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Monday, April 23, 2018
ICYMI: This is propaganda

A screenshot of an unlabeled Russian propaganda video on YouTube that mocks the recent military response by Western nations to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The video also pushes confusing false equivalencies about the use of several types of military weapons.

Last Thursday, NBC News reported that a YouTube channel that appears to provide cheeky, millennial-focused news analysis is actually a state-run Russian propaganda effort. It has also evaded YouTube’s new label for state-sponsored content.

The channel, named ICYMI after the internet-slang abbreviation for “in case you missed it,” is a spinoff of RT (formerly Russia Today), another Russian state-owned media company. The channel’s short videos are hosted by Polly Boiko, a former RT staffer, and make heavy use of motion graphics, humor and references to internet culture, presumably in an attempt to appeal to young news consumers.

Boiko’s commentary in the videos echoes Kremlin talking points and employs common Russian propaganda tactics. For example, in a video about “fake news,” Boiko creates confusion around the concept of “fake news,” mocks as bad-faith “BS police” the creation of a U.K. government committee to combat state-sponsored disinformation, and asserts that the commission’s first action might as well be to shut down all newspapers, TV stations and the internet. In other videos, Boiko ridicules the notion that Russia is responsible for the recent poisoning in Salisbury, England, of the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter and pushes a fog of false equivalencies and conspiracy theory references about the recent military strikes in Syria by the U.S., France and the U.K.

ICYMI was launched on Jan. 11; as of April 23, it had published 163 videos — more than 11 a week, on average.

  • Note: These videos are consistent with Russia’s other propaganda efforts, which are designed to sow confusion and doubt and to further the distrust of institutions. These strategies present a particular challenge for educators who are working to help their students develop critical — but not cynical — dispositions toward institutions.
  • Idea: Provide students with the link to the ICYMI channel and, as a bell-ringer, give them a few minutes to explore it on their own. Then, use Facing History and Ourselves’ “Big Paper” strategy, have students silently write their thoughts and questions. Transition from Big Paper to small groups, and challenge students to find answers to the questions raised. (If no students have raised questions about the origins of the channel, you may need to add this question.) At the end of class, have student groups share their findings and address other thoughts arising from the Big Paper exercise.
    • Note: Once the channel is revealed as a Russian state media operation, you should anticipate that some students will make false equivalencies between ICYMI (or other state-run media) and mainstream news organizations. Students should recognize that while mainstream news organizations are not perfect, they are demonstrably and vividly distinct from state-sponsored propaganda outlets.
    • Also note: People sometimes compare PBS, NPR or the BBC to state-run media, but their funding models and editorial practices reflect important differences to help maintain their independence from government control.
  • Related: Another RT spinoff, In the Now, has Facebook and Twitter accounts that share content similar to what’s seen on ICYMI. These social media accounts also do not contain any labels or disclaimers about their ownership.
  • Discuss: What action could students take in response to these channels and other state-sponsored propaganda?

Viral rumor rundown


Two social media posts purporting to show Starbucks promotions. Neither was real; both were conceived on the internet message board 4chan.

 NO: Starbucks did not create a coupon offering a free coffee to “persons of African American heritage and/or identity at time of exchange” in apology for the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12. YES: A variety of fake coupons and announcements with this claim were developed in the 4chan message board’s Politically Incorrect forum (warning: offensive language), then spread online. YES: Politically Incorrect users also created fake Starbucks flyers advertising free restroom access, WiFi and charging stations for anyone and encouraged distributing them among the homeless across the country.

  • Related: In this tweet thread, I give a more complete picture of how this idea developed on 4chan, then spread onto social media.

NO: Michigan State Rep. Triston Cole does not support adding a yellow star to the driver’s licenses of legal immigrants. YES: A bill proposed in the Michigan House to comply with requirements of the federal Real ID Act of 2005 included unclear language about visual markers to be added to the driver’s licenses of immigrants with temporary lawful status. YES: Michigan driver’s licenses and identification cards that comply with the Real ID program have a white star in a gold circle in the upper right corner. Starting in October 2020, Real ID-compliant identification will be required to board domestic flights and enter certain federal facilities. 

 NO: San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard did not say that he is refusing to play in the NBA playoffs because he is insulted by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s public criticism of President Donald Trump. 


  • Note: Though this fictional statement was published under the guise of parody, the attribution to Bleacher Report demonstrates an attempt to make consumers believe it.

 NO: The BBC did not expose the use of “fake cheese” by Domino’s Pizza locations in India.

NO: The images below are not evidence that Syria Civil Defense, a group of civilian volunteers also known as the White Helmets, staged the aftermath of an attack using “crisis actors.” YES: They are photographs taken on the set of Revolution Man, a movie co-produced by Syria’s National Film Organization, part of the Ministry of Culture, and a private production company. It tells the fictional story of a photojournalist who sneaks into Syria to stage a chemical attack in an attempt to win “international” journalism prizes.

 NO: While serving as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton did not send an email ordering the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

NO: Malia Obama, a daughter of former President Barack Obama, did not create an anti-Trump website at the URL YES: Prolific “fake news” purveyor Christopher Blair created a “satirical” anti-Trump website at that domain just a few days before publishing the meme.

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Quick hits
  • As the number of Facebook users in developing countries continues to grow, so does the proliferation of misinformation and hate speech on the platform — some of which has incited acts of actual violence. Recent events in Sri Lanka bring several difficult questions for Facebook — as well as for governments and their citizens — into sharp focus:
    • Discuss: To what extent is Facebook responsible for monitoring the content on its platform for credibility? For hate speech? How can the platform’s algorithms present users with the most engaging content possible (which is how it generates revenue) but still guard against damaging misinformation that provokes strong negative emotions like outrage or fear? What, in addition to fact-checking efforts, can the company do to monitor the content posted by billions of users in different languages in different countries with different privacy and speech protections? How can the effects of misinformation shared by family members and trusted friends be minimized?
  • YouTube’s continuing crackdown on hate speech and other dangerous forms of misinformation has led to accusations of political censorship by far-right commentators and conspiracy theorists, who are fleeing the platform for less regulated sites.
    • Note: Despite these efforts, videos with extremist content are still hosted on YouTube — and the company sells ads against them, as CNN reports.
    • Discuss: Should YouTube moderate content? What kinds of content should be banned from the platform? Is YouTube responsible for actions taken by its users in response to videos, such as those espousing conspiracy theories or hate speech, on its platform? What ideas for action does this issue inspire in students?
  • A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that while 58 percent of Americans are against the idea of the U.S. government’s taking action against misinformation online, 56 percent are in favor of tech companies’ taking such actions, even if they limit the free flow of information. But the results aren’t consistent across political party affiliations, age groups and level of education.
  • Mariel Padilla spent last summer as an intern at The Cincinnati Enquirer. Now a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school, the home of the Pulitzer Prizes, she received an unexpected surprise last week while she was in class.
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.

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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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