Teaching Fake News: How to prepare students for alternative facts

John Guthrie originally published this piece on his education blog, JohnGuthrieTeacher.org.

Every other think-piece these days is about the epidemic of “fake news” and its implications on the legitimacy of the presidential election and the future of democracy as we know of it. The very concept of public education in the 1700 was developed as a means not to create good workers or scholars, but to develop good voters, since democracy doesn’t function well if voters are un- or ill-informed. And yet, students are demonstrating increased inabilities to discern the trustworthiness of a source, identify potential biases, and verify the factuality of a statement. A detailed study out of Stanford noted that, particularly with infographics on facebook and twitter, parsing out what’s believable eludes students completely. Many couldn’t articulate, for example, the significance of the blue checkmark that appears next to some users’ handles.

Some schools have taken the “abstinence only” route to teaching fake news; that is, rather than addressing the issue and helping students learn to chart a course through all the memes, graphics, and splashy headlines that appear on their social media accounts, the schools simply block social media in the building altogether and continue teaching the basics of finding news from the early 2000s — advice like, “don’t trust wikipedia.” This teaching style has two serious problems. Firstly, wikipedia is not the worst source. All of its information is cited, and when it’s not, it’s flagged for review by other users to verify the claim. Secondly, and more importantly, the “just ignore it” teaching style sends young people into the world with no knowledge of the terrain of modern journalism. According to Jon Ronson, the internet designed to spread the truth — it’s designed to spread, and spread it has.

Now, arguably, the term “fake news” has already outstayed its welcome. The term “fake news” has a number of definitions, each of which is nuanced just enough that the expression is nearly meaningless. The most obvious paragon of “fake news” is straight up incorrect information. Articles that look like news but “report” such facts as “Obama and Bush Conspired to facilitate 9/11” are just wholly false — unarguably “fake news.” Similarly, blogs or news organizations that purposely dupe viewers into thinking they’re another more revered source are usually unarguably “fake.” Some twitter accounts, for example, will use a Fox News logo and send out information that people think is from the verified Fox News account.

The term “fake news” has also been co opted to describe lazy journalism and writing that is not necessarily false but certainly misleading, inflammatory, and click-baity. Sometimes, in their fervor to break the next Watergate, journalists will publish a piece without thoroughly investigating the story and publishing half-researched unvetted information. Furthermore, articles written by organization who swing strongly in a certain political direction might not tell outright lies, but they will often select those facts that only support their viewpoint and write in a tone that shames or discards the opposing stance. Such articles will also violate some classical logical fallacies that aren’t necessarily lies, but

So how do we combat this? Some classrooms are now teaching News Literacy, which helps students learn how to cross-check information, explore the veracity of sources, examine the issue being discussed from various viewpoints. The classes help students identify bias, avoid clickbait, check for the beliefs of those funding an article, and come to their own conclusions about what’s true and what’s not. Instructors encourage their students to question everything, from the history of the writer to the writer’s sources to what appears in the comments section.

For the sanity of the nation and the integrity of our democracy, it’s urgent that schools take a stand and help young people figure out the truth in the muck and mire of lies, deceptive news, and selective facts. By teaching critical thinking and a healthy dose of skepticism, we can ensure that the plague stops here.

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