For those raised in the information age, life without the internet is no life at all. It is often a primary focus of a teen’s day (75% of teens are online several times per day) and an important means by which they communicate with the world and take in new information. While information can be found in various sources across the internet, an overwhelming majority of teens and pre-teens tend to gather their information from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. A 2015 report by the Media Insights Project found that the majority of surveyed Millennials (aged 18-34) cited Facebook as their sole or primary source of key news and other information.
Unfortunately, Facebook is not known as a credible source for news. The recent outbreak of “fake news” has hit social media sites particularly hard, as these types of platforms are set up to propagate information at record speed regardless of source or content. In addition, teens are particularly bad at discriminating between real and fake news. According to a recent study out of Stanford, 82% of surveyed middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between ads and real news on a website, highlighting the need to teach students media literacy and proper research skills.
Why Fake News is Dangerous
The danger of fake news lies in its ability to appear like any other news story when taken at face value. However, the intent behind publishing fake news is to deliberately mislead readers into believing one set of “facts” over another. Creators of fake news carefully craft attention-grabbing headlines that appeal to a certain group of people (Republicans, Democrats, teens, Millennials, etc.) to get the most clicks and ad revenue possible. The majority of information found within these fake news stories is misleading, if not demonstrably false, which can lead to confusion and conflict in the general population.
An extreme, yet classical example of the real harms of fake news involves a pizza restaurant in the Washington, D.C. area. A fake news story claimed that Comet Ping Pong was harboring children as part of a child-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton. The story was amplified and perpetuated to such an extent that a young father felt so inclined to drive six hours to D.C. and shoot several shots from an assault-like rifle to protect those poor children. Fortunately, no one was physically hurt and no children being held against their will were found.
While parents can limit the amount of time their children spend on the internet and what content they can access, children will still encounter fake news. After all, the fake news business is highly profitable, and fake news can be easily created by almost anyone in the world. For these reasons, it is important to teach children how to differentiate between fake news and real news; ads and meaningful web content; and credible and noncredible sources. The responsibility doesn’t lie solely with educators, but a strong argument can be made for educators being the best-equipped to teach these skills.
How to Spot Fake News
Fake news can be challenging to spot with only limited knowledge of the internet and social media. Universities have mobilized to teach Millennials about fake news, though some believe all students at and above middle-school age should be taught how to distinguish between real and fake news. While this may seem like just another topic for teachers to add to the list, it’s important to recognize that differentiating between credible and noncredible information is the foundation for building a solid knowledge-base.
To spot fake news, you first must be aware that the information you are reading could be fake. Most educators would agree that their students are not well-skilled in critical thinking and less likely to be aware that fake news even exists. For these reasons, all students should be baselined on what fake news is and how it’s used. In addition, most educators rely on interactive experiences and real-world examples to guide students through ways to spot fake news. There are several key questions students can ask when presented with any new piece of information that can help identify what is or isn’t fake news:
- The Source: Who is the publisher? Do they publish other information largely recognized as accurate and unbiased? Is the author properly attributed? Are there credible references? Is the domain name or website address similar to that from another more well-recognized website (http://www.abc.com vs http://www.abc.co)?
- The Site’s Appearance: Is the headline in CAPS? Is the grammar and sentence structure poor? Is there too much punctuation? Is there a copyright or disclaimer? Does the site appear very basic (minimal color / design) and poorly organized? Are there too many ads?
- The Content: Is it beyond belief? Is it too funny, too sad, too scary, too uplifting? Are there details in the text that just don’t make sense? Is the tone sensational? Is it just trying to sell you something or get you to click on something? Is it promising you something no one else can give you? When was it published and/or updated? Is it an old story that just looks new?
It’s important to remind students that spotting fake news is challenging and does require some effort. However, with time and practical experience, they can become expert critical thinkers. Educators should also try to continuously refresh students’ knowledge of fake news and update them on new tactics being employed by fake news creators to lure in readers. The links below provide good information and examples for teachers and students of all levels.