Learn to see through conspiracy theories


Here’s the latest installment of a regular feature I’ve been running for several years: lessons of association Media Literacy Project (NLP), which aims to teach students and the public how to sort fact from fiction in our digital and controversial age. There has never been a time in recent US history when this skill has been more important, due to the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories on social media and partisan sites.

NLP was founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the Los Angeles Times, and it has become the leading provider of information literacy education in the nation. You can learn more about the organization, its resources, and its programs here.

Content for this article comes from Sift, the organization of newsletter for educators, which has nearly 22,000 subscribers. Published weekly during the school year, it explores timely examples of misinformation, discusses media and press freedom topics, explores social media trends and issues, and includes discussion prompts and activities to the class. Get Smart About News, modeled on the Sift, is a free weekly newsletter for the public.

NLP has an online learning platform, Checkologywhich helps educators teach middle and high school students how to identify credible information, seek out reliable sources, and know what to trust, what to reject, and what to debunk.

It also gives them an appreciation for the importance of the First Amendment and a free press. Checkology and all NLP 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 is material from the October 3 edition of Sift:

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

1. A single mother from Mississippi has adopted several conspiracy theories until one day she questioned the validity of a knowledge’s claim that the Earth is flat. Karen Robertson, 30, shared her journey out of conviction by conspiracy theories with a student reporter from PBS Student Reporting Labs. She said a previous abusive relationship led her to these beliefs. “I was trying to make sense of the world, and it was easier to believe that it was a bad place and something was there to get you, and that’s why my life was where it was and that bad that she was, that she was to realize that I had made bad choices. Robertson encouraged others to question conspiracy theories. “When I challenged my beliefs, it changed my world and that made my life better.”

Idea: Have students watch 3:32 PBS NewsHour video of Robertson sharing his story and discussing in class. Do they know anyone who buys into conspiracy theories? How have these beliefs affected this person? What kind of conspiracy theories have they heard of? What makes people vulnerable to conspiracy thinking?

“‘My Brother Is So Far Away’: How Male Influencers Made The Men In These People’s Lives Toxic” (Ade Onibada, BuzzFeed News).

“Conspiracy thinking” (Checkology virtual class).

“News Lit Quiz: avoid the trap of conspiratorial thinking” (NLP Resource Library).

– Infographics : “How to speak without triggering a showdown” (NLP Resource Library).

Imposter astronaut uses green screen to lie about NASA using green screen

NOPE: The woman in this video is not NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg.

YES: This video was created for a Flat Earth YouTube Channel show someone how could simulate a weightless environment with a green screen.

YES: The creators shot the footage on Earth, then used green screen to add a still image of the International Space Station, along with various floating objects.

NewsLit Takeaway: Instilling doubt can sometimes propagate conspiracy theories more effectively than providing evidence for them. This video, for example, was not created to prove that NASA uses green screens to lie about space travel; instead, it aims to show how NASA could lie about space travel if it wanted to. USA Today Fact Checkers identified the woman in the video as a flat Earth believer acting in a skit, which later went viral. The Flat Earth conspiracy theory is not so much about proving the Earth is flat as it is about casting doubt on scientific knowledge. There is one more surprising number of people who embrace flat Earth beliefs.

Altered video of Trump, Sinema goes viral

NOPE: It’s not an authentic video of Arizona, Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D) and former President Donald Trump.

YES: This is a digitally edited video based on footage of Trump with a supporter of a 2015 campaign rally and an extract from Sinema acceptance speech from November 2018.

YES: This video was created by a content creator known for his fabricated prank photos and videos.

NewsLit Takeaway: There are several ways to tell that the video is a fake. Sinema’s head doesn’t seem to be the right size for his body. His hair disappears behind his shoulders and his shirt and neck are artificially smooth. The video has racked up tens of thousands of views. On social media, some users acknowledged that the video was fake but argued that it might as well be true because he captured something they envision might happen. This kind of rationalization of misinformation is a red flag.

You can find this week’s sample rumors to use with students at these slides.

• An AI-based text-to-image generator, DALL-E, was recently released to the public, eroding the line between real and fake images.

• Meta has closed a Russian network over 2,000 Facebook accounts spreading pro-Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine, including pages that imitated news sites.

• The disparity in sports news coverage of two separate scandals raises the question of whether white athletes receive better media coverage than black athletes.

• “Hurricane Shark” is a well-known misinformation meme – but this time the the pictures were legit: The Associated Press confirmed that viral video of a big fish in a Florida garden was captured during Hurricane Ian.


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