July 19, 2024


Education, What Else?

How anti-vaxxers exploited Hamlin collapse

6 min read


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. With the spread of rumors and baseless accusations on social and partisan media sites, there has never been a time in recent U.S. history when this skill has been as important as now.

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. All of the NLP’s resources and programs, including Checkology, are free. Since 2016, more than 42,000 educators and 375,000 students in all 50 states, D.C. and more than 120 other countries have registered to use the platform.

Here’s material from the Monday edition of the Sift:

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

1. Amid growing public obsession with true crime stories, baseless claims surrounding the Nov. 13 murders of four University of Idaho students spread rapidly on TikTok. Before a suspect’s recent arrest, amateur sleuths online became emotionally invested in the case and made public accusations against people cleared as suspects by police — spurring a defamation lawsuit. Experts say false information surrounding criminal cases can impact investigations, re-victimize loved ones and sensationalize violence.

Discuss: Why are we drawn to crime stories? Why do you think baseless claims ran rampant following this murder case? What responsibility do we all have in what we share on social media? What is “rubbernecking?” Individually, how can we avoid sensationalizing violent crimes when commenting online? What real-world consequences have you observed as a result of social media activity?

“Professor sues TikTok accuser for linking her to Idaho students’ murders” (Maya Yang, The Guardian).

“TikTok Tarot Reader Accused Of Falsely Linking University Of Idaho Professor To Student Murders” (Danteé Ramos, Blavity).

Resources: “The First Amendment” and “Conspiratorial Thinking” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom).

Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to further explore the impact of false accusations involving violent crime and to examine an individual’s responsibility for what they share online.

2. This NPR profile traces the journey of a popular yoga teacher who fell down the rabbit hole of QAnon conspiracy theories online during the pandemic. Guru Jagat — who died of a pulmonary embolism in August 2021 — shared fringe theories with students and on her podcast, including false beliefs about the coronavirus being sprayed in airplane chemtrails and artificial intelligence mind control. One researcher noted that QAnon may resonate with some yoga practitioners “because both communities share the idea of a higher truth accessible to a select few.”

Discuss: Why do these baseless accusations appeal to people? Although plenty of yoga practitioners don’t follow QAnon, what similarities does the NPR piece highlight between yoga philosophy and conspiratorial thinking? What do you think of the “wellness to QAnon pipeline” phenomenon? Why are people especially vulnerable to health and wellness misinformation?

“Be Health Informed” and “Conspiratorial Thinking” (NLP’s Checkology virtual classroom).

— Infographic: “Levels of scientific evidence” (NLP’s Resource Library).

— “As Covid-19 Continues to Spread, So Does Misinformation About It” (Tiffany Hsu, The New York Times).

“Queen of Conspiracy Theories” (“Imperfect Paradise” podcast).

Anti-vaxxers exploit Damar Hamlin collapse to spread evidence-free claims

YES: Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest after a hit in the chest during an NFL game on Jan 2.

NO: There is no evidence that his cardiac arrest was related to coronavirus vaccines.

NO: There has not been an increase in athletes collapsing during sporting events and there is no evidence connecting coronavirus vaccines to such incidents.

NO: The FBI did not release a statement about Hamlin’s collapse.

NO: Hamlin’s doctor did not post on Twitter that the NFL player received a booster shot shortly before the game. This message originated with an impostor account.

NewsLit takeaway: The unfounded rumor that Hamlin’s collapse was caused by the coronavirus vaccine echoed the debunked claims in “Died Suddenly,” a pseudo-documentary that cobbles together clips of athletes fainting to make spurious claims about the safety of the vaccines. As fans sought credible information in the immediate aftermath of Hamlin’s collapse, many found conspiratorial and evidence-free rumors about alleged increases in such incidents and baseless assertions blaming coronavirus vaccines. This fits a pattern: Distributors of disinformation often exploit high-profile and emotional moments by pushing unfounded claims to an information-hungry public.

Joe Rogan, others amplify fabricated tweet with anti-vaccine agenda

NO: Natalia Solenkova, an intensive care unit doctor based in Florida and outspoken vaccine advocate, did not publish a tweet saying she “will never regret the [coronavirus] vaccine … even if it turns out [to be] actual poison.”

YES: This is a fabricated image of a tweet impersonating Solenkova.

YES: The prominent podcast host Joe Rogan presented the tweet as real and dedicated more than 10 minutes to it on a recent episode. He later apologized for spreading the hoax and deleted the segment that included it.

NewsLit takeaway: Fabricated tweets are easy to create and can be extremely effective at spreading harmful misinformation, especially when they are amplified to massive audiences online. The most common sign of a fake tweet is the lack of a live URL — because fake tweets are typically fabricated or doctored images, they go viral as alleged screenshots, often alongside claims that they’ve since been deleted. This particular example included another obvious red flag: It exceeded Twitter’s 280-character limit. But cognitive biases like confirmation bias can cause people to ignore such warning signs and embrace messages that support their existing ideas and beliefs. Skepticism and critical thinking about viral claims — especially those that are pushed by partisan figures — can help reduce the spread of misinformation.

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

• Social media helped fuel violent attacks on Brazil’s top government buildings on Sunday, with online activism and disinformation about the country’s recent presidential election spreading ahead of the riots on Telegram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok, according to researchers.

• This month marks the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and misinformation about the events of that day and the committee hearings are still spreading. USA Today has this roundup of Jan. 6 fact checks to help sort fact from fiction.

• The resignation of Mexico’s most-watched news anchor, Denise Maerker, is raising questions about whether her “brand of restrained coverage” and goal of providing impartial reporting has a place in a Mexican media landscape that has become more polarized during the president’s adversarial relationship with the press.

• As video games become more visually sophisticated, footage from war-themed video games is contributing to misinformation about the Russia-Ukraine war.

• New Jersey librarians were the driving force behind that state’s new information literacy law, which requires public schools to teach media literacy to K-12 students.

Here’s some more news literacy lessons:

Detecting impostor content on social media and other news literacy lessons

Twitter chaos, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and more news literacy lessons

Seeing through conspiracy theories and other news literacy lessons

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