Fake news, unreliable websites, viral posts—you would think students who have grown up with the internet would easily navigate it all, but according to a study done by Stanford researchers, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Researchers describe the results of the study done on middle school, high school and college students across the country as “bleak.” Students were asked to judge advertisements, social media, video and photographic evidence, news reports and websites. Though researchers thought they were giving students simple tasks, they say that “in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.”
As if that weren’t bad enough, researchers go on to say, “At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”
So what can educators do about the spread of fake news and our students’ inability to recognize when they have been fooled? Lesson plans that explicitly address the new media literacy and task students to be responsible consumers and disseminators of news are a good place to start.
Here are eight things that students need to know about fake news and the new media literacy:
- Google isn’t always right. Kids who have grown up with the internet are likely to see whichever source pops up first on a google search as the most credible one. Instead, they need to be taught what defines a legitimate news source, and how to tell the difference between a trustworthy site and a misleading one.
- Social media is a whole new beast. Teenagers have grown up with social media, and yet they still don’t always seem to fully comprehend the way that fake news can spread on Facebook or Twitter. So many factors from Twitter bots to the Facebook algorithm to the echo chamber effect contribute to the spread of fake news, and students need to understand how things work behind the scenes.
- Exponential growth is not the same as linear growth. Unless they are explicitly taught about it, students often don’t understand exponential growth. They might think that sharing a story without verifying it first will only affect the few friends who actually read the post. What they don’t fully understand is how quickly a viral news story can spread to people we don’t even know, resulting in the next point.
- Fake news causes real pain. If students are going to be convinced that they shouldn’t retweet or share a story if they haven’t verified it, then they need to know what can happen when fake news is spread. The recent “pizzagate” incident, in which a man entered a New York pizza restaurant and fired an automatic-style rifle, is one case of what can happen when fake news is left to spread unchecked. It’s not just words, words, words, and students need to know why news matters.
- People have agendas. It’s a classic question to ask student readers about the author’s purpose, but often, online articles have more of an agenda than what kids might experience in a piece read for school. It’s important that students understand that writers don’t only write to inform or entertain—they often have a goal, and often it’s a partisan one. This doesn’t make their writing worse or better, as long as readers are aware of their purpose.
- Satire is not news. Young people often see popular satirical news sites as good sources of information, and while sites such as The Onion might be based on some fact, their main goal is to create humor, not to inform. Creators of malicious fake news websites have cited this inability to tell satire from reality as one of the reasons why they created their websites in the first place. Students need to be taught to tell the difference between satire and news, and why it matters that they can.
- There are ways to verify stories. While it might seem overwhelming to navigate new media, it’s not a matter of throwing up your hands and calling it all a lost cause. Instead, we all have to learn how to closely examine tweets, news articles and photographs. We need to learn how to read like fact checkers, and how to decide what can be trusted.
- Dealing with fake news is the responsibility of everyone. The spread of fake news is something that we all need to deal with. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and powerless, students and teachers alike need to feel empowered to act. From reporting stories on Facebook to contributing ideas to snopes.com, there are ways to stop harmful and erroneous information from spreading, and we all need to learn what they are.
Sometimes it seems as if educators can’t take on one more responsibility, and yet the scourge of fake news is not something that we can ignore. If we are to help our students to become critical and independent thinkers and responsible citizens, we need to empower them with the tools to take on fake news and other manipulative media.
For more, see:
- 6 Strategies for Teaching Public Policy
- How Dialogue Teaches Critical Thinking & Empathy
- Reading Curriculum: Critical Thinking & Creativity for Understanding