It’s been a week for conspiracy theories. Here’s how to teach students to identify them.


The material comes from the project’s newsletter, the Sift, which takes the most recent viral rumors, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and journalistic ethics issues and turns them into timely lessons with discussion prompts and links. The Sift, which is published weekly during the school year, has more than 10,000 subscribers, most of them educators.

The News Literacy Project also offers a program called Checkology, a browser-based platform designed for students in grades 6 through 12 that helps prepare the next generation to easily identify misinformation. During the coronavirus pandemic, the project is offering access to Checkology Premium at no cost to educators and parents in the United States. More than 1,100 educators and parents in 49 states and D.C. have registered to use the platform with as many as 90,000 students.

You can learn more about the News Literacy Project and all of the educational resources it provides in this piece, but here is a rundown:

Founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the News Literacy Project is the leading provider of news literacy education.

It creates digital curriculums and other resources, and works with educators and journalists to teach middle- and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and provides them with the tools they need to be informed and engaged participants in a democracy. It uses the standards of high-quality journalism as an aspirational yardstick against which to measure all news and information. Just as important, it provides the next generation with an appreciation of the First Amendment and the role of a free press.

Here’s material from the Oct. 5 Sift:

Confusion breeds conspiracy

When President Trump tweeted at 12:54 a.m. Eastern on Oct. 2 that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, it touched off a flood of conspiracy theories online from people seeking to make sense of the news.

Disciples of the QAnon conspiracy theories read something into Trump’s diagnosis that no one else did: a cover to facilitate a “storm” of arrests to purge Washington of Hillary Clinton and other high-profile political figures who they believe are secretly Satanist pedophiles. (This is the core tenet of the QAnon belief system.) Unsurprisingly, they found “evidence” of this plan. In the last sentence of his tweet announcing his condition, Trump wrote, “We will get through this TOGETHER.” QAnon enthusiasts, eagerly searching for their preferred meaning, decided it was a secret code: “To get her.”

Note: People are often tempted to engage in conspiratorial thinking as they seek to make sense of major events — too often in ways that confirm their existing ideas and beliefs. In this case, a lack of transparency and a variety of conflicting accounts from the White House and Trump’s doctors have exacerbated people’s natural inclinations to engage in this type of thinking.

Also note: Several examples in today’s viral rumor rundown also exhibit and appeal to conspiratorial thinking about the president’s diagnosis.

Idea: Use these related readings to help students understand why people believe in conspiracy theories, including the fact that they offer people a sense of control by replacing a complex and messy reality with an alluringly simple and clean explanation.

Discuss: Why might people be especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories right now?

NO: The video in this tweet does not show bikers praying in support of Trump and first lady Melania Trump after they were diagnosed with covid-19.

★ Featured rumor resource: This classroom-ready slide deck guides students through the process of fact-checking this rumor on their own, including how to use basic geolocation to verify the location.

NO: The Trump campaign did not send a fundraising email asking for donations to help the president recover from covid-19.

Idea: Use this example to test your students’ ability to evaluate evidence for a claim. First, simply show them an image of the fake letter on social media and let them react. If no one draws the authenticity into question, ask whether the image of the letter is strong evidence that the campaign actually sent such an email. In discussion, help students recognize how easy it would be for anyone to create and screenshot a fake document like this one. You might also highlight the grammatical errors and unusual word choices in the letter.

1. “Many Americans Get News on YouTube, Where News Organizations and Independent Producers Thrive Side by Side” (Pew Research Center). A revealing new study from the Pew Research Center drives home just how central YouTube has become in many Americans’ news diets. About a quarter of U.S. adults turn to the video-sharing platform for news, but only about half of the news channels on YouTube are associated with established news organizations. According to the study, independent channels — or those without a clear affiliation with an organization — post much of the remaining news content. These channels are often personality-driven and more likely to cover conspiracy theories or approach subjects with a negative tone.

Discuss: The study notes that news consumers are just about split on whether they primarily use YouTube for opinion-based content (51 percent) or straight news reporting (48 percent). Why would opinions and commentary thrive on a platform like YouTube? How can you determine if this type of content is still factual?

Idea: Ask students about their own YouTube habits and whether they use the platform as a news source. Compile a list of channels that students commonly turn to for information and challenge students to evaluate them. Do they provide straight news reports or just commentary and opinion? Do they do any original reporting? Then have students fact-check a recent video on a channel of their choosing.

2. “Exclusive: Russian operation masqueraded as right-wing news site to target U.S. voters — sources” (Jack Stubbs, Reuters). This is an important story that got buried in the avalanche of news about the first presidential debate and Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis. It’s about an FBI probe into a phony right-wing “news” website — called the Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens (NAEBC) — run by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian propaganda and troll factory that interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The site mainly focuses on U.S. politics (especially divisive issues) and paid unwitting Americans to write for it.

Note: This Reuters report is based on two unnamed sources familiar with the FBI investigation.

Also note: A little more than a month ago, the FBI told Facebook about another Russian IRA impostor “news” site called Peace Data that targeted liberals and paid unwitting American writers. The site is no longer active.

Key term: Attempts to mask state-sponsored propaganda stories by getting other individuals and organizations to write and publish them is a form of “information laundering.”

Idea: Use Web archives — for example the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine or archive.today — to search for saved images of NAEBC and Peace Data. (For example, search “https://peacedata.net/” for shots of the home page, or add an asterisk — ‘https://peacedata.net/*’ — to find all archived Web pages that begin with this URL.) Then have students analyze the headlines and stories they find there. Why might the Russian government be interested in promoting such issues and stories?





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