March 11, 2021

On Feb. 11, 2020, the MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network published its first fact-check about the coronavirus. The story, reported on by then-16-year-old Angie Li, detailed what we knew about the virus (at the time, very little), and gave tips on how not to fall for or share misinformation.

Now a year into the pandemic, Li’s fact-check served as just a glimpse at the COVID-19 misinformation to come.

The MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network is a group of teens across the United States that produce video fact-checks debunking misinformation they find on their own social media feeds. Originally focused on debunking viral memes and Instagram fact pages, the emergence of a global pandemic brought misinformation to their timelines that simply could not be ignored — and the teens rose to the challenge. Despite unprecedented obstacles and living through the chaos that was 2020, Li and other members of the Teen Fact-Checking Network pivoted to fact-checking misinformation about the coronavirus.

As the editor of the TFCN, I was continually amazed by their diligence and determination to make the Internet a better place during a time filled with so much doomscrolling. They saw the gravity of the moment and elevated their coverage to meet it.

To date, the TFCN has fact-checked more than 100 claims related to the virus. Their fact checks debunked claims like if wearing a mask causes carbon dioxide poisoning (our rating: Mostly Not Legit), if there is a pandemic every 100 years  (Not Legit) and if professors can see your private Zoom messages (luckily, also not legit). Their coronavirus coverage, seen millions of times across a variety of platforms, was also a finalist for an Online Journalism Award.

Focused on a social-first strategy, fact-checks from the Teen Fact-Checking Network have been shared in the form of TikToks, Twitter threads and Instagram stories. But now, the TFCN is working on tackling misinformation on a new platform: YouTube.

In a new YouTube series, titled “Is This Legit?” teen fact-checkers dissect viral claims made on the platform and walk viewers through the fact-checking steps so that they can then debunk misinformation on their own. The series is for teens, by teens, and covers a little bit of everything — politics, pop culture, conspiracy theories and, of course, the coronavirus.

A verified signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network (and currently the only signatory that primarily publishes fact-checks by teenagers), the “Is This Legit?” series got started through a fact-checking development grant from the IFCN. The grant is supported by YouTube as part of the Google News Initiative.

With editorial oversight from the MediaWise team, the network’s 12 teen fact-checkers research and write their own scripts, gather production elements and record their fact checks, which are then produced and edited in-house at the Poynter Institute. The series is just beginning to roll out fact checks on a weekly basis, and the videos have already been viewed more than 20,000 times on the platform.

So far on YouTube, the teens have tackled viral disinformation about the coronavirus vaccines, debunked claims about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and fact-checked misinformation related to the deadly winter storm in Texas, all while teaching critical media literacy skills.

The comments also point to a need for media literacy training on YouTube, with the series’ trailer filled with comments like, “Awesome project! Desperately needed!” and, “Go teenagers go.”

But as remarkable and needed as their work is, we can’t forget that — like the rest of us —  these teens are also living through a global pandemic. They left school not knowing when they would return to in-person learning, lost their extracurriculars, sports, friends and graduations. Some took on new responsibilities at home taking care of younger siblings. And while the world stood still for many of us, these teens used that time to combat misinformation.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the Teen Fact-Checking Network covering the coronavirus, we caught up with some of the teens to hear what the last year has been like for them. Slightly edited for clarity, here is what they had to say about virtual learning, social media and their hopes for the future.

Angie Li, 17, Florida

Angie Li (Courtesy)

One year ago, we switched over to online learning, stuck in the never-ending cycles of failing technology. The ecstasy felt at the possibility of staying home shifted to frustration once the mundane present set in. One year later, I am dual-enrolled at my local community college with a mix of online and in-person classes, finally feeling like life is returning to some definition of normalcy as extracurriculars start up and restaurants feel safer to go to.

Change, no matter whether it is wanted, brings new opportunities. While I have not been able to play on a basketball team for the first time in eight years, I have instead filled my days with track and field practice. The COVID-19 pandemic has also opened new opportunities for the fact-checking world, with the importance of combating misinformation taking center stage. With information suddenly becoming a matter of life-or-death for everyone, methods of sorting fact from fiction are more crucial than ever. I am grateful for the opportunity to be back with MediaWise and fact-checking.

Carly Dutcher, 17, California

Carly Dutcher (Courtesy)

My hometown of Los Angeles was recently named the epicenter of the pandemic, which is pretty fitting. One year after the major shutdowns took place across the country, most of them still remain in my community.

When I graduate in June 2021, I will have spent almost half of my high school career on Zoom. I’ll soon be choosing a college without ever seeing more than a brochure of it. It seems like productivity is at an all-time low among my generation. It can be hard to find the motivation to complete your assignments when the future seems so uncertain for us.

However, there’s more hope now than there was this time last year. Many of my friends, family, and even myself have gotten vaccinated! There’s hope that I can go to college in the fall. Above all else, one year later, I’m grateful to be healthy.

Yacoub Kahkajian, 16, Maryland

Yacoub Kahkajian (Courtesy)

It’s almost been a year since Montgomery County Public Schools closed schools across the county. I can still vividly remember what it was like in my classroom the day before our school indefinitely shut its doors. It is hard to forget your final in-person school experience, after all. We were treating the closure like it would be a few extra weeks of spring break. In hindsight, we should have spent that school day like it was a socially-distanced farewell party. A farewell not only to our friends, but also to the status quo that previously defined our lives.

It’s almost been a year of Zoom meetings and Google Classroom assignments, but it seems like virtual learning is about to come to a close in Maryland. Soon, high school students in Montgomery County will begin gradually returning to in-person learning. While virtual classes are still an option, many of my friends have chosen to resume physically attending school.

Still, I can’t help but worry about possible discrepancies between the academic performance of those who continue to take virtual classes and those who return to in-person learning. As the director of design for the Maryland Board of Education’s Student Council Outreach Committee, I sought to address this concern by diligently working with my team in order to alleviate some of the challenges that come with online and hybrid learning. One of our projects is a blog that publishes short-form articles about the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new policies the Maryland Board of Education has passed. It’s almost been a year since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Since then, all individuals have been experiencing undue hardship. With the adversities that accompany the onset of such an unprecedented event, I have been doing anything I can to assist my community, state and country.

Loren Miranda, 18, Florida

Loren Miranda (Courtesy)

Senior year during a pandemic has been pretty anticlimatic. The class of 2021 hasn’t gotten any sort of celebration, except for the anticipated graduation which may not even happen in May. Returning to school, in addition to the responsibilities of extracurriculars and work, is stressful and there is a lot of busywork rather than substance. It is hard to keep motivated, but the hope of a healthier future with the vaccine keeps us going. On social media, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding  COVID-19, including vaccine regulations, the side effects, people who are eligible to receive it, etc. Misinformation on social media was one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to work on ‘This Is Legit?’, especially when you can see for yourself firsthand how widespread misinformation can spread. It is extremely important that the public learns how to recognize misinformation on their feed, because unfortunately, it is going to continue to happen regardless. If everyone has the right tools to fact-check on their own, then we can continue to keep the public informed and continue to preserve public health so that we can eventually go back to normal!

Ian Fox, 15, Florida

Ian Fox (Courtesy)

Almost a year to the day since the coronavirus caused life in the United States to drastically change, my school and personal life continue to look completely different. Although my school has resumed in-person classes, some teachers and fellow classmates remain virtual. Being in 8th grade in the spring of 2020, I graduated middle school virtually and was unable to say goodbye to any of the teachers or staff on the middle school campus. I then started high school in the fall completely virtual, with no athletic or outside activities allowed. Living in a major city, we were under a curfew and strict social distancing rules for several months, meaning my family and I spent most of our time at home.

Thankfully, throughout everything, I had two siblings to keep me company. To pass the time, we played board games, worked out, experimented with cooking and baking, and spent time outdoors together. During the spring and summer of 2020 when lockdowns moved everything online, I began to spend more time on social media and noticed that plenty of friends and neighbors were sharing suspicious claims about the coronavirus and upcoming election. Around this time is when I first heard about the Teen Fact-Checking Network and decided I wanted to join the effort to combat misinformation that’s been spreading just as fast as the actual internet is.

Isaac Harte, 14, Pennsylvania

Isaac Harte (Courtesy)

COVID-19 has increased the amount of disinformation circulating online. People are spending more time sitting in front of their computers searching and viewing, and many online actors take advantage of people’s fears and doubts about vaccines, masks, etc. After seeing these claims and being interested in journalism and the wider array of fact-checking, I came across an opportunity about fact-checking. I decided to apply and very much to my surprise, I was admitted. It has been a great experience. I’ve enjoyed getting better at searching for claims online, and I’ve discovered that disinformation and misinformation go hand-in-hand with topics that involve emotion or fear. The pandemic certainly checks both of those boxes.

I’m curious to see what happens to levels of disinformation over the next few months. In particular, what will be the level of disinformation circulating around teens. Gen Z is now more tied into social media than ever. We increasingly use Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok for news. For example, when online classes first began there were claims circulating online about teachers being able to hear students when they were muted. I hope that projects like MediaWise (we’re one in a million), continue to help encourage Gen Z to use reliable sources for news. Efforts by The New York Times, The Washington Post and others to create a large factual presence on Instagram and Snapchat can be helpful. It’s important that these efforts don’t just involve providing links to their online and tv content, but that they actually create content made for the specific platform that appeals to the viewers. Gen Z has some serious technical skills and I enjoy putting mine to use fact-checking.

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Alexa Volland is a multimedia reporter with the MediaWise project. Before joining Poynter, she was the web editor for the Tampa Bay Times’ high school…
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