I grew up seeing sensational stories teased in commercials for the National Enquirer and similar tabloids on television. The claims about UFO invaders, scandalous affairs, and celebrity drama taught me long ago not to believe everything that I read.
Like most writing teachers, whenever I teach research skills, I cover the importance of evaluating your sources before including the information they present in research projects. I have even written a lesson plan on how to conduct Inquiry on the Internet.
I was a little surprised, then, when fake news became such big news after the presidential election. A simple search yields stories covering the influence of fake news like these:
- The Hoaxes, Fake News and Misinformation We Saw on Election Day (The New York Times)
- Facebook’s failure: did fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected? (The Guardian)
- Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites (The New York Times)
- Click and elect: how fake news helped Donald Trump win a real election (The Guardian)
- Fake news goes beyond politics. This ‘wannabe weatherman’ allegedly lit fires for views. (The Washington Post)
Predictably, these stories and the circumstances that inspired them led to suggestions on how to tell the difference between news and fake news. The NBC News story “How to Outsmart Fake News” (below) features Massachusetts professor Melissa Zimbdar explaining how to identify and avoid questionable news stories:
Zimbdar’s handout on False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources includes the full list of tips. The Washington Post’s “The Fact Checker’s guide for detecting fake news” offers a similar list of suggestions.
Students can use these tips to consider the validity of news sources, but I want them to think about why people believe these stories in the first place by exploring questions like these:
- What persuasive strategies make fake news seem to be true?
- What topics are likely to be the focus of fake news?
- Why are some topics better than others?
- What makes a topic a good choice for fake news?
- What kind of details need to be included?
- What kind of details would probably be left out?
- What audiences are likely to believe a fake news story?
- What circumstances would make a fake news story more believable?
- How does cultural background effect whether an audience believes fake news?
- What personal experiences could effect whether an audience believes fake news?
Before using these questions, I would ask the class to discuss some historical situations where fake news had an impact. Fake news has a long history. If you include opinion columns in your discussion, you can point back to Swift’s Modest Proposal and then jump to contemporary pieces. If you want to explore the difference between satire and misinformation, Swift is a strong starting point. Once students think about the situation that led to Swift’s satirical commentary, you might talk about The Borowitz Report, The Onion, and The Daily Show.
I like to start with the hysteria caused by Mercury Theatre production of The War of the Worlds from October 30, 1938 (MP3 recording and broadcast script). For the purposes of classroom discussion, the Wikipedia article on Public Reaction to the broadcast provides adequate details on the extent and causes of the panic that ensued in response to the fake new updates of a Martian landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Because of the distance students have from the events, they usually quickly understand how personal experiences and world events misled listeners who believed the updates were true. Once students explore The War of the Worlds broadcast, I ask them to think about the extent and causes behind the current fake news stories, using the ten questions to get discussion started.
Class discussion can also take up the recent Wall Street Journal article, “Most Students Don’t Know When News Is Fake, Stanford Study Finds.” After considering the reasons that people believe fake news stories, students can have a strong conversation on whether they accept the findings of the Stanford study that the article discusses. With such articles appearing in the press, it’s an important topic for students to explore.
Are you talking about fake news in the classroom? How are students responding? Do you have strategies to share? Please leave me a comment and let me know what you’re doing.
Credit: Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry, by Mike Licht, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 License