Teaching students how to navigate fake news

January 22, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

A family member posted an article on Facebook at the height of this past election season that made me stop scrolling for a moment.

The headline was written in all capital letters, as if it were screaming at me, and the web address was clearly not a mainstream source.

As someone who works in public relations in the education field, I thought to myself: ‘Does anyone really believe this?’

Then I read the comments below the post.

“I knew it!” one user exclaimed, accompanied by an angry emoji face, and “I can’t believe it, is this true?” another asked incredulously. One who dared to speak up with, “I don’t think so…look at the photos in the article,” was instantly shut down with another’s, “of course it is! I’ve been saying this all along.”

Insert frustrated emoji face.

As of late, there has been a lot of talk about “fake news.”  The issue first made its way to the forefront during the presidential election, and today, it is becoming increasingly difficult to turn on the television or check social media without hearing the latest on “fake news” or perhaps even being misled yourself.

Faking out today’s students

A recent Stanford University study found that more than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t distinguish between legitimate news stories and ads and/or satire disguised as news.

“When it comes to evaluating information that flows across social channels or pops up in a Google search, young and otherwise digitally-savvy students are easily duped,” the study claimed. The study found that high school and college-aged students also struggled identifying real versus fake.

So how is “fake news” faking out today’s technophiles?

Some of these news sites and articles are created specifically to misinform, and a lot of times they have official-sounding names and a professional-looking design.

Also, thanks to the anonymity the internet provides, anyone with a computer can post something online to pass it off as legitimate, as an attempt to sway or influence a person or event.

Factor this information in with the transient way in which we read and ingest information on the internet, and it can make it hard for today’s students to separate fact from fiction.

“[Fake news] is a topic that is deeply personal to me,” said Bernard Bott, a librarian at Guilderland High School in Guilderland, NY. “As an educator, for me, it’s really about teaching information literacy,” said Bott, stressing the importance for students to “analyze and evaluate everything they read.”

“It’s up to the student to ‘sift’ through the information, and really, it’s incumbent upon educators to instill information literacy tools, beginning at the elementary level.”

How parents and educators can help students spot fake news

Don’t be duped by sponsored or biased content

Alex Finsel, Instructional Administrator for ELA, Social Studies, Reading, and Library Media, also of Guilderland High School, implores students to responsible digital citizens. “Don’t be duped by sponsored or biased content,” said Finsel.

“Visit the homepage of a search engine or newspaper website of your choice. Do a quick scan, and most likely, embedded between the news and stories you’ll find “sponsored” content.  Try and recognize the bias of these kind of messages,” advised Finsel. “Investigate whether or not someone paid to post the information; or does someone get paid if the reader clicks on it? Does this article lean largely one way?”

“Another good practice is to find another outlet that has ‘no skin in the game,’” said Finsel.

Go the extra mile to verify the content

“Triangulate” the content, said Finsel. “Check for consistencies or inconsistencies. Can you find similar information on other reputable websites?”

“Take the topic and Google the heck out of it,” added Bott. “See what other reputable outlets picked it up.”

Read the whole article…and from the bottom up

Reading the article in its entirety may seem like a no brainer, but “the way we get our information on the internet has changed. Everything is quick – ‘skim, scan and move on,’” said Bott. “Take the time to read things through and think about what you’re reading.”

Bott also says, rather from top to bottom, read from the bottom up. “At the end of the article, there should be clues as to what the website’s agenda is, who they are, or some sort of disclaimer. If you can’t find a disclaimer, author or sources, it’s up to the reader to do their due diligence to verify the information.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students – even adults – rattle some fact or information off saying, ‘Well, they said this and…,’ who’s they? There’s a difference between looking knowledgeable and being knowledgeable.”

Question everything

Lastly, Bott implores students to be inquisitive. “If you continue to ask questions about everything you’re reading – and this goes for anything, from literature, to non-fiction, to news and “fake news” – it opens up a whole new world of information. Asking questions is a simple and easy way to help determine what is fact and fiction. Even the bad questions will get you answers,” said Bott.

Aubree Kammler is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Saratoga County with her 11-month-old son — and that’s the truth. 

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