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Detecting impostor content on social media and other news literacy lessons

(News Literacy Project)

Here’s the first fall 2022 installment of a weekly feature I’ve been running for several years: lessons from the nonprofit News Literacy Project (NLP), which aims to teach students and the public how to sort fact from fiction in our digital and contentious age. There has never been a time in recent U.S. history when this skill has been as important, because of the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories on social and partisan media sites.

NLP 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 in the country. 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 nearly 22,000 subscribers. Published weekly during the school year, it explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses media and press freedom topics, explores 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.

NLP has an e-learning platform, Checkology, that 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 42,000 educators and 375,000 students in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and more than 120 other countries have registered to use the platform.

Here’s material from the May 19 edition of The Sift:

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

Top picks

1. About 1 in 5 videos automatically suggested on TikTok contain misinformation, according to a new report from NewsGuard. Search results on pressing and consequential topics — including vaccines, abortion, climate change, school shootings, the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the war in Ukraine — are littered with misleading videos on the popular social media platform, NewsGuard researchers said. TikTok is one of the most popular domains in the world, especially among young people.

NewsGuard analyzed 540 TikTok search results, out of which they found 105 videos “contained false or misleading claims.” They also found that when users entered neutral phrases, like “climate change,” the platform suggested searches for false statements like “climate change doesn’t exist.”

Discuss: Do you use TikTok? If yes, what kind of videos do you watch on the platform? How often do you see TikTok videos about current issues and events? How can you tell whether a video is factual or not? Have you ever reported a video for misinformation on TikTok? Do you think strategies like user reports and AI technology are effective at filtering misinformation on social media?

Idea: In small groups, have students search a trending news topic on TikTok. Ask them to record the searches TikTok suggests as they type in their topic. Next, ask students to view the top five videos in their results and evaluate the credibility of each: Is the video factually accurate? Inaccurate? Are they unsure? Finally, have student groups discuss their observations and share ideas about how to verify TikTok content.

Resource:Introduction to Algorithms” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom).


◦ “For Gen Z, TikTok Is the New Search Engine” (Kalley Huang, the New York Times).

◦ “Teens Now Turn to TikTok More Than Google — but Not for Schoolwork” (Nadia Tamez-Robledo, EdSurge).

◦ “Lawmakers Grill TikTok Executive About Ties to China” (David McCabe, the New York Times).

Dig Deeper: Use this think sheet to explore how TikTok’s search results yield misleading information.

2. It’s been 130 years since a formerly enslaved man borrowed $200 to launch the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore. Commonly referred to as the Afro, the award-winning paper recently marked its anniversary and describes itself as a source of “good news about the Black community not otherwise found.”

Idea: Have students examine the news coverage featured on What kind of stories do they see? How might those stories be of interest to the news publication’s audience? What distinguishes this outlet’s coverage from more mainstream news sources?

Another idea: Ask students to use this map to explore media outlets across the United States that primarily serve Black communities.

Viral rumor rundown

Climate change denialism spread via fake CNN headline

NO: The screenshot in this tweet is not a genuine article published by CNN.

YES: This is a piece of impostor content designed to look like a CNN article.

NO: Climate and weather are not the same thing.

YES: Global warming and climate change can cause severe winter weather.

NewsLit takeaway: Impostor content is often designed to launder faulty ideas through a credible source. Using a fabricated CNN headline to push this falsehood accomplishes two things: It lends credibility to a demonstrably false claim for those who are inclined to believe it, and it impugns CNN’s reputation and credibility for those who aren’t. Remember, while weather changes from one season to the next, the impacts of climate change can be felt throughout the year. Conflating weather with climate is a common strategy used to minimize the magnitude of climate change. Recognizing this distinction makes us all less susceptible to climate change misinformation.

No, Donald Trump didn’t say he was knighted in private by Queen Elizabeth II

NO: This is not a genuine message from Trump about being knighted in private by the queen.

NO: This message was never posted to Trump’s account on Truth Social, the former president’s social media platform.

YES: This is a fabricated Truth Social post that went viral on Twitter.

NewsLit takeaway: Be skeptical of alleged social media messages that only circulate in image form as screenshots. A plethora of online tools make fabricating images of social media messages rather easy. While these doctored pieces of impostor content can appear convincing, one big red flag gives these messages away as fakes: They do not have URLs connected to the social media profile of the subject (in this case Trump), and many of these alleged posts have the same number of likes and shares. We’ve covered similar pieces of impostor content, and you can get a rundown on how to investigate this type of rumor here.


• As student journalists have become more vocal about the threats and intimidation they face, new research underscores the importance of preparing journalism students to cope with on-the-job harassment.

• This is the first school year that media literacy is required in Illinois high schools, and it can be taught in any subject, even in physical education class.

Here’s more:

‘News and information chaos’ grows and other news literacy lessons

A fainting nurse and false data along with more news literacy items

How to avoid being duped by false Ukraine information and more