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Misinformation & Fake News

A guide to discerning fake news sources, including articles, videos, and links to other resources.

Practice: Case Studies

 

On August 20, 2022, a TikTok video was posted, claiming that Disney World was going to lower the drinking age to 18. It was stated that Disney World was battling the Florida government in court to get a resort exemption, which would allow anyone 18 and older to drink on property. The TikTok video acquired millions of views in just a couple days. This story was also posted on facebook, instagram, and Twitter. Shortly after, the story made it on ABC 10 News.

The video originated from an article posted on a blog called Mouse Trap News. Small segment of the original article below. Full article can be found here: "Drinking Age at Disney World May be Lowered to 18".

The Claim: Walt Disney Company was seeking a resort exemption to lower the drinking age to 18 years old, in Disney World, Florida.

To find the truth about this story, we will use Michael Caufield's Four Moves and a Habit. 

1. Check for previous work: For this case, we looked up this claim on Snopes (fact checking resource). They published an article on the story and labeled it as fake news satire. It was also aired on ABC 10 News, on their fact or fiction segment, where it was determined to be fiction. The news segment can be viewed here.

2. Go upstream to the source: The TikTok video originally came from an article published by the same TikTok user, @mousetrapnews. They have their own webpage dedicated to news stories about disneyland parks.  The original article claimed that Disney was battling Florida in the courts over the minimum drinking age, but no evidence such as sources or court filings are mentioned.

3. Read laterally: Upon further exploration of the site itself, their About page actually bluntly admits that they only write fake stories about Disney Parks (see picture below).

4. Circle back: If we go back to the main article explaining the story, it reads in the description an explanation of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed by congress and signed into law by President Reagan. The article then asks the reader a question "Didn’t think you would get a history lesson from us, did you?" and "Now that we have set up the act, we have some Disney news to go with it.", these playful comments already makes the story a little suspicious. We can also check another form of social media the user has. They also had an Instagram account, where they state "Real Disney News That is 100% Fake" and "The Onion Of Disney News".

 

 Interestingly enough, many of the Mouse Trap News fake news stories have been featured on different news websites and shows, such as The Associated Press, USA Today, and on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The Conclusion: The Walt Disney Company did not seek a resort exemption to lower the drinking age to 18 years old, in Disney World, Florida.

 

In October 2020, posts on social media and articles were published claiming that a new CDC study found the Majority of those infected with COVID-19 ‘always’ wore Masks (examples of the articles below). This claim was further elevated on October 15, 2020, a town hall broadcast by NBC, interviewed U.S. President Donald Trump. During this interview Trump stated, " But just the other day, they came out with a statement that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it." Trump's source for this claim was the new study published by the CDC. Full transcription of this interview can be found here. This information was ultimately, misinterpreted. Below is the CDC's tweet addressing the misinformation.

The Claim: CDC reported that the majority of those infected with COVID-19 ‘always’ wore masks.

To find the truth about this story, we will use Michael Caufield's Four Moves and a Habit. 

  1. Check for previous work: For this case, we looked up this claim on Snopes and FactCheck.org (fake news fact checker). Both resources claim the information as false and misleading.
  2. Go upstream to the source: The claim originated from a study published by the CDC titled, Community and Close Contact Exposures Associated with COVID-19 Among Symptomatic Adults ≥18 Years in 11 Outpatient Health Care Facilities. This study examined how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may be transmitted both within communities and between close contacts. While Trump used the correct percentage from the study, the data was misinterpreted. The study reported that 85 percent had reported wearing masks always or often. The study also found that for those in the group who had tested negative, 89 percent had reported wearing masks with the same frequency. The CDC pointed out that "People w/ and w/o COVID19 had high levels of mask use in public. Even for those who always wear a mask, there are activities where masks can’t be worn, like eating or drinking. People w/ COVID-19 were more likely to have eaten in a restaurant." The study noted, "Exposures and activities where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, including going to locations that offer on-site eating and drinking, might be important risk factors for SARS-CoV-2 infection."
  3. Read laterally: The claim is challenging the notion that wearing a mask is not effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. We have to take in consideration that this study was investigating mask wearing in community activities. CDC's website provides Science Briefs which is a summary of the scientific evidence used to inform specific CDC guidance and recommendations. In one brief, they state, "individual prevention benefit increases with increasing numbers of people using masks consistently and correctly." So, the people from the original study might have not been using their masks effectively if repeatedly taking them off in social settings. Other medical experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, states "Masks aren't perfect. They help, but they're not a guarantee that you're not going to get Covid if you wear a mask”.  
  4. Circle back: If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by other sources on the claim, circle back to the claim and investigate the background of that source. Using the AllSides Media Bias Chart, we can see that The Federalist is listed on the very, far right side of the chart. The author of that article, Jordan Boyd, has her twitter page linked to her name and we can see that her posts are on the far right of the political spectrum. The California Globe is listed as a conservative leaning publication on Snopes, many of their other posts written by the author lean to the right of the political spectrum. You can also circle back to the original study the claims were based on and question the accurateness. One issue with the study is the data was self-reported through phone surveys. So, people could have inaccurately reported mask use since there was no video monitoring to confirm. 

Check Your Emotions: The use of masks and its effectiveness against COVID-19 was a highly politicized topic when the pandemic started. By downplaying the severity of the virus (despite all the losses recorded by the CDC), President Trump's attitude about the pandemic and the use of masks contributed the view that the COVID-19 public health crisis should be viewed as a political issue.

Conclusion: The CDC did not report that the majority of those infected with COVID-19 ‘always’ wore masks.

For more examples on COVID-19 myths and using Michael Caufield's Four Moves and a Habit to fact check them, visit our COVID Vaccines Libguide.

Widely Shared Fake News Stories from 2020-23

The Claim: The U.S. Capitol police gave the protesters an "okay" to enter the Capitol.

To find the truth about this story, we will use Michael Caufield's Four Moves and a Habit. 

  1. Check for previous work: For this claim, we looked up this claim on Factcheck.org  (fake news fact checker). Factcheck.org debunks the story here.
  2. Go upstream to the source: this claim originated from a video clip that was posted all over social media. This video clip was posted by a group of Trump supporters who attacked the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., after U.S. President Donald Trump did not win the 2020 presidential election, on January 6, 2021.They uploaded a video where shows a police officer “appears to tell” the group that they wouldn't stop them from entering the building. However, nowhere in the video does the police make that claim. A fake news website called, The Gateway Pundit, reported the same claim on Facebook and Instagram. Even a radio show in Texas called “Walton & Johnson,” ran a similar headline.
  3. Read laterally: the next step would be to see what others are saying about this claim. In this case we should look at what the police officers in this video clip said about the incident. US Capitol police officers said in an email statement to factcheck.org, that the officers were blocking the whole way and attempting to de-escalate the situation by telling the crowd to not attack or assault and to remain calm. The Justice Department reported that about 140 police officers were assaulted that day.
  4. Circle back: If you find yourself, getting overwhelmed by other sources on the claim, circle back and investigate the background of that source. If we look back to the actual incident on January 6, 2021, we know from ample public evidence released by the FBI showed Trump supporters violently assaulting officers at the Capitol. Other shown footage included Trump supporters breaking through a metal barrier outside the capital and breaking windows of the building to enter.

Conclusion: The U.S. Capitol police never gave protestors permission to enter the Capitol.

The Claim: High doses of vitamin C can cure COVID-19.

To find the truth about this story, we will use Michael Caufield's Four Moves and a Habit. 

  1. Check for previous work: Throughout the year 2020, many websites and social media posts were claiming how high doses of vitamin C could cure and/or be an effective treatment for COVID-19. For this case, we looked up this claim on Snopes (fact checkering source) which they claim the information as false and misleading.
  2. Go upstream to the source: These claims stemmed from multiple studies detailing how vitamin C can help support the bodies immune system. According to Harvard Health Publishing, vitamin C has some marginal benefits for the common cold, such as reducing the duration of symptoms, if it is taken before catching a cold. Those benefits can be achieved with a diet that includes 200 milligrams of vitamin C, which is easily obtainable with a daily diet that includes fruits and vegetables .
  3. Read laterally: To gain additional background on this claim, we can read multiple sources and this this case see if it has been tested in trials. The CDC ultimately reported that there was insufficient evidence for the panel to recommend either for or against vitamin C for the treatment of COVID-19 and non-hospitalized patients. Most of the trials had a limitation such as small sample sizes, study designs that had different doses or formulations of vitamin C and different outcome measures.
  4. Circle back: If you find yourself, getting overwhelmed by other sources on the claim, circle back to the claim, and investigate the background of that source. In this particular claim, there is some truth and vitamin C is good for your immunity. However, some of the hype around these claims came from unpublished sources, fake news, personal websites, and from "influencers" on social media. We can refer to the CDC website and peer review published articles about the relationship between COVID-19 and vitamin C. Clinical trials can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.

Conclusion: doses of vitamin C are not a proven as an effective cure for COVID-19.

Claim: Putin intercepts adrenochrome shipment

1. Check for previous work: In this case if we looked for "adrenochrome putin shipment" to check for previous work, we would find that politifact.com already did a fact check on this story.

2. Go upstream to the source: This example is from Real Raw News. This website is known for fabricating stories; if that's information you knew coming into this evaluation, you would know this is an automatic red flag and we could stop here. However, if you didn't know that, you could make a few judgements about what other stories are on the page to get a sense of the angle and political bias for this news source. If you research Andrei Zakharov, whose name was used as a source of information, you'll find that he is a Russian journalist that works for the BBC Russian Service, not as Russian FSB Agent. As a story featuring adrenochrome and blood harvesting with a history of conspiracy theories behind it, you should already be skeptical. Looking up some of the facts in the story help us determine more about its truthiness.

 

3. Read laterally: Given what we've learned from steps 1 and 2, at this point in the evaluation we could stop our search, dismiss the story, and move on with our lives. However, if we aren't satisfied with what we found, out next step is to look for other stories about this issue. Are other reports of this story coming from reputable sources? Is the story reported elsewhere with the same facts? Are there discrepancies in what's being reported? This is the step where we need to be paying extra attention to who's publishing the story that corroborates this narrative. On the internet you can find pretty much anything you look for, but "anything" isn't always an accurate story to trust.

4. Circle back: There's plenty of facts within this story for us to investigate and check. However, we eventually want to come to a conclusion and circling back will bring us to the question of whether this story has any truth. Given what we've learned: no, this is not factual.

 

Check your Emotions: The habit we're practicing throughout is about checking our emotions. Do I want this story to be true? Does this story sound too outrageous to be true? Am I attached to what the truth about this story is one way or another?

The Claim: chickens are not laying eggs, because RNA is being added to commercial chicken feed.

To find the truth about this story, we will use Michael Caufield's Four Moves and a Habit. 

  1. Check for previous work: Forr this case, we looked up this claim on politifact.com, parentheses fake news fact checker. This resource debunks it here.
  2. Go upstream to the source: the claim originated from a published research article titled, Messenger RNA sequencing and pathway analysis provide novel insights into the biological basis of chickens’ feed efficiency. This study aimed to characterize the biological basis of differences between chickens with low and high feed efficiency, with a long-term goal of improving the ability to select for feed efficiency. Nowhere in the article didn't mention adding RNA to chicken feed. RNA sequencing, was being used to see how differences in feed efficiency can be explained by what levels of RNA are produced by the chickens cells.
  3. Read laterally: The next step would be to see what others are saying about this claim based on the article. Politifact actually did many email interviews with experts in the field, to talk about the claim. Multiple experts said commercial feed manufactures we're not adding RNA to chicken feed, and that this claim was a misinterpretation of the data. The FDA also confirmed that RNA is not on its own, a feed additive. The articles cited from the original TikTok video are not relevant to the argument made in the video. The FDA also stated that there are many ways why a chicken's egg laying behavior and quantity could change. They recommended consulting a licensed veterinarian, who can examine the animal and take a detailed medical and diet history.
  4. Circle back: If you find yourself, getting overwhelmed by other sources on the claim, circle back to the claim, and investigate the background of that source. The first thing one should question is how RNA is being referred to in the post. RNA stands for ribonucleic acid, which is a naturally occurring nucleic acid found in all living cells. So, the claim of adding synthetic Arnie into commercial feed, just does not make any sense. Furthermore, a search can be done to confirm what common factors are affecting chicken egg laying. Common reasons listed were management practices, improper nutrition, parasite infection, disease, lighting, and stress.

Conclusion: RNA is not being added to commercial chicken feed.

Widely Shared Fake News Stories from 2016-18

This example is from Before It's News; it's also featured on at least one other similarly fake website. The amounts supposedly owed by the Obamas are pretty unbelievable. Even if the presidential couple had indeed bought everything the article claims they did, the total would not come anywhere close to $11 billion, a figure equal to the GDP of a small country. It also includes some grammatical issues, and "eleventy" isn't a word.

It's also worth looking at the Before It's News site itself:

A few points:

  1. "Alternative," "Spirituality," and "Unexplained" are terms that one doesn't find among the tabs on any legitimate news site.
  2. No professional news organization lets just anyone "upload news."
  3. The presence of advertising, and the nature or quality of the products being advertised, is not a sound indicator of the site's reliability. Ads for Duracell batteries and Mapquest could quite conceivably show up in the margins of The Seattle Times' website, for example. Newspapers, in both their print and online versions, generally cannot survive without ad revenue.
  4. This site deals heavily in sensationalist headlines (the ones underlined are just some of the most outrageous).

Among the most notorious fake news stories of 2016 was one alleging that Hillary Clinton was running a child-prostitution ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. This had real-world consequences for the employees of that pizzeria when an armed man decided to "self-investigate" the rumors, as described in "Dissecting the #PizzaGate Conspiracy Theories," by Gregor Aisch, Jon Huang, and Cecilia Kang.

During the 2016 election, another persistent fake news story was that Donald Trump won both the popular vote and the electoral college vote. That Trump won the electoral college by a clear margin is undisputed. While the federal government did not release the official results of the popular vote until mid-2017, a great number of sources, ranging from the more conservative The Wall Street Journal to the more liberal The New York Times reported Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by margins ranging from approximately a million votes (on Nov. 9, 2016) to three million (NYT estimate as of Feb. 10, 2017).

During the 2016 presidential campaign, fake news sites circulated several stories alleging that Hillary Clinton was in poor health, the implication being that she was not fit enough for the rigors of the presidency. Fake news site 70News dedicated an entire section to these rumors, most of which were bolstered by photos or video clips showing Clinton in moments of apparent frailty or disorientation. This illustrates a common fake news tactic: the use of tidbits of truthful imagery to support exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims. Laura Mallonee writes about this phenomenon in "How Photos Fuel the Spread of Fake News."

In many cases, spotting a fake news story takes paying attention to the message and clues around it. In this example, American News features an image of President Ronald Reagan, a revered Republican, in its title logo, suggesting its partisanship. However, this becomes irrelevant when one bothers to look past the headlines at the actual stories. The story featured below involves Muslims, but bears no other relation to its headline: it's about someone urinating on a prayer rug at the University of Michigan.

Not all fake news is geared toward a conservative audience; liberals may be just as quick to believe falsehoods that seem to confirm their hopes and fears. A February 2017 story run by Alternative Media Syndicate claimed that police forces arrayed against the pipeline protesters at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation raided and burned a protester camp, offering graphic imagery of flaming tipis as proof. This story is completely false; the image was taken from a 2007 HBO film, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. Snopes.com debunks the story here.

In February 2018, after surviving a shooting in which 17 of her schoolmates died, Florida teenager Emma Gonzalez became an outspoken proponent of gun control legislation. Not long after, imagery of her apparently tearing up a copy of the U.S. constitution went viral on right-wing websites. This imagery was doctored; the originals came from a Teen Vogue photo shoot in which Gonzalez symbolically tore up a target sign. Photo manipulation is a time-honored propaganda tactic, but is now easier than ever thanks to Photoshop and other editing tools.

Fake News Exercise

It's time to test your fake news detection skills. Consider the following story from Focus News:

Work in groups of 3-5. Using any methods you can think of, try to determine whether the story is (a) false, (b) true, or (c) a mix of truth and falsehood. Go back to the home page of this guide if you need some direction on what to look for.

What is your verdict on this story?
The story is entirely made up: 173 votes (42.2%)
The story is entirely true: 21 votes (5.12%)
The story has elements of truth to it, but some falsehoods or distortions as well: 216 votes (52.68%)
Total Votes: 410

Discuss which (if any) of the fake news hallmarks from the first page of this guide are evident in this story.