The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Detecting Russia’s false claims that Ukrainians are staging deaths

And other news literacy lessons.

Ukrainian investigators and police with body bags lined up during the exhumation of a mass grave in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha on April 8, 2022. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

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 here.

The material in this post comes from the Sift, the organization’s newsletter for educators, 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 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 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 April 18 edition of the Sift:

The Sift, April 18, 2022

Viral rumor rundown

Russian state ‘news’ channel uses footage from TV series to falsely claim Ukrainians are staging deaths

NO: The video in this post on the social messaging app Telegram does not show Ukrainian soldiers using a stunt dummy to stage fake fatalities in the war against Russia.

YES: It is behind-the-scenes footage from the set of a TV show filmed in Russia on March 20.

YES: Russian state-controlled “news” network Rossiya-24 aired the video and amplified the baseless claim in this post.

NewsLit takeaway: Dismissing evidence of its own atrocities as “fake” or staged is a core disinformation tactic of the Russian government — one it also used to spread doubt and confusion about its involvement in attacks on civilians during the Syrian civil war. This Telegram post is one of a number of videos presented out of context in recent weeks to push the baseless claim that Ukraine is staging deaths. Russian government sources have consistently promoted the same falsehood to dismiss civilian casualties in Mariupol and Bucha.

Related:

“Russian TV Is Filled With Images of Bucha’s Dead, Stamped With the Word ‘Fake’” (Robert Mackey, The Intercept).

“How we verify social media posts from the war in Ukraine” (Reality Check, BBC News).

“In Ukraine, Facebook fact-checkers fight a war on two fronts” (Naomi Nix, The Washington Post).

“The Race to Archive Social Posts That May Prove Russian War Crimes” (Tom Simonite, Wired).

Sen. Marsha Blackburn didn’t make white power symbol at Justice Jackson’s confirmation hearing

NO: Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee did not flash a white power symbol with her hand at the April 7 confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice-designate Ketanji Brown Jackson.

YES: A photo of Blackburn was taken on April 7 during a different hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

NO: A spokesperson for Blackburn contacted by Reuters described the claim involving her hand position as “fabricated” and “beyond absurd and completely false.”

NewsLit takeaway: The “OK” hand symbol has been associated with white nationalism since 2017, when a trolling hoax spread from the Internet message board 4chan to some segments of the far right and white supremacist movements. Since then, the symbol has been used by some white nationalists as a way to provoke outrage and has inspired other viral rumors, including about President Biden, Roger Stone, Kyle Rittenhouse and a contestant on “Jeopardy.” Besides invoking a complicated and often incidental troll gesture, this rumor includes two other red flags: It makes a strong appeal to partisan rancor and explicitly asks for retweets.

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

Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to have students analyze an article in this week’s Sift from a news literacy perspective.

Kickers

• Russian authorities are pushing propaganda about the war in Ukraine into schools across the country, including through “teaching guides” promoting pro-Russian misinformation, and teachers who deviate from these materials can face fines, prosecution and possibly being fired.

• Like other big social media platforms, TikTok announced last month that it was suspending uploads and live-streams from users in Russia. But unlike other platforms, TikTok also “walled off Russian users from seeing any posts at all from outside the country.” Experts say the new policies are flawed, effectively isolating Russians while still allowing some state propaganda to spread globally.

• Efforts to retool an annual newsroom diversity survey and boost participation have been met with “crushing resistance,” with just 303 news organizations responding to an approach made to thousands of them. (The survey, which provides an industry benchmark for diversity efforts, remains open.)

• A new survey from PEN America of more than 1,000 U.S. journalists found that “disinformation is significantly changing the practice of journalism,” with 81 percent of respondents considering it “a very serious problem” for journalism today.

• Critics have long seized on embarrassing or funny moments that make presidents seem ineffective, disoriented or weak, but this trend has accelerated in the digital age as new tools and technologies make it easier than ever to manipulate photos and videos in misleading ways and spread them without context on social media.

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