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 free for educators, students, school districts and parents. Since 2016, more than 29,000 educators and parents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have registered to use the platform. Since August, more than 1,000 educators and parents and more than 34,000 students, have actively 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 March 1 edition of the Sift:

Viral rumor rundown

NO: This is not Tom Cruise.

YES: It is a synthetically manipulated “deepfake” video in which an algorithm, trained on real footage of Tom Cruise, has swapped in a computer-generated re-creation of Cruise’s face over the actual face of a body actor.

Note: A new TikTok account — @deeptomcruise — posted several deepfake videos recently of the algorithmically generated “Cruise” doing a variety of activities such as hitting a golf ball, tripping before telling a joke (above) and using sleight of hand to make a coin disappear.

Discuss: What kinds of misinformation and confusion could deepfake videos cause? What mental adjustments do people need to make to prepare for an information landscape in which deepfakes are increasingly common? Why might people in power falsely allege that a damaging video is a deepfake?

Resource: Sensity’s deepfake detection tool checks photos and videos for evidence of manipulation by face-swapping technologies.


NO: This is not an authentic NASA photograph of late astronaut Bruce McCandless II floating untethered in space.

YES: The bottom half of the photo has been digitally altered to show snow-covered mountain ranges.

YES: The original photo (below) shows McCandless performing the first untethered spacewalk in history in February 1984.

NO: President Biden never tweeted this racist message.

YES: It is a fake tweet that, as PolitiFact pointed out, exceeds Twitter’s limit of 280 characters.

Note: This impostor tweet circulated after Biden said at a CNN town hall event Feb. 16 that “not everybody … in the Hispanic and the African American community, particularly in rural areas that are distant and/or inner-city districts … know how to get online” to schedule an appointment to receive a coronavirus vaccine. The remark was seized on by some of the president’s critics, who claimed it was racist. It also prompted a different viral fake Biden tweet.

Also note: All of the deleted tweets from Biden — including four Twitter accounts — are archived by ProPublica’s Politwoops website.


Sift Pick

Americans ahead of the 2020 election widely agreed that misinformation “is a major problem,” but they “do not see eye to eye about what actually constitutes misinformation,” according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. The report also found Americans who primarily turned to social media for political news were less knowledgeable about current events and more likely to have heard unproven theories about covid-19. These findings were among the key takeaways from Pew’s American News Pathways project, which based its research on 10 different surveys to examine how Americans navigated the news from November 2019 through December 2020. Most U.S. adults said they saw at least some news on the 2020 election that “seemed completely made up,” and many also said they were exposed to “made-up news” related to covid-19 last year, the report said. But views of misinformation in such a polarized political climate varied widely: “In many cases, one person’s truth is another’s fiction.”

Discuss: Are Pew’s findings surprising? Why or why not? What examples of misinformation or “made-up news” about the pandemic and election did you encounter last year? How did you know the information was false or misleading? What are some consequences of people disagreeing on what counts as misinformation?

Idea: Ask students to brainstorm examples of “made-up news” that they have seen related to covid-19. Compare their examples with those given by respondents in the study. Then challenge students to fact-check one or more of these claims and share their findings.

Resource: “Misinformation” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom).