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 what is not in this age of digital communication.

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 six through 12 that helps prepare the next generation to easily identify misinformation. Checkology is available free to educators, students, school districts and parents. Since 2016, more than 29,000 educators and parents in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have registered to use the platform. Since August, more than 1,000 educators and parents, and more than 34,000 students, have used Checkology.

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 former reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the News Literacy Project is the leading provider of news literacy education.

It creates digital curriculums and other resources, and it works with educators and journalists to teach middle school and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and it 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’s material from the Feb 1. edition of The Sift:

Viral rumor rundown

NO: Baseball icon and civil rights activist Hank Aaron did not die as a result of taking the Moderna coronavirus vaccine.

YES: Aaron died of natural causes at the age of 86 on Jan. 22 — more than two weeks after receiving the vaccine on Jan. 5.

NO: There has not been “a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly” people who recently received a vaccine, as this post from anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims.

YES: Norway has registered 33 deaths since the end of December among people age 75 and over who received one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

NO: Norway health officials found no evidence of a direct link between the deaths and the vaccine.

YES: In Norway, about 45 people die every day in nursing homes.

Note: Many vaccination programs around the world are prioritizing vulnerable populations, especially elderly people in assisted-living facilities, many of whom have serious diseases. This group has higher mortality rates than other sectors of the population. As this age cohort is vaccinated, it is inevitable that some deaths will happen around the same time as vaccinations.

Also note: Women — especially those who are pregnant or lactating — are being targeted with dangerous misinformation by anti-vaccination communities online.

Related:

NO: The World Health Organization did not update its recommendations and say that “you do not need to wear a mask.”

YES: This is a complete fabrication falsely claiming the statements were made by WHO officials at a Jan. 22 news conference.

Note: This false claim first appeared as an unsupported statement in a short entry on a WordPress blog with a history of making unsubstantiated claims.

NO: This is not an authentic tweet from SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

YES: It is a fabricated screenshot of a fake tweet that was posted to r/WallStreetBets, the Reddit forum that helped drive up the price of GameStop stock in an attempt to execute a “short squeeze.”

YES: Musk did energize the r/WallStreetBets Reddit page when he tweeted the word “Gamestonk,” referencing an Internet meme, on Jan. 26.

Tip: Because they don’t exist in a Twitter user’s actual feed, fake tweets circulate as screenshots, often along with the claim that they were deleted. Although screenshots of authentic tweets that have since been deleted do occasionally go viral, they are very often saved to an authoritative Internet archive, such as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Fake tweets are also typically captured by different Twitter users at different times in different time zones, producing screenshots with different time stamps and engagement metrics (retweets, quote tweets and likes). Because fake tweets are generally copies of one artificially generated image, the engagement metrics are the same.

*Sift Picks

Quick Picks

  • Discuss: Are teachers immune to misinformation? How does misinformation fuel “pseudo-controversies”? How should pseudo-controversies be handled by teachers in school?
  • Idea: Have students research pseudo-controversies — such as vaccine safety, climate change or the integrity of the 2020 presidential election — that arise in school settings. Then compile a list and ask students to discuss their experiences in classroom settings with these topics. Have they ever had a teacher who presented a pseudo-controversy as a legitimate debate? What happened?