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How cute animal videos are used to spread misinformation — and more news literacy lessons

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Here 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. It’s hard to think of lessons that are more important in these times.

The News Literacy Project was founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former 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 the NLP’s resources and programs, are free. Since 2016, 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 Dec. 6 edition of the Sift:

Dig deeper: Don’t miss this week’s classroom-ready resource.

Top picks

News consumers often make negative assumptions about how news organizations decide what stories to cover — in part because the public lacks access to details about how these decisions are made. Trusting News, a research and training project aimed at helping journalists demonstrate credibility and earn trust, worked with WCPO-TV, an ABC affiliate in Cincinnati, to invite people who mistrust “the media” to attend a news meeting — and witness how news judgments are actually made. It found that more than half of participants had “a more favorable and trustworthy view” of the news organization after the experience.

  • Idea: Contact a local newsroom — or use the Newsroom to Classroom program — and connect with a journalist to discuss how news judgments are made in their newsroom. In advance of the conversation, have students journal about how they think these decisions are made, then ask them to reflect on what they learned afterward.
  • Resources: “What Is News?” and “Be the Editor” (Checkology virtual classroom).

Cat videos may seem like the epitome of harmless online content, but a recent New York Times report shows how some purveyors of misleading and harmful content — including the covid-19 misinformation superspreader Joseph Mercola — are using cute animal videos and other heartwarming “engagement bait” to draw people to their websites and other channels.

  • Discuss: How do the groups cited in this report use cute animal videos and other types of innocuous, heartwarming content to “redirect” people to misinformation? Why might this tactic be effective? Can social media platforms do anything to prevent this technique from being used to amplify harmful falsehoods?
Viral rumor rundown

Misleading viral claim about Merriam-Webster changing its definition of ‘vaccine’

NO: Merriam-Webster did not change the definition of the word “vaccine” as a strategic coverup for the less than perfect efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines.

YES: Merriam-Webster revised its definition of “vaccine” in 2021 to be more scientifically accurate and account for mRNA technology.

NO: The edits did not simply remove references to immunity.

YES: The updates resulted in a significantly more extensive and detailed definition (see graphic below).

NewsLit takeaway: Misleading claims about changed definitions have circulated before, including about the pandemic, and often contain ambiguous conspiratorial overtones. In May 2021, the Russian state propaganda “news” outlet RT (Russia Today) falsely claimed that Merriam-Webster had changed its definition of “anti-vaxxer” in a strategic attempt “to fit a narrative” concerning vaccine mandates. This recent rumor about the definition of “vaccine” falsely suggests that there are powerful entities interested in covering up information about the efficacy (which is demonstrated) of coronavirus vaccines.


NO: The athletes shown collapsing in this video montage are not experiencing side effects of coronavirus vaccines.

YES: The clips show players and referees in various sports collapsing for different reasons, including dehydration, heat exhaustion and, in one case, a soccer player (who was unvaccinated at the time) in cardiac arrest.

YES: Myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, is an extremely rare and treatable side effect of the mRNA coronavirus vaccines among young people.

YES: Myocarditis also can be caused by covid-19 itself.

NewsLit takeaway: Creating collections of out-of-context headlines, images and video clips, especially those that evoke a strong emotional response, is a common disinformation tactic. These “evidence collages” are often used to manipulate public sentiment about a subject. In this case, a selective montage of athletes collapsing is designed to mislead the viewer into falsely believing there has been a sharp increase in such incidents that coincides with the rollout of coronavirus vaccines.


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

The link between covid-19 misinformation and news outlets — and other news literacy

News Literacy lessons on Facebook, Marjorie Taylor Greene and more