For years, as I checked out in the grocery store, I saw Bat Boy on the pages of the Weekly World News. That “news”paper is no longer being printed, but weeklyworldnews.com exists. According to an article on the site, Earth is going to collide with the planet Nibiru on October, 17, 2017, so don’t sweat that your retirement accounts are not up to par.
Did you know that Pope Francis carved roast cherub for the Vatican Christmas feast this year? You can see the story and the picture of him carving the slow-roasted 18-pound cherub at The Onion website.
My point is that fake news is nothing new. Weekly World News started in 1979, The Onion in 1988. Others could be mentioned—others who had the idea of writing silly news stories for our amusement. No one thought this was real stuff. We all knew it was satire or farce. Right?
But something has changed. We have an increasing number of websites putting out stories intended to deceive, to attack, and to influence in addition to the ones putting out stories to entertain. Fabricated stories are mixed in with legitimate news stories, and it is less clear which is which. The new President of the United States said that Ted Cruz’s father was “with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot.” Is that fake news? The President often tweets “Fake news!” to dismiss stories and at a press conference said, “You are fake news!” to insult to a CNN reporter. Is the reporter fake news? When the leader of the free world uses “fake news” so often, it is a term worth exploring.
Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” to be 2016’s international word of the year. They define “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Truth doesn’t matter to the body politic anyhow, so why worry about fake news?
The Founding Fathers thought that protecting the press was so important that they put in the First Amendment. They realized that a free (and respected) press would help hold government leaders accountable, publicize important issues, and educate citizens so they can make informed decisions. Attacking the press, then, is a very dicey proposition. If the press is demeaned, those three things don’t happen. Who will perform those functions? I understand that it is a brilliant strategy for rulers to discredit all news sources. Take away all possibility of being examined or critiqued or caught? Nixon would have loved the “fake news” gambit.
The Public: These reporters uncovered some evidence linking you to Watergate.
Nixon: Fake news!! You know they are all scum!
The Public: OK, sir. Then play on.
In a scenario where “fake news” get shouted all the time, truth gets buried with all the falsehoods.
But what if you think that there is truth? What if you believe that quality sources exist and we should try to find them? What if you want to help students separate fact from fiction? Let me share some ideas here and some in an upcoming post. (Now available here.)
Teach a healthy level of skepticism
Unfortunately, we must be suspicious. Just because it popped up on your computer feed does not mean it is accurate. Just because it has a great sounding name that includes the word “news,” does not mean it is news. Also be skeptical about what has been called “fake news.” Just because the President says, “That’s fake news” does not mean you should not believe the information he is attacking. What has been called news may be fake; what has been called fake may be true. But there must be a healthy level of skepticism. It is not the case that there is no news, no truth, and it is all lies. Don’t give up. Be a detective. Investigate.
Teach checking sources
Did you have the thought, “Were there really news articles about Nibiru and Pope cherub-eating?” I hope so. You want sources so teach students to demand sources. Legitimate articles will name sources. To prove that I did not make up the Nibiru and Pope stories, here are my sources:
What about the other stories I told? Did Trump really say that Cruz’s father was with Oswald or was that fabricated by me? He did say it, and here is the source:
Was Cruz’s dad really with Oswald or was that fabricated? That was made up, and here is a source verifying that it was false:
Did Trump really call a CNN reporter “fake news”? He did, and here is a source:
Obvious question: how do I know if the source used is good?
Teach about analyzing sources
I wrote Researching in a Digital Age—How do I teach my students to conduct quality online research because too many teachers are sending students online without properly preparing them to think critically about what they will find. Lessons in that book about how to evaluate websites should be used to look for fake news, also. (Look at that book here for more detail.) As an example, teach students to look for the “About us” or “Home” or “FAQ” tabs. If there is no such tab, be suspicious. Ask how long they have been around. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have some pretty good history. Not so for lots of sites on Facebook with “news” in their name that were created in the last couple of years. See if you can find their purpose or a statement of beliefs. Do a web search. Someone sent me an article from “Truth Examiner.” Sounds great, right? A web query made me doubt everything on the site. Look for bias. Scan a list of recent articles. Do they lean a certain way? Share examples: Huffington Post seems to have lots of articles about how bad conservatives are; Breitbart has articles about how bad liberals are. That doesn’t mean everything at those sites is “fake news.” But maybe you shouldn’t believe everything.
Teach about using multiple sources
When I grew up in Detroit, if the Detroit News said something had happened, it had happened. Now life is trickier. About one million people engaged with an article that appeared on Facebook saying the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. Did the Pope do that? Well, had you looked for the source, you would have found Southend News Network. If you looked at their “About SNN” tab on their site, they admit that they are bogus. If you did a web search, you’d see lots of evidence that they are bogus. But assume you didn’t analyze the source as I suggested above. Then look for multiple sources. The leader of one of world’s largest religions makes a statement? That will get lots of coverage, yet no other news source had that story. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Reuters, The Guardian, The Washington Post—all of them missed it? Nope. It never happened.
Use “fake news” detectors
Snopes.com, Factcheck.org, Politifact.com, and others have as their express purpose to verify information. Can you be sure they are legit? Remember: multiple sources. You don’t need to believe one of them. Check a few.
This is a pretty good start for ferreting out fake news. I wish none of this were necessary. I wish we lived in an age where complete disregard for the truth was not common. I wish “post-truth” was a term never invented. Unfortunately, my wishes don’t matter. Begin the process of teaching about fake news.