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 is 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 is published 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 6 through 12 that helps prepare the next generation to easily identify misinformation. Now, during the 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 is 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.

Here are some earlier lessons in this series:

And here are lessons from the May 11 edition of the Sift that relate to the pandemic.

Mainstreaming a conspiracy theory

A 26-minute video pushing an array of dangerous and provably false conspiracy theories and other misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic ignited fringe communities last week and went massively viral before major social media companies took steps to remove it from their platforms.

Purporting to be a preview of an upcoming “documentary,” “Plandemic” relies on a single source — Judy Mikovits, a scientist whose work has been discredited — to vaguely contend that a powerful cabal of public health officials and others is exaggerating the current outbreak and seeking to exploit it for profit.

Mikovits also makes a number of demonstrably false medical statements, including that wearing a mask “activates” viruses that people might be carrying and that “healing microbes” in seawater and “sequences” in sand can boost immunity. The video, posted May 4, garnered more than 8 million views and hundreds of millions of engagements on social media before YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook started to remove it three days later.

Produced by filmmaker Mikki Willis, whose Ojai, Calif.-based production company, Elevate Films, creates “transformative media,” Plandemic positions Mikovits as a victim-turned-whistleblower, presenting a highly misleading and one-sided account of her career that includes a number of accusations made against Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force.

It paves over the retraction in 2011 of a controversial study of chronic fatigue syndrome that Mikovits had co-authored two years before; it also falsifies details about her arrest in 2011 on two charges related to the theft of a computer, flash drives and other materials from the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada, where she had worked as research director. (The charges were dropped.)

Footage of the interview with Mikovits, who in recent years has been an outspoken critic of vaccinations, is interspersed with a number of video segments that seem to bolster her claims but are actually highly misleading or unreliable.

The “b-roll” footage includes out-of-context clips of Fauci, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and other public figures; a portion of a report from CGTN, the Chinese state global news network; and several clips of people in medical scrubs calling into question the scientific consensus about the pandemic, including YouTube footage of Eric Nepute, a St. Louis chiropractor who suggested that the quinine and zinc in tonic water could treat covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Also prominently featured is footage from an April 22 news conference held by two physicians, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, who own urgent care facilities in Bakersfield, Calif., and have made a case to reopen California based on deeply flawed statistics.

Note: While the viral spread of Plandemic was aided by its slick production values and slippery sourcing, it also stitched together a number of baseless conspiratorial claims — anti-vaccination rhetoric, misinterpretations of covid-19 Medicare payments to hospitals, possible covid-19 treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, and the complicity of tech platforms — that felt familiar to a broad number of people who had already seen them online.


Discuss: What made Plandemic spread so widely so quickly? Were social media platforms correct to remove it? Why might a video like this — offering a simple explanation and a focal point for blame — appeal to so many people right now? What other conspiracy theories do this?

Idea: Have students share their stories of seeing Plandemic go viral last week, and ask whether they still have questions about points it raises. Work together to seek credible sources to answer those questions.


Viral rumor rundown

NO: Vice President Pence did not deliver empty boxes to the Woodbine Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 7, pretending they were full of personal protective equipment (PPE).

YES: Pence did deliver boxes filled with PPE to the nursing home.

NO: Pence was not “caught on hot mic” admitting that the boxes were empty, as this tweet from Matt McDermott, a political strategist, claims.

YES: After the boxes of PPE were delivered, an aide told Pence that the remaining boxes in the van were empty, and the vice president made a joke about moving them “just for the camera.”

YES: Jimmy Kimmel, host of the late-night talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” aired a “selectively edited” (as a campaign spokesman for Pence put it) clip of the delivery on his show that night, then tweeted the clip the next morning.

YES: The claim that Pence’s team had staged the delivery went viral — and was amplified by a number of prominent media figures — before being debunked.

NO: This photo of flamingos in the Grand Canal in Venice, is not authentic.

YES: It is a piece of digital artwork that was posted to Instagram on April 24.

Note: The verified Instagram account that shared it belongs to Kristina Makeeva, a photographer and digital artist in Moscow, who posts as “hobopeeba.” In reply to people who asked if the flamingo photo was real, she replied “no.”

Related: “The Animal Fact Checker” (Savannah Jacobson, Columbia Journalism Review)