How to Help Students Spot Fake News
Apr 1, 2019
During the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, some enterprising young people in the small town of Veles, Macedonia, discovered an ingenious method of making fast, easy money--by spreading fake news to Americans. The outcome of our election didn’t matter to them one bit; their interest was purely economic. In a town where the average annual wage is the equivalent of $4,800, the possibility of earning thousands of dollars by simply posting news stories seemed almost too good to be true. So these youth took advantage of our existing, and entirely legal, social media and revenue-generating advertising systems, and most Americans were none the wiser.
To start, the young Macedonians would create a website that looked as much like a legitimate American news site as possible (self-hosted WordPress sites are free for the making). Then, they’d give their site an American-sounding name. Next, they’d go on the hunt for news stories. It didn’t matter if these stories were true or not (mostly they were not), the only real criteria was that they had to be sensational. The youth would then copy the stories, give them catchy headlines, like “Pope Francis Forbids Catholics from Voting for Hillary,” and then post these stories to their own websites.
Because two-thirds of U.S. adults were getting their news from social media networks, especially Facebook, the youth decided to share their stories there. They paid the social media network to target and share their fake news with the perfect audience, easy to do using Facebook’s cheap, audience-targeting tools. When Facebook users saw a catchy headline, assuming it was legitimate news, they’d click on the story, and like and share it with other users who would do the same. This would generate traffic back to the websites where the stories were hosted, and that’s how money was made. Income was generated from the Google AdSense ads placed on the websites the youth made. The more people who clicked on these ads, the more money the Macedonian kids generated.My students are astonished to learn that so many American adults fell for this scheme. But, sadly, it turns out today’s kids are no better than adults are at critically evaluating online information.
American Students’ Ability to Evaluate Online Information is “Bleak”
- More than 80 percent of middle-school students were unable to distinguish a paid story branded as “sponsored content” from a real news story.
- High-school students did not recognize the difference between two posts, one from the real Fox News and one from an account that looked like Fox News.
- Most Stanford college students could not tell the difference between a mainstream news source, The American Academy of Pediatrics, and a fringe news source, a group that splintered off from the AAP, called ACPeds.
- From middle school through college, students involved in this study displayed an appalling inability to assess the credibility of online information.
Teaching Digital Media Literacy
- How current is the information?
- How recently was it was posted? Has it been updated?
- How reliable is the information?
- Does the author provide references or sources?
- What proof do you have that the information is reliable?
- Who is the creator or author of the information? What are her credentials?
- Who is the publisher or sponsor of the information? Is this a reputable information source?
Purpose/Point of view
- What is the purpose of this information? Is it intended to inform, entertain, or persuade?
- Does the information sound like fact or opinion? Is it biased?
- Is the creator or author trying to sell you something?