We’re all aware of the spread of fake news in the media over recent years. From internet trolls to politicians, it’s become a tool to spread false information and a means to smear opposing people and groups. You only need to remember the Washington pizzeria shooting incident to understand the immense and insidious danger that fake news can pose. But what does this have to do with schools?
While there are many adults who fail to identify fake news, young children are especially vulnerable to the dangers of fake news spread online and on social media. Schools are in a position to teach children about the dangers of false information online, how to identify it and not fall for it. The youngest generations may be more technology-savvy than ever before, but they are not equipped with the critical thought to question the information so easily available at their fingertips.
Social media has enabled fake news to spread more widely and much quicker than ever before because information is so easily accessed and shared over channels like Facebook and Twitter. And those who are most susceptible to this are young children, particularly those in the transition between Primary and Secondary school who are newly discovering all the treats (and tricks) of social media.
When a child turns on their phone and clicks on Facebook, they are seduced in to this world of endless and immediate information, images and social connections. With every swipe and every like comes a new buzz, a thrill that zips up and fizzles in the pleasure receptors of the brain. But with that also comes the constant need for peer approval, forever chasing likes and endlessly keeping up appearances at a time when they are still developing and discovering themselves. In the modern day, a child’s three main influencers are often their family, their friends and social media. Social media is the biggest and loudest of the three.
school children are newly discovering all the treats (and tricks) of social media
Navigating the Truth
The days of finding information in a giant set of encyclopaedias are long gone. Students can find out anything they need to know, and plenty of things they don’t need to know, online. Every teacher who has ever set homework has pleaded to students, “DON’T JUST COPY AND PASTE FROM WIKIPEDIA!” Finding a mass of information is as easy as clicking a button, but with the billions of search results comes a murky labyrinth much more difficult to navigate.
The National Literacy Trust found that one child in five believes that everything they read online is true. And even the ones that know better cannot always be sure of which information to trust, which websites are legitimate and what motives the writers behind the words might have. That’s where schools can step in and guide the way.
The National Literacy Trust is launching a new survey to investigate what primary and secondary students know about fake news and how well they are able to spot it. The trust’s recommendations and advice for parents will be released in Summer 2018. Meanwhile, the BBC announced last month that they would be running a ‘Reality Check Roadshow’ which will mentor students in up to 1000 schools on how to identify fake news.
These initiatives are a step in the right direction but in order for students to leave school with a developed understanding of safely accessing information in the modern world, they will need to have developed a greater critical and analytical thought. For this, they will need more than a short mentoring series. If we allow students to step out in to the world without having aided the development of a critical eye, we will be doing them a disservice as they begin careers in an ever-growing digital world.
Teaching Fake News in Schools
This need not be an extra burden for teachers to carry; schools are stretched and overburdened as it is. Developing the critical thought needed to navigate information and counter-act fake news can be incorporated in to the curriculum and across a multitude of subjects. The most obvious subject that would enable teaching fake news is Citizenship, in which students are already introduced to a range of topics from politics to sex and relationships. Let’s add fake news to the agenda.
Other academic subjects link well with developing the critical thought needed to be aware of fake news. English teaches students how to actively analyse texts, understand the biases of the writer and how they use language to sway readers towards a certain view. Computer Science touches on internet safety and internet awareness- helping students question legitimacy and trustworthiness of a website. These are the skills students will need when reading and analysing information. In teaching critical skills, we are offering them an invaluable skill for life. Students are continually pushed to learn the answers; we need to teach them how to question.
Students are pushed to learn the answers; we need to teach them how to question
Counter-Acting Fake News
When a student’s main sources of information are their parents and the media, schools can offer an important safe space for students to be clear on the facts and explore different viewpoints in a security that the web or their homes may not offer. To approach and understand sensitive issues, students need to see the classroom as a safe and open space. From there, we are not telling them what to think but how to, providing them with the skills to think for themselves.
Here are a few ways students can identify fake news. They can be easily incorporated in to fake news teaching resources or lesson plans:
- Question the source: Is it a legitimate and trustworthy news site or publication?
- Question the author: Are they a credible author? Do they have other motives?
- Check the facts: Can you be sure the “facts” presented are true? Where did they get their information?
- Understand satire: If it seems too wild to be true, it may just be a joke. You’ll be surprised how many satirical articles written as a joke are taken seriously.
- Read the whole story: Don’t just take the headline as fact. Read on and it may become clear that the headline was an exaggeration of the truth.
- Question yourself: Perhaps the most important of all, are you believing an article simply because it confirms your own biases? Is it telling you what you want to hear?