Media Literacy and Fake News
Part of my charter as the tech teacher is to facilitate learning about digital citizenship and online research. In the past I’ve used lessons from Common Sense Media and really enjoyed them. I especially love their lessons on copyright / fair use and maintaining your digital footprint.
I’ve had a few conversations with kids lately, including my own daughters, that have given me a sense of urgency when it comes to media literacy. Students love to show me funny things they encounter online and exciting or outrageous stories. Sometimes they’re real but exaggerated. Sometimes they’re total hoaxes.
One event that really made me feel a sense of urgency was when President Trump re-tweeted some clickbait videos with inflammatory titles against Muslims. The cues from the source and the video titles told me right away they were probably misleading, out of context, or possibly even fake. I’ve learned what questions to ask and so I was able to quickly realize I don’t need to be afraid of my Muslim friends or students based on the tweets. But the President is a world leader, and information coming from him carries weight. My students wouldn’t necessarily know what I do about clickbait and fake news stories. I wouldn’t want them to have bad opinions about their classmates or community members, or live in irrational fear, based on misleading information from social media. What questions should I help my students ask to really evaluate information critically? Middle-schoolers, in my experience, know about the prevalence of clickbait, fake news and bias, but they make decisions based on their gut reactions. They should start learning to look for patterns that help you make decisions about what to trust.
I started looking for lessons on fake news / clickbait / biased media, and was pretty pleased with what’s out there. Here is how we did the lesson:
Warmup: Ask students if they follow world events by reading or watching news. Most of my sixth-graders said no. Some even said their parents don’t let them watch news – it’s too upsetting (one even used the word “divisive”). Write “fake news” “clickbait” and “biased news” on the board and ask kids to share what they know about these terms. Most students are familiar with them or have at least heard of them. Some key points to bring out: fake news is completely false / made up. It might be a joke, or it might be trying to convince you it’e real. Clickbait uses an exciting title or thumbnail image to make you click, but the link usually isn’t as exciting as the title and thumbnail were. Biased news tends to be one-sided and it mixes opinions with news.
Bring out that the information economy is driven by clicks and views. The more clicks and views a site has, the more money it makes. Understanding this can make you smarter as a consumer – companies will do whatever it takes to make their link look interesting to you, so you click on it.
Activity 1: The purpose of this activity is to test their savvy at identifying real vs. fake news, and look for patterns that would help you evaluate articles in the future. Play the game FACTITIOUS at: http://factitious.augamestudio.com/#/ The game gives you a snippet of a news story and will tell you the source if you click a button. Your job is to swipe right for real news and left for fake news. Students should try to get the highest score they can the first time around. Look for tips and ideas that will help you identify fake vs. real stories the first time.
Students LOVED the game and found it really interesting and exciting. It is appropriate for middle-school. There are a couple of drug references but they’re informative and not promoting drugs.
Discuss Activity 1: Ask students what patterns they noticed that would help them be smarter about identifying fake news vs. real news. Here are some things my students mentioned. I was surprised at some of the interesting things they noticed:
- Look at the source and see if it’s reputable (like the BBC) or not reputable (like ilovepancakes.com)
- See if the article quotes professionals with real titles. Look for details like real locations.
- Look at the images – are they real images of the event or are they photoshopped or stock images?
- How is the grammar and spelling in the article?
- Does the article use ALL CAPS or emotional language?
- If it’s a science article, does it mention who did the study or what magazine the study was published in?
- Use the common sense test. Read the article past the headline and think about if it’s realistic.
Activity 2: Identify biased news and look for ways to be a smart consumer of news. I found the website allsides.com when I was doing a search on ways to teach about media bias. I really like this site and recommend it! I selected two stories that I thought would be accessible to middle-schoolers, one from the “right” and one from the “left”, that dealt with the same topic. In this case, I chose the topic of taxes but you could choose whatever topic is relevant to current events.
Left-leaning article on tax reform bill
Right-leaning article on tax reform bill
I assigned students to read the headline and first few paragraphs of either Article A or Article B. Their question prompts were:
- What is the main idea of the Senate tax bill?
- Will this bill impact people positively or negatively?
Discussion of Activity 2: The student responses were interesting. At a first glance, only about half of the students used evidence from the text to answer the question. Should I have been more specific in the question prompt? I was surprised at how many students had an opinion on the tax bill, considering they told me they don’t follow world events. Did they learn their opinions from family dinner-table conversations or do they read news more than they thought?
We’ll have the follow-up conversation next class and this is what I want to pursue.
First, list some adjectives that convey an emotion or feeling. I’ll have the kids brainstorm adjectives like “dark”, “deadly”, “bright”, “winning”, etc.
We’ll go through the articles one more time and just look for emotion-filled words or phrases. These hint at opinions in the articles.
- If we weren’t told ahead of time, we might not know these two articles are even about the same thing. Why are the articles so different if they are both news articles about a tax bill? [they’re about different parts of a tax bill and neither is about the whole thing]
- The articles are a mix of fact and opinion. What tells you that you are reading someone’s opinion vs. fact?
- What are some emotionally-charged words and phrases used in the article? Why should you be aware of these?
- Are opinion articles useful? Explain.
- If you don’t know your opinion about a topic and you’re using news articles to learn, what suggestions do you have that would help you be a smart consumer of news?
As a side note, I did have a hard time finding left-leaning and right-leaning articles that were written at a middle school reading level. Even with a tough read, though, I felt students could look for the general mood of the article and identify some phrases that would tip them off about the author’s opinion.
I will look for opportunities to bring these ideas into discussions as we move into break. Another interesting game I found is this one: Fake It to Make It. Some of the ideas might be above a middle-schooler’s head, but I think they’d enjoy this view into how social media gives us a really strange news ecosystem. I’ve read about college professors creating courses on how to write fake news. Maybe as a tie-in to web design or HTML, we could do a lesson on how to write a fake news story. For fun and education!