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Monday, Feb. 19, 2018
A note about #Parkland

By now, it’s likely that many of you have discussed with your students the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. If you are looking for resources to help guide these talks, The New York Times Learning Network published an excellent collection.

Like other recent mass shootings, the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas prompted a spate of rumors, coordinated hoaxes, routine memes, troll campaigns and political propaganda — as well as some new misinformation strategies. Two tweets from a reporter at the Miami Herald were digitally altered and reshared to spark anger and outrage against the press. An altered screenshot of a BuzzFeed News piece drew ire before being debunked.

Given the magnitude and importance of the misinformation about Parkland, this issue of The Sift is largely devoted to that topic. Directly below is a special rundown of viral misinformation that circulated after the shooting, along with ideas for using it to sharpen your students’ news literacy skills.

Thanks for reading. -Peter

#Parkland rumor rundown

  • NO: The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was not the 18th “school shooting” of 2018. YES: It was the 18th time a gun was discharged on or near school property, including two suicides, at least two accidental discharges, a pellet gun fired at a school bus, and an attempted robbery after school hours. YES: Some news outlets have repeated this number and some have actively debunked it.
    • Note: The figure 18 comes from a list created by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. The pitfalls of citing its broad definition for “school shooting” was included in The Sift’s viral rumor rundown on Jan. 29.
  • NO: Authorities have found no evidence of ties between Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the Parkland shooting, and the white supremacist group Republic of Florida. YES: A representative of the Republic of Florida group falsely told the Anti-Defamation League and several news organizations that Cruz was a member. YES: Posts by purported ROF members on the internet message board 4chan claimed Cruz was a member, prompting the ADL’s interest.
    • Note: Some communities on 4chan regularly organize hoaxes and other mis- and disinformation campaigns. They are also known to engage in “source hacking,” or coordinated attempts to trick journalists into citing faulty or fabricated sources, often by seeding rumors and manipulated images online.
    • Note 2: Most news organizations stopped short of reporting that Cruz was a confirmed member of ROF, but did (accurately) report that a representative of ROF had made the claim.

A graphic posted to 4chan that boasts about having fooled news organizations into reporting the possible connections between Nikolas Cruz and a Tallahassee white supremacist group.
  • NO: There is no evidence that Cruz is a member of Antifa. NO: Cruz is not a member of the Islamic State. NO: Cruz was not proved to be a registered Democrat. NO: Cruz is not a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient (or “Dreamer”). 
  • NO: Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris did not tweet to Stoneman Douglas students asking if the shooter was white and for pictures or video of the victims. YES: Alex Harris did use Twitter to contact students who were at the school during the shooting.

    Images of the authentic tweets from Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris to Stoneman Douglas students (left) and the doctored versions of those tweets (right). The manipulation of journalists’ tweets is a new misinformation strategy that emerged last week.
    • Note: Some Twitter users replied to one of Harris’ actual tweets criticizing her for trying to reach students inside the school for more information while it was still on lockdown. Many journalists use social media to try to get eyewitness accounts from inaccessible scenes.
    • Discuss: Is it appropriate for journalists to use social media to try to get information about what is happening at the scene of a breaking news event? What factors might influence your opinion on this question — the nature of the event? The age of the witnesses? Whether or not a witness is posting information to social media before being contacted? What guidelines would you recommend to make sure this is done in an ethical manner?
  • NO: Buzzfeed News did not publish a story with the headline “Why We Need To Take Away White People’s Guns Now More Than Ever.” It is a doctored screenshot of a different report: "At Least 17 People Are Dead In A Florida School Shooting. NO: BuzzFeed News does not have a reporter named "Richie Horowitz." YES: The name of the reporter of the actual piece is Salvador Hernandez. 
    • Discuss: What are some possible motives behind the creation of this fake? How often can the true motive (e.g., accident, satire, trolling, disinforming) behind the creation of a piece of misinformation be known? Does the motive matter or only the impact? Can the impact ever be known?
  • NO: The National Rifle Association is not releasing a commemorative line of AR-15 assault rifles to raise funds for Parkland victims.
  • NO: Former First Lady Michelle Obama did not blame President Donald Trump for the Parkland shooting.
  • NO: Comedian Sam Hyde was not the Parkland shooter. YES: Online trolls and hoaxsters regularly try to get images of Hyde to go viral after mass shootings.
    • Idea: Innoculate your students against this recurring rumor by teaching them about the meme.
  • NO: The amateur product reviewer and YouTube vlogger TheReportOfTheWeek (aka Reviewbrah) is not missing after the Parkland shooting. YES: Online trolls and hoaxsters regularly try to get images of Reviewbrah to go viral after mass shootings.
    • Idea: Innoculate your students against this recurring rumor by teaching them about the meme.
  • NO: There was no second shooter at Stoneman Douglas High School.
    • Misinformation pattern: Rumors about a second shooter are common after mass shootings, but are almost never true.

Viral rumor rundown

  •  NO: People are not being assaulted by racially motivated attackers at screenings of the film “Black Panther.” YES: Racist Twitter trolls were caught repurposing images from across the web last week to manufacture false evidence of assaults that never happened. 

    An image from Flickr in 2009 is repurposed in an attempt to manufacture “evidence” of a racially motivated assault at a screening of “Black Panther.”
    • Misinformation pattern: Repurposed images from unrelated contexts often aid the belief and propagation of a viral rumor. This is an especially common tactic among racist internet trolls, such as those behind the #BaltimoreLootCrew and #HarveyLootCrew hashtags on Twitter in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
    • Idea: Teach students how to do reverse image searches to debunk image-based misinformation, then make timed reverse image challenges a part of your routine to hone their skills.
  • NO: George Soros and the Democratic National Committee are not “clients” – or funders – of the fact-checking website Snopes.com. A post on Reddit.com used pictures of Soros with two other men to try to buttress this old claim.
  • YES: U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi lives in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco. NO: She does not live in the Pacific Heights house with a perimeter security wall pictured in the false meme below.
  • NO: U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III does not have a perimeter security wall on his house near Boston. YES: A Palm Beach, Fla., oceanside home once owned – and sold 20 years ago – by the Kennedy family has a seawall.
    • Misinformation pattern: This rumor emerged some time after Kennedy delivered the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union speech on Jan. 30. Viral rumors commonly gain momentum from actual events.
  • NO: A Newark, N.J., man with Alzheimer’s disease did not accidentally get 14 flu shots in a day.
    • Misinformation pattern: This is “too perfect” and conveniently connects to widespread misinformation about the (nonexistent) dangers of vaccines or certain medications.
    • Discuss: The (false) suggestion that some vaccines administered in early childhood could cause autism – largely derived from a study that was later retracted – has been a persistent rumor for a number of years. What are some effects of misinformation involving health and medicine? What sort of groups might seek to spread this kind of misinformation? If someone decides not to vaccinate their child, who might be affected?
Deleted tweets, legit news sources 

On Feb. 14, NBC News released a database of 200,000 tweets by Russian troll accounts that have been suspended by Twitter, causing their tweets to disappear from the platform. An NBC News analysis of the tweets shows how activity by Russian government-linked accounts spiked in conjunction with specific world events — including terrorist attacks — that occurred during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russians also used specific partisan hashtags to collect followers, attempted to “hijack” nonpolitical discussions by introducing inflammatory political statements, and live-tweeted commentary about the final presidential debate on Oct. 19, 2016.

Another analysis of more than 36,000 Russian tweets by Jonathan Albright — the research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who assisted NBC News in its recovery of the deleted tweets — found that while Breitbart was the site most commonly shared by these accounts, The Washington Post ran a close second. In fact, a majority of the links shared by Russian propaganda accounts were from legitimate mainstream news sources. Albright also outlines an apparent strategy to share local news reports from accounts with a specific city or region name in their handle.

Please share this newsletter with others who may find this information useful (subscribe here). For more examples and ideas like these, you can follow me on Twitter (@PeterD_Adams). Also follow @NewsLitProject and @MrSilva.

If you have suggestions for future issues of The Sift, please share them here.

If you're looking for engaging and effective news literacy resources, check out NLP's checkology® virtual classroom. We’re giving away student licenses for 1:1 functionality for the rest of the 2017-18 school year. Yes, it’s free.

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