Of the many lessons from the presidential election, we’ve learned not to underestimate the power of fake news stories to shape the public’s views.
A BuzzFeed News post-election analysis found that in the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites generated more total engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news websites combined. Of the 20 top-performing false election stories identified in the analysis, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton.
A recent Stanford University study showed that 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t distinguish between real news and fake stories. Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” to be the word of the year for 2016.
Media literacy experts have been warning about fake online content for years, but as professional-looking websites become easier and cheaper to produce, the problem has only proliferated. Also, the masters of online resources in our schools — librarians — are growing increasingly scarce.
So as purveyors of truth and accuracy, what can teachers do? How can we help students learn the differences between reliable sources of information and those with ulterior motives?
1. Don’t avoid the problem. Some teachers forbid students from getting information online, but that doesn’t help students in the long run. Instead, allow your students to find materials on the web, but make citing those resources crucial. Discuss what they find and evaluate it. Use a rubric with criteria like this “Is This a Hoax?” worksheet from ReadWriteThink.
2. Model and promote reliable sources. Only use real news yourself in class. Share a list of trustworthy sites your students can believe.
3. Always verify. Are other news outlets you trust reporting this story? Is it pointing to credible sources to back up its claims? Great sources to check veracity are Snopes, FactCheck and Politifact. Assign students to fact-check online stories.
4. Question authorship. Who sponsored the web page? Read the “About” page, if there is one. Google the author, if named. What other stories are on the site? Is there any bias?
5. Check your emotions. Does the story make you angry, frightened or relieved, or does it confirm a suspicion? Be sure to double-check stories that elicit strong reactions in readers.
6. Recognize clickbait. Sites whose only goal is to increase readership for ad revenue are clickbait. Is the headline particularly tantalizing? Are headlines written with “you” in the title? Are there inappropriate sidebar links? Do ads cover part of the text? Do you click on ads without realizing it? Is there an element of shock or surprise to the story? These sites manipulate readers to click and share.
7. Reverse search for images. It’s easy to copy and reuse images online, and many fake news sites do exactly that, in a bid to increase credibility. They may use images that don’t honestly represent their story or are used out of context. Use a handy site called Tin Eye to find the original source of any image.
Although Google and Facebook are working on measures to keep fake news from their sites, our students remain easy prey for the tricksters. Awareness is their best defense.
Here are additional resources for classroom planning: