Fake news: Resources and suggestions

What exactly is fake news? There isn’t an objectively agreed definition, according to this article, which makes for very interesting reading:

WaPo Spreading Own Falsehoods Shows Real Power of Fake News

 (I thought WAPO was some sort of cult, but then realised it means Washington Post!)

People talk about the ‘post-truth’ world. This term was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. They define it as:

‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Further reading:

Fake news is not new! In this article in the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemannovers the history of misinformation, from Shakespeare’s 12th Night through pre-universal franchise to the present day.

Solving the problem of fake news

Is it illegal to distribute or propagate fake news? No:

"Dr Damian Tambini, director of the media policy project at the London School of Economics (LSE), said the unprecedented number of such sites was a "huge and far-reaching problem that cannot be dealt with in existing legal categories”.

Read more at Can the law do anything to stop fake news?

Why would someone propagate fake news? Here’s a fascinating article about, and interview with, someone who is described as a sort of godfather of the [fake news] industry:

We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here's What We Learned

What does the research say about fake news and media literacy?

Studies in both the USA and in the UK indicate that students find it difficult to distinguish between news on the web and advertising.

The Stanford study is especially useful because it contains examples of exercises that the researchers set students. You could probably adapt these for use in your lessons. (See also, ‘What it means for the classroom, below).

Further research:

From Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England:

According to Ofcom’s very recent research, 32% of 8-11 year olds and 79% of 12-15s now have their own smartphone1 so our children are walking around with direct access to the internet in its absolute entirety at their fingertips – often day and night.

See also:


The Children's Media Foundation view:

Marc Goodchild, of the Children’s Media Foundation http://www.thechildrensmediafoundation.org/ said that children even up to the age of 15 are pretty unskilled at being able to spot an advert on Google. They’ve turned to Google, they believe Google is serving them the truth, that Google's answers are being curated by people of authority, not an algorithm. And when asked, most of them don’t know the difference between a placed ad in the Google search and an organic entry. (The research from the USA found that even sponsored articles labelled as such were not always identified as advertising.

From Ofcom: 


The qualitative research found that children were more likely to apply critical thinking skills when the circumstances demanded it, for instance for homework or important information, rather than just entertainment., It also found that as the children got older the desire to fit in with peers or develop their own identify could make them less likely to critique information sources that they would have challenged in the past.

Most 12-15s (77%) who go online say that if they did visit a new site they would make checks first if they were unsure whether they could trust it. 

More than one in four in each age group (28% for 8-11s and 27% for 12-15s) believe that if Google lists information then the results can be trusted.

Both 8-11s (2% vs. 8%) and 12-15s (4% vs. 9%) are less likely than in 2015 to say that all the information on social media sites is true.

For the notes above I have drawn on the excellent Westminster Forum conference in November 2016 called Growing Up Digital. The transcript of the conference contains a great deal more research findings than I have had the space to include here, but the transcript is available for purchase here: Growing Up Digital.

Where do people get their news from?

According to Nic Newman, of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, a recent survey of 50,000 people revealed that in the UK:

Over the last 5 years there has been a move to so-called distributed content, so that is content being consumed through social networks, through aggregators rather than people going directly any more to a news brand;

51% now say they use social media for news every week.

12% now say that social media, rather than television, radio or online news sites, or print, is their most important source of news.

In the 18-24 age group, more than a quarter now say that social media is their main source of news.

In the United States, the percentage of people saying they use social media as a source of news has risen to 46% (of the sample).

44% say they use Facebook for news, which in turn represents two thirds of all Facebook users. YouTube is also a key network (19%) while Twitter remains an important social network for news (10%) favoured by journalists, politicians, and heavy news users in particular.

One of the findings of the survey is that as news now comes to people through social media feeds,

there can be less need to go directly to a news website.

The above notes were taken from a talk at a recent Westminster Forum conference: Digital news media: content strategies, monetisation challenges and priorities for regulation. You can buy the transcript by clicking on the link.

You can also find more information from the Reuters report itself. Go to http://digitalnewsreport.org/ for a summary or to download the full report.

What it all means for the classroom:

It would be a good idea, I think, to find out how far your students’ habits as far as news consumption is concerned mirror those of the people surveyed.

If they are obtaining all their news from just one source, how do they get a more balanced view — especially if their preferred news source is based on an algorithm that, in effect, builds in conformation bias?

One way of tackling this might be to take a news item and have different groups of students report on it to the rest of the class, having consulted only one source of news on the subject.

A class of 30 students could be put into groups covering:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Newspapers
  • Google

How do the reports differ from each other? Are important details omitted or emphasised? Does there seem to be bias in the reporting?

Below you will see an infographic of a generic classroom activity. 

My fake news infographic

My fake news infographic

Eight things students should know about the new media literacy is a good article on the subject, and something you could easily summarise in a poster for kids. Another excellent article, which I think you’d have to translate into student-speak as well as summarise is How to spot fake news. A similar article, with a few different suggestions, is Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts. Yet another take is contained in A Finder's Guide To Facts.

There is a free course from Stanford University called Reading like a historian, in which students question the credibility of source documents. It is clearly aimed at older students and is US-centric (though not exclusively concerned with US history). It strikes me that this resource might be useful to use in British schools because students would approach events in American history with a complete lack of bias because of complete ignorance.

Teachers may be interested in the free online course on a different, but related, subject: Teaching literacy through film.

I was rather upset that a really interesting-looking course is full: How to Write and Read Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Trump. I’m hoping they’ll run the course again at some time, as it sounds hilarious, or at least serious in a hilarious way. ‘They’ in that sentence refers to the UnderAcademy, whose streamline is ‘The next best thing to dropping out’.

This article originally appeared in Digital Education, our free newsletter, in January 2017. Since writing the above, I have read and reviewed another great resource: Thinking Critically with Digital Media. To subscribe to Digital Education, click here: Subscribe.