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News literacy: ‘Shark Week,’ Stephen Curry video, toxic social media

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Here’s the latest installment of a regular 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 as now, because of the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories on social and partisan media sites.

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 Dec. 12 edition of The Sift:

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

WARNING: The following top pick includes links to articles that contain profanity and references to sexual content, violence, suicide, death threats and other harmful content.

1. For kids and teenagers, social media isn’t just TikTok dance videos. It’s also a toxic environment where they face online abuse and unsolicited explicit content. A researcher based in the United Kingdom who spent eight years discussing social media experiences with young people found that many believed oversight of tech companies was only one part of the solution when it comes to online safety. Several expressed hesitations in reaching out to their parents or teachers about their online activities because they worried adults would overreact or trivialize their experiences. Legislation proposed in the United Kingdom. (Online Safety Bill) and the United States (Kids Online Safety Act) aims to increase protections for young people online, although it’s unclear how effective the policies would be if enacted.

Discuss: What social media apps do you use? Who do you interact with online? Have you ever encountered sexism and hate online, or felt unsafe on the internet? What do you wish adults understood about social media and young people’s experiences online? If you were a lawmaker, how would you propose keeping young people safe online? What protections would help or harm kids?

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

“Hate Is No Game: Hate and Harassment in Online Games 2022” (Anti-Defamation League).

“The bleakest of worlds’: how Molly Russell fell into a vortex of despair on social media” (Dan Milmo, The Guardian).

◦ Opinion: “Gen Z Is Ready to Torpedo Social Media’s Echo Chambers” (Aina Marzia, The Daily Beast).

Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to further explore how young people navigate social media and harmful online content.

2. Most Americans believe social media is bad for democracy, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 19 democratic countries. The study found the United States to be an outlier compared to countries like Japan and Poland, where most residents hold an opposite view and assessed social media’s political impact more positively. The United States also had the highest percentage of poll respondents who believed the internet and social media politically divided people (79 percent) and “made people less civil in how they talk about politics” (69 percent).

Discuss: Does social media contribute to political polarization? If yes, how? Has a political disagreement online affected your relationships? Why do you think Americans are more politically polarized compared with the other countries polled for the Pew study?

Idea: Divide students into groups and have them make a list of social media’s positive and negative impacts on democracy. Ask them to reflect on their own experiences. How is social media related to the spread of misinformation? How can these platforms make it easier to stay informed or promote civic engagement? Then, discuss as a class. To extend this question further, have students develop their thoughts in several paragraphs or an essay.

Resource: Infographic: “How to teach news literacy in polarizing times” (NLP’s Resource Library).

“In advanced and emerging economies, similar views on how social media affects democracy and society” (Pew Research Center).

“Hate in the Headlines: Journalism & the Challenge of Extremism” (James Tager and Summer Lopez, PEN America).

3. Researchers who analyzed hundreds of the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” episodes were “staggered” by their findings of misinformation, including misinterpretations of shark behavior and glorification of wildlife harassment. The scientists also found a lack of diversity among “expert” sources featured on the show.

Resource: ““Evaluating Science-Based Claims” (Checkology virtual classroom).

“‘Shark Week’ lacks diversity, overrepresents men named Mike, scientists say” (Daniel Wu, The Washington Post).

“Shark Week has too many white men and is prone to ‘fearmongering’: study” (Sheena Goodyear, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio).

New data on covid-19 deaths misused to blame vaccines

YES: A Nov. 23 Washington Post story said that an analysis found for the first time that a majority of recent covid-19 deaths occurred among people who were vaccinated.

NO: This does not mean that the coronavirus vaccines are ineffective.

YES: Since a large majority of Americans have gotten at least their initial rounds of vaccines, people who are vaccinated are likely to make up a larger share of overall deaths from covid-19.

YES: Vaccinated individuals are still at a lower risk of dying from covid-19 than unvaccinated individuals.

NewsLit takeaway: The base rate fallacy is a logical fallacy in which people ignore the base rate, or general prevalence of something, in favor of event-specific information. While it’s true that vaccinated people made up most coronavirus deaths in recent months, this is because about 80 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine — and this rate is even greater among high-risk groups. Interpreting the data to blame vaccines for the deaths “would be like saying most deaths in car crashes come with people wearing seat belts,” said an infectious-disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

The Washington Post’s original article on this finding was published under a headline — “Vaccinated people now make up a majority of covid deaths” — that was quickly taken out of context and used to spread anti-vaccination talking points, despite the fact that the report clearly explained the reasons behind the ratio shift in August 2022 and reiterated that vaccinated people are still at a lower risk of dying from covid-19 than unvaccinated people. The Post subsequently changed the headline to “covid is no longer mainly a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Here’s why.” Remember: Headlines (and data) can easily be misinterpreted and presented out of context to further bad faith agendas. Reading past the headline provides crucial details and relevant context that can help people get a better understanding of a topic.

Fake Stephen Curry full court shot video presented as genuine on social media

NO: This is not an authentic video of NBA superstar Stephen Curry making five consecutive full court shots.

YES: This is a digitally edited video that was created by special effects artist Ari Fararooy.

YES: The Golden State Warriors confirmed that this video was fake.

NewsLit takeaway: There’s a long history of fabricated sports videos that supposedly capture amazing feats. NBA stars Michael Jordan and Larry Bird hit a series of increasingly impossible shots in a staged game of HORSE for a 1994 McDonald’s commercial — making it fairly obvious that it was fake. But in the social media era, such fakes are often better disguised and presented as if they capture genuine acts of incredible athletic prowess, such as the videos of NFL quarterback Tom Brady playing catch with a throwing machine, English soccer star David Beckham kicking soccer balls into trash cans or MLB all-star Evan Longoria saving a baseball reporter with a quick-thinking catch.

Recognizing patterns and tropes is a great way to avoid getting fooled online. If social media users recall that doctored videos are often used to create viral sports moments, they may be a little more skeptical when encountering the next iteration of this genre. This example is especially concerning because it was posted — without any labels or disclaimers — by the official Twitter account of Sports Illustrated, a popular source for sports news. The tweet does credit Fararooy — but only the most careful readers with the time and inclination to review his other work would see he’s made a number of similar sports videos.

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

• Sixty-seven journalists and media workers have been killed around the world so far this year — a notable jump from last year’s total (47), according to a report from the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. Twelve were killed while covering the Russia-Ukraine war, and five were in Pakistan.

• A new report from the Asian American Journalists Association found that nearly a quarter of local news stations in the top 20 TV markets “do not have any AAPI reporters on air” (AAPI stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders).

• What contributes to a person’s vulnerability to misinformation? The answer, as you might have guessed, is complex. This Psychology Today piece lists age, education, childhood beliefs, personality traits, social groups, low levels of digital and media literacy and feelings of isolation and loneliness as possible factors.

• Think misinformation in politics is new? Not quite. Even the American Revolution was shaped by misinformation and inaccurate sources in newspapers.

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