It is impossible to turn be an active internet user and not have heard the term Fake News, in the past months it has become a catchphrase for the US president, and it has echoed around all the corners of the media, from the newspaper to the newsfeed. What we have to realize is that we are living in a very special moment in time, where technology has become widespread, being more accessible than ever, but the knowledge and skills of how to use it are not there. Contrary to popular belief, it is not unique to the time of the internet, as it happened before with the spread of yellow journalism. At that time, the number of people that could read was rising, but the critical reading skills were not as widespread, leading to a public that was easily misguided by scandalous notes and news.
Today’s public (the internet users) are bombarded by thousands of news in many formats, the thing is, we are not very good at recognizing an altered video or photograph, at sourcing the material, or at looking beyond the first impression, but we are extremely good at sharing it on social media with hundreds, if not thousands, of new readers that in turn, might do the same. Very interesting research is being made by Sam Wineburg at Stanford University, where as part of the SHEG program, they focus on sourcing material. The results were troubling. Students were unable to recognized paid or sponsored content (even when it was explicitly disclosed), and they couldn’t differentiate the political bias of Social Messages.
So as good Digital Citizens it is our duty to polish our critical thinking and digital reading skills, and teach them to all around us. Here are some easy things to keep in mind, and some ideas to incorporate in your life and/or classroom:
Add it to your class rules/syllabus: It is simple to add some digital skills to your class, even if they don’t use any tech during class hours, by going over the research expectations at the beginning of the course. Add these simple instructions to help your students do online research (and fact checking) at home:
- Suggest websites: Directing students to specific sources works especially for the younger students, but for older ones, it can do more harm than good, so if you are teaching older students, let them know that these are suggestions that they can use, but encourage them to dig deeper.
- Verification with multiple sources: Students must double check the information on a few different web pages. Like in a trial, the more corroborating witnesses, the more likely the truth will be discovered.
- Credibility of source: tell them to check for simple things such as when the source (web page) was created. Sources that have been around for a while can show reliability over time and be tested by hindsight, whereas recently created sources don’t carry much of a track record. Another helpful thing is looking at the URL, teach them to look at the ending, as it is not the same to have a .com page to a .com.co For example, abcnews.com is a legitimate news source, but abcnews.com.co is not, despite its similar appearance.
- Date published: I always ask them to check how recently the page was updated to see how current the information is and whether anything has changed.
- Read the about section: This lets students know the author’s expertise and background with the subject. Students should check if the author is someone who has dedicated time and effort to learning this subject. For example, a university professor typically has increased credibility versus a hobbyist.
- Cross-reference: Similar to verification to multiple sources, students such pay special attention to quotes, or lack of quotes. It is fairly simple to google quotes to see if they were cited correctly and in what context (when and why) they were said, this is especially true with reputable sources, for example, politicians have all they say recorded so it is simple to look for the quotes and see what they meant and if they really did say such things.
- Reverse search images: This is not always required, but with the growth of (mis)information being shared in Social Media, it is helpful for your students to master this skill. It is as simple as right-clicking the image and choosing google search, if it is used generically students can infer that it is not an original picture, if most results go in hand with the story, then the image has more reputable.
- Does it match your prior knowledge: I ask them if the information matches up with what they have learned before
- Does it seem realistic: I tell students to use their common sense. Does something seem authentic or probable?
Make a lesson out of it: You might think it is hard to tackle what seems like a huge issue in your classroom, while at the same time covering your content, but with a little bit of creativity it is possible. In an article by NPR news, it shows how teachers are doing some very creative, and interactive, lessons around Fake News. Diane Morey and her ninth-graders at Danvers High School in Danvers, Mass. is using her history class to teach her kids about the fake news taking on the topic of Marie Antoinette and her (in)famous quote “Let them eat cake”, which funny enough: it’s fake news!
“The media of the day didn’t have Facebook, Twitter or a partisan website” More says. “But they did have pamphlets”. By showing her class several sources like the cartoon pamphlets from the French Revolution and Antoinette’s letters, they draw conclusions and have a conversation about sourcing. “Once you expose it to them” she says, “it’s like a game for them, ´Hey, I am not sure I can trust this´”
You might think that your subject does not lend itself to covering fake news, but you might be surprised by the creativity of some teachers. To read the other examples check out the NPR article, or use some of these Lesson Plans: PBS, Edutopia and Common Sense Ed:
Talk about it with your kids: We all know that person that is always sharing things sensational or unreliable news, it might be a friend, a co-worker, a parent or a family member. It is good practice to engage with those people and let them know the content is fake or misleading. In today’s political climate, it might be sensitive to engage with the content, especially if the other person is someone you care about, so instead, engage with the person. Try to explain why the content they shares are “fake” and help them distinguish between the too. This is especially important with kids. Here is a great article on how to talk to your kids about distinguishing fake news and paid content.
Think before you share: It is really simple, but a little effort on your part can go a long way. Social media runs on human emotions, but those emotions can fuel the spreading of Fake News. It is common practice to many of us to automatically share or like things that pull a reaction out of us, but it is less common for us to cross reference said content, or think about the impact it could have on the world or on people. As we become a society mediated by technology and social media, it becomes more important for us to think before we share, so follow these simple steps:
- Wait for your initial reaction to subside.
- Question the content: is it true? Confront it with other sources.
- Question your motive: is it helpful? What will I, and my followers, gain by sharing this?
- Break with the idea that you have to be the first person to share it.