The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How ‘Birds Aren’t Real’ became experiment in misinformation -- and more news literacy lessons

A flock of starlings fills the dusk sky during the sunset over the Colosseum, in Rome, Dec. 3, 2021. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)
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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.

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

Here’s material from the Dec. 13 edition of the Sift:

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

Top picks

1. The parody conspiracy movement Birds Aren’t Real began as a “spontaneous joke” but has evolved into a Gen Z-led “experiment in misinformation” that seeks to neutralize absurd conspiracy theories by responding in kind. “It’s about holding up a mirror to America in the Internet age,” the movement’s 23-year-old founder, Peter McIndoe, told the New York Times in a Dec. 9 profile. And though he’s publicly remained in character since starting Birds Aren’t Real in 2017, McIndoe says it’s now time to own the hoax and begin working to fight conspiracism in earnest.

  • Key term: Poe’s Law: An Internet maxim asserting that even the most absurd parodies of extreme or far-flung views are not self-evident and can easily be mistaken for genuine beliefs.
  • Discuss: Is it OK to share known falsehoods as a joke? What should people who do this consider in advance? Some people, including some journalists, initially thought that Birds Aren’t Real protests were genuine, and that the movement was made up of actual conspiracy theory believers. What does this suggest about our current information environment?
  • Idea: Challenge your students to get to the bottom of the Birds Aren’t Real movement (and hone their advanced search skills) using this narrative-driven, interactive student mission developed by NLP in collaboration with disinformation expert Cindy Otis.
  • Resource: “Conspiratorial Thinking” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).
  • Related: “The Great (Fake) Child-Sex-Trafficking Epidemic” (Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Atlantic).

Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to help students examine how people inside and outside the movement view this parody conspiracy theory.

2. The number of journalists imprisoned for their work worldwide has climbed to 293 in 2021 — a record high, according to the annual prison census by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has tracked journalist imprisonments since 1992. This year’s total is up from 280 in 2020, CPJ said, with 50 journalists jailed in China alone. CPJ noted that the rising numbers point to “a growing intolerance of independent reporting.” They offer a grim reminder of mounting threats to press freedoms worldwide.

Viral rumor rundown

Old video used to push false claim that BioNTech CEO ‘refuses’ to take the vaccine

NO: Ugur Sahin, the CEO of BioNTech — the biotechnology company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop its mRNA coronavirus vaccine — did not refuse to take the vaccine.

YES: The video in this tweet is from an interview with the German news outlet Deutsche Welle in December 2020.

YES: Sahin said in that interview that he had not yet taken the vaccine because he was not eligible at that time.

YES: Sahin told the Times of London in a September 2021 interview that he and his wife were both vaccinated in January 2021.

NewsLit takeaway: Simple tricks of context and other kinds of easy manipulations — sometimes called “cheap fakes” — are extremely common and are often just as effective as more sophisticated misinformation tactics. This post also contains several traits of a conspiracy theory. The premise itself (that Sahin “refuses” to take the vaccine) is conspiratorial in nature, and the phrase “WAKE UP!” is commonly used by conspiracy theorists. The video has also been manipulated to emphasize a moment in the interview in which a reporter misspoke, saying that Sahin and his wife “played such a central role in the development of the virus” when he clearly meant to say “the development of the vaccine.”

Fabricated quote from satire site falsely attributed to Vice President Harris

NO: Vice President Harris did not refer to unvaccinated people as “dirty Trump people.”

YES: This is a fictional quote from an article published by Real Raw News, a satirical website with a disclaimer on its “About Us” page that says: “This website contains humor, parody, and satire.”

NewsLit takeaway: Outrageous quotes make for optimal viral content online — but they are often either misleading or inauthentic. In this case, a screenshot of an insulting but fictional quote satirically attributed to Harris circulated without an actual link or reference to the satire website where it was originally published. Satire, particularly when published to resemble news reports, is often mistaken for actual news online — and at times is “stolen” with the intent to deceive others. Satirical “news” content is also sometimes plagiarized and republished without satire labels or disclaimers by clickbait websites seeking to convert outrage into quick clicks.

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