and his students looked solely at U.S. domestic news coverage, those anti-Asian patterns were followed by reports on elected officials, health officials and Asian Americans themselves speaking out against racism and condemning harassment and violence.

Such reports, he suggested, may have been partially responsible for President Trump’s tweets on March 23 that Asian Americans should be protected and that the spread of the virus was not their fault.

Still, Jeung added, Trump has “a clear ‘us’-versus-‘them’ dichotomy.”

“We call that Orientalist language, saying that the West is different from the East,” Jeung said. “Therefore Asian Americans are considered perpetual foreigners. That language puts us in the out-group, and it’s easy to blame and attack the out-group.”


Discuss: How could associating covid-19 with a geographic location contribute to xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes? In what ways would having a culturally and linguistically diverse newsroom staff be helpful in covering the covid-19 pandemic? How would you rate your local news organizations’ coverage of covid-19 as it reflects and relates to the Asian American community? How would you rate national news coverage?

Idea: Have students review covid-19 coverage relating to Asians and Asian Americans since January from one standards-based news organization. Then have students summarize their findings, including whether terms such as “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” were used, whether any photos of Asians or Asian Americans wearing masks were used without appropriate context, and whether reports included first-person accounts from Asian Americans about how they have been affected by the spread of covid-19 and the racial perceptions of others.