How to spot fake news? These two words have trended in the last decade as a way of describing news and information that is false. It is not as simple as that, though. Other words like misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, satire, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories also describe something very similar and have been around for much longer. They do not, however, convey that snappy dismissive air conjured by the words “fake news.” To understand this trend, it is important to realize that there is no one description of what it is. In reality, fake news is three separate things:
- Stories that are not true (making people believe something entirely false);
- Stories that are partially true (a deliberate attempt to convince a reader of a viewpoint using skewed information or opinion);
- A tactic used to discredit other people’s views (to make another person’s opinion or even facts appear to someone else to be false, even when there is no sign that this is the case).
What all three descriptions have in common is the attempt to confuse and misdirect. As such, the tools that we need to teach our students are the same ones that we use to help them to assess information and conduct their own research for assignments.
Five activities to teach students how to spot fake news
Students must learn skills and capabilities to check the quality, bias, and background of news they encounter daily. Thus, when instructing students how to spot fake news, we need to teach them to:
- Develop a critical mindset (consider bias, quality, sensationalism, and the date of creation);
- Ask: why has this been written, and by who?;
- Check the source of the story;
- Check elsewhere to see if the story appears in more than one place.
With all of this in mind, how to approach this topic in the classroom? Here are five ideas that will help you navigate this challenging subject:
1. The News Comparison exercise
I love this one. Ask your students to select three or four national news websites. However, there’s a catch: they should include sites they would generally avoid because it conflicts with their opinions. Next, ask them to select the main news item of the day. Visit each of the websites and compare the article they have written to one another.
What is different? What is similar? Your students can write a short reflection about what they have found and then discuss how they might feel about the topic if only one of these sites was their sole source of news. You might wish to take this one step further by asking them to “fact-check” the news story using one of the fact-checking websites such as FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, Washington Post Fact Checker, Politifact.com. While not specifically about fake news, this exercise helps students understand the nature of news and the variability and quality of the information found online.
2. Google Reverse Image Search
Images are just as likely as text to have been falsified or altered. Set your students a task to trace the history of an image through Google Reverse Image Search:
- Right-click on an image on a website and copy the image address or select an image on your hard drive;
- Go to Google Reverse Image Search;
- Click on the camera icon and then paste the image address URL into the search field or upload your image from your hard drive;
- The results will show you where the image has appeared online.
This allows you to see where that image has appeared online (context) and to see similar images (which might reveal that it has been doctored).
3. LMS Quiz
Another way to engage students with issues around fake news is to develop a quiz on your learning management system (LMS) which asks students to spot fake news. Here are a few sample questions you might wish to use:
Q: Is this a photograph of how MGM created the legendary MGM intro of a lion roaring?
Q: In the lead-up to the 2016 US Presidential election, Pope Francis broke papal tradition by endorsing the US Presidential candidate Donald Trump. True or False?
A: False. This fake story appeared on the now-defunct website WTOE 5 News and spread from there. Reuters and other reputable news sources confirmed that the news was false. See the fact check on this story
Q: NASA plans to install internet on the Moon. True or False?
4. Discuss research about fake news
Scholars have published articles about fake news in recent years, examples include Apuke and Omar (2021), Tsfati et al. (2020), and Leeder (2019). Select one or two articles for students to read and appraise, and then discuss the points raised in the classroom, asking them questions about how to spot fake news and websites.
As a homework assignment, ask students to investigate a current fake news story and compare their findings to the research. You might ask them to upload a brief response on an LMS forum, blog, or digital portfolio as an additional exercise. Or, perhaps, to create a poster to advertise to their peers why they should not fall for it.
5. Make up a fake news story
This is a fun exercise to do as a lesson to spot fake news. Divide your class into two groups:
Group A: write a fake news story;
Group B: write a real story.
Ensure that they are unable to share which group they are in. Ask them to individually write a short 500-word news story and then post it to the LMS forum or blog. Students in Group A should make up the story but add three elements of truth to it. Students in Group B should write about a real story that they find online from a reputable source (but one that is on a niche topic). Once done, divide your class into different small groups, and ask them to read through the stories, discuss, and label each one as Fake News or Real. Bring the class together to discuss the results and ask each student to update their forum/blog post to identify it as Fake or Real.
Learning how to spot fake news is a crucial skill
Fake News is a real challenge for educators. However, by teaching research skills to students, it becomes easier for them to identify misinformation and assess the quality of their sources. If there is one more piece of advice I would offer it is to make these activities as real as possible for students. Let them discover information themselves using the tools that they would normally use and focus on how they share stories.
In addition to the activities listed above, you might wish to try exercises created by Noah Tavlin, Vicki Davis, or Terry Heick. In addition, SFU Library provides a nice infographic and some videos about Fake News. Mindtools also provide some useful examples.