This is the latest installment of a weekly feature I have been running for some time on this blog — lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project, which aims to teach students and the public how to sort fact from fiction in our digital and contentious age.

The News Literacy Project was founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and it has become the leading provider of news literacy education. You can learn more about the organization and its resources and programs in this piece.

The material in this post comes from the organization’s newsletter for educators, the Sift, which has more than 23,000 subscribers. Published weekly during the school year, it explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses media and press freedom topics, discusses social media trends and issues, and includes discussion prompts and activities for the classroom. Get Smart About News, modeled on the Sift, is a free weekly newsletter for the general public.

The News Literacy Project’s browser-based e-learning platform Checkology helps educators teach middle and high school students how to identify credible information, seek out reliable sources, and know what to trust, what to dismiss and what to debunk.

It also gives them an appreciation of the importance of the First Amendment and a free press. Checkology, and all of NLP’s resources and programs, are free. Since 2016, more than more than 37,000 educators in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and more than 120 other countries have registered to use the platform. Since August 2020, more than 3,000 educators and more than 125,000 students have actively used Checkology.

Here’s material from the most recent Sift:

Top picks

1. Blockbuster reporting on a cache of internal documents from Facebook — dubbed The Facebook Papers — continues to dominate headlines. Some of the documents first released by whistleblower Frances Haugen to The Wall Street Journal were later given to a consortium of 17 news organizations. Here are our top three picks for news literacy-relevant coverage on this important ongoing story.

1. “Facebook knew about, failed to police, abusive content globally — documents” (Elizabeth Culliford and Brad Heath, Reuters). Facebook pressed ahead to grow its user base in countries around the world, even when its own staff flagged that it wasn’t building commensurate capacity to monitor and regulate hate speech and other abusive content in those places. This was true even in countries the company itself “deemed most ‘at-risk’ for potential real-world harm and violence stemming from abuses on its site.” This tendency to treat “people in developing countries as second-class users” was a major finding of early reporting on The Facebook Papers.

2. “Five points for anger, one for a ‘like’: How Facebook’s formula fostered rage and misinformation” (Jeremy B. Merrill and Will Oremus, The Washington Post). In 2017, Facebook’s content suggestion algorithm began giving emoji reactions, such as anger or sadness or love, five times the weight of a standard “like,” according to this report. In 2019, the company confirmed that boosting posts with anger reactions served to amplify “civic misinfo, civic toxicity, health misinfo, and health antivax content,” but it was slow to address the problem.

3. “How Facebook users wield multiple accounts to spread toxic politics” (Julia Arciga and Susannah Luthi, Politico). Facebook knows that single users who operate multiple accounts — or “SUMAs” in the company’s internal parlance — are “a massive source of the platform’s toxic politics,” and company research from 2018 suggested they could be reaching about 11 million people a day. Leaked documents show that some employees feel the company has done little to crack down on them, despite their clear violation of the platform’s community standards — but a Facebook spokesperson said this doesn’t “paint a comprehensive picture” of the issue.

Discuss: Which of the findings from reporting on The Facebook Papers do you find most troubling? Which surprised you? Which didn’t? If you were put in charge of Facebook, what would you do to fix these problems?

Viral rumor rundown

NO: This is not an authentic tweet from Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

YES: It is a fake tweet that references the absurd conspiracy theory pushed by amateur online “sleuths” — that Greene is the person who left pipe bombs near political targets on Capitol Hill on Jan. 5, the day before the insurrection.

NewsLit takeaway: Conspiracy theorists often engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias to manufacture “evidence” for their beliefs. In this case, anonymous posters online scrutinized photos of Greene to find similarities with people involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection and with the Capitol pipe bomber, who was captured in video footage released by the FBI. Greene is a controversial lawmaker who embraces QAnon beliefs and actively espouses conspiracy theories — and some reporting alleges she met with two Jan. 6 protest organizers prior to the event, a charge her spokesman denied. Greene also has downplayed the Jan. 6 attack and described it as “just a riot.” But there is no evidence indicating that she had anything to do with the attempted pipe bombing.

NO: Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not show that children are “107 times more likely to die” from a coronavirus vaccine than from the disease itself.

YES: This is a baseless assertion, attributed to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well-known opponent of vaccines, that was also used in a fundraising campaign for the organization he founded and runs.

YES: In a statement to AFP Fact Check, the CDC confirmed that it “has not detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths following immunization that would indicate that covid-19 vaccines are causing or contributing to deaths of adults or children.”

YES: Out of the more than 414 million doses of coronavirus vaccines that have been administered in the United States as of Oct. 25, 2021, there have been a total of five confirmed adult deaths linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

NewsLit takeaway: Anti-vaccine rhetoric is highly emotional and often exploits parents’ love and concern for their children’s well-being to plant a seed of doubt about the safety of vaccines. This particular quote doesn’t identify the source of the “CDC data” it purports to cite. However, many false anti-vaccination claims are extrapolated from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System — or VAERS — database, an open portal that allows anyone to self-report “possible health problems” experienced after a vaccine, even minor ones such as soreness at the injection site. All evidence continues to show that the covid-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective.

NO: This photo is not from “drone footage” of a cargo ship off the coast of the United States in 2021.

YES: It’s a photo of the MV Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship that rescued a group of mostly Afghan refugees in the Indian Ocean in August 2001.

NewsLit takeaway: Conspiracy theorists often come up with convoluted ways to incorporate current events into their baseless hypotheses about the world, and the 2021 container ship crisis is no exception. Baseless claims that the gridlock at U.S. ports is a staged event to achieve political goals — such as a “communist plot” to cripple the American economy or use shipping containers as some kind of “Trojan horse” — have circulated online in recent weeks. Rumors attempting to connect cargo ships and incidents in ports to nefarious, conspiratorial activities have a history, especially among adherents of the QAnon belief system.


You can find this week’s rumor examples to use with students in these slides.