Reality check: How can we teach kids to recognize fake news? 

A few years back, I began seeing Facebook posts about celebrities moving to small towns across America, including Decatur. The stories maintained actor Matthew McConaughey’s car stalled in downtown Decatur one busy afternoon, and he was touched none of drivers stuck behind him beeped a horn or uttered a complaint. Instead, he received cordial offers of help and lunch invitations. 

While my town of Decatur has many good qualities, traffic is a sore point. If other motorists shouted something at a driver blocking the road, it would not be, “Hey buddy, I’ll take you to lunch.”

When I checked, I found a rash of similar stories from obscure websites contending movie stars were flocking to small towns. All the stories were fake, a shameless ploy to lure eyeballs to websites and thus increase advertising dollars. 

Fake news and manipulated photos of far greater consequence are now rampant on social media, including this one making the rounds of the Obama family. Someone doctored an old family photo -- badly as you can see -- to show the Obamas wearing shirts bearing the likeness of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. 

Here is a good piece about the challenges young people face in distinguishing fake news from real news and how one program is educating kids to check the sources. 

Author Vanessa Glavinskas is a contributing editor at the Rotarian magazine. A longer version of her report appeared in the July 2018 issue of The Rotarian magazine, but the organization edited it a bit for the Get Schooled blog. You can find out more about Rotary initiatives here. 

By Vanessa Glavinskas 

When the BBC offered an online quiz titled “Can You Spot the Fake Stories?” I was confident I would do well. With a master’s degree in journalism, I thought falling for “fake news” only happened to other people. But I was fooled four times on the seven-question quiz.   

I’m not the only one who has trouble with this. Even the digitally savvy generation growing up now has a difficult time discerning credible content from fake stories. In 2015, Stanford University launched an 18-month study of middle school, high school, and college students to find out how well they could evaluate the information they consume online.  

Nearly 8,000 students took part in the study, and the results showed that they were easily duped. Many middle schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between a news story and an ad. College students weren’t able to distinguish a mainstream source from a group promoting a certain point of view. Students often decided if something was credible just by how polished the website looked. The study highlighted a fundamental problem: Today’s students are struggling to discern fact from fiction online. 

“We’re living in the most overwhelming information landscape in human history,” says Peter Adams, a senior vice president for the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that aims to add information literacy to middle and high school classrooms across the U.S. “It’s confusing because people are consuming information in an aggregated stream, and social media gives things uniformity. A post from a conspiracy theory blog looks the same as a post from the Washington Post.”  

To help students learn how to evaluate and verify information, the News Literacy Project launched a virtual classroom called Checkology. One part of the web-based tool allows teachers to present students with news reports, tweets, and other social media posts. The students must determine whether they are credible by looking for a variety of “red flags.”   

Teacher Jodi Mahoney found Checkology last summer when she was researching ways to teach her students about fake news. Now she’s using it in her classroom, where she teaches students about aspects of technology that range from email etiquette to basic coding.  

“What’s the best way to prevent yourself from spreading misinformation?” she asks a group of sixth-graders at Carl Von Linné Elementary School in Chicago. Eleven-year-old Michael raises his hand. “I think, first you double-check the site where you got it from,” he says. “Then look for clues to see if it’s credible.” 

“Good. What kind of clues?” Mahoney encourages the students to start naming them. One student calls out that you want to avoid clickbait. “OK, what’s clickbait?” she asks. The room is quiet. “If you’re not sure, look it up. Let’s Google it.” 

The class decides that clickbait is something “designed to get attention or arouse emotion.” They’ve learned that’s a red flag because a strong emotional reaction can override your ability to critically evaluate information -– a tendency often exploited by people trying to spread misinformation. Next, Mahoney asks them to log in to Checkology.org to practice figuring out whether information is fact or fiction.  

A few minutes later, 12-year-old Guadalupe struggles to determine whether a sample Facebook post sharing an article headlined “CDC Issued a Warning – Don’t Get a Flu Shot This Year” is real. She ultimately decides it’s real because the post “gave a lot of facts about the flu” and included a source. She clicks “fact,” and Checkology corrects her. This post was fiction.  

“That lesson shows that just looking at it doesn’t give you what you need to know,” Adams explains. “If you don’t go upstream to another source, you can’t know if it’s true or not.”  

Mahoney says she appreciates that Checkology encourages students to be skeptical. “They are so comfortable using the internet that they don’t question it,” she says.  

After the class completes a module, Mahoney can create a spreadsheet to see how the students did. “The first week, they all scored very low. The data showed me that I needed to be concerned,” she says. At that point, her students couldn’t distinguish among types of media – news, entertainment, and ads all seemed the same to them. After 13 weeks, she says she’s starting to see students connect the dots, but emphasizes that they need to continue to practice. “This needs to be taught all the way through college,” she says.  

When Michael Spikes was a high school teacher in Washington, D.C., he would tell his media studies students, “You can’t be SpongeBob and just absorb. You have to be an active consumer of information.” His mantra was: “Where is the evidence?” 

Now Spikes is the project director for educator training and digital resources at the Center for News Literacy, a program of New York’s Stony Brook University. Part of his job is to help teachers integrate news literacy into their curricula.  

“High school teachers are our largest audience right now, followed by college educators,” he says. But the center plans to expand to middle schools, whose students are at an age he calls the “sweet spot” to learn information literacy. 

“We’ve gone from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg,” Spikes says. “We now have unfettered access to information, and along with that unfettered access, we’ve become not only consumers of information, but publishers as well.”  

Because anyone can put content online and reach a wide audience, he’s adamant that information literacy needs to be integrated into public education. “We teach much more than spotting fake news. It’s about developing a critical eye, so when a student comes across a Facebook or Twitter post, or a site that seems to have all the answers they need, they stop and ask, ‘Hold on, is this info verified? Is the source independent, or is it tied to some type of organization?’ In our media landscape, it’s up to us to figure out what’s reliable and what’s not.”  

Adams of the News Literacy Project says these are crucial skills. “Figuring out what’s news and what’s credible is a daunting task for most adults,” he says. “News literacy skills give all consumers, but especially teens, a chance to discern credible information – which is vital to civic involvement and democracy.” 

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...
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