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Teaching your students about fake news

Dale Sutherland clarifies some key terms that help extend and deepen a discussion of fake news. She offers insights into teaching this challenging topic and its importance.
teaching fake news

While researching and writing the resource Exploring Fake News, I realised we have so many terms to refer to fake news. And it’s easy to get absolutely confuddled. For example, Aunty Joan shares something she found on social media. Although it looked like real news, it was actually disinformation but then, after Aunty Joan shared it, it became misinformation. At some point, it might have been a conspiracy theory and if it wasn’t disinformation, it may have been satire or perhaps just clickbait.

Adding further confusion, a certain former president of the United States, whose example many politicians and high-profile individuals followed, used the term “fake news” to discredit professional journalists and the organisations they represented.

So this post, rather than dwelling on tragedies caused by misinformation, explores the terms that are thrown about in discussing this subject. After all, if we are to strengthen students’ media literacy and/or digital literacy, it helps if we all share an understanding of these basics as a foundation for learning.

Fake News

Digital literacy versus media literacy

In teaching about fake news, are we building digital literacy or media literacy? I would argue “a little of both”. Digital literacy, refers to the skills we need to live, learn and work in a society where communication is through digital technology like internet platforms, social media and mobile devices. Media literacy, on the other hand, refers to the skills we need to make sense of the information we receive through various media.

I mention both these terms because when we teach students we’re teaching literacy skills in both digital and media literacy. We teach about fake news, disinformation, misinformation and all the other false information we come across in our daily lives. It’s an important point, I believe, in today’s digital landscape.

Fake news research

Understanding the swirl of “fake news” terms

Fake news is just one term used to describe the swirl of conspiracies and misinformation on social media. The plain definition is that fake news is false information deliberately produced to look like real news. This can take a variety of forms. It could be satire, for example – criticism of (usually) how stupid people can be, particularly when it comes to politics or topical issues. Or it could be disinformation, meaning news that is deliberately produced to harm a country, a person or a group. It could be clickbait produced to get us to buy something or to click on a website that provides an income for a teenager in Slovenia. 

The key to remember about fake news in all its forms is that it is never real news. Real news is “written by professional journalists who adhere to ethical guidelines for gathering and writing the news”(Berkeley Library, University of California).

Disinformation is information that has been deliberately produced to mislead. It is a subset of propaganda – information that is used to promote a cause or point of view. Propaganda is not necessarily evil, but history has shown us that it can be.

In the context of digital literacy, misinformation is false or inaccurate information that has been shared. It could be deliberately misleading, but its purpose is not necessarily to cause harm. It may just be intended to hide something. Alternatively it could be something shared on social media that hasn’t been checked for accuracy. The conspiracy theories that Aunty Joan enjoys sharing on social media – they’re misinformation.

understanding fake news

Fact check, fact check, fact check

As well as learning to identify the different types of misinformation, it’s important for students to develop a sceptical attitude. So that when they come across information about, well, anything, they check it. Of course, being a sceptic is different from being a cynic. And here’s where we need to make another distinction. A cynic mistrusts everyone and everything – a sad place to be. A sceptic, will not automatically accept information is correct but will believe it if it can be proven to be true.

So, when teaching your students about fake news, the key point is, wherever they get their information – through social media, real news sources or Aunty Joan – they need to be sceptical and fact check. Plenty of teaching resources on fake news are available online. Particularly lists of how to spot fake news, as well as lists of lists of how to spot fake news

In a nutshell, a sceptic will check:

  • the source – a real news site or “conspiraciesRus.com” (Note: not a real website)
  • who wrote it – a journalist or a celebrity chef
  • whether other outlets are reporting it or if this is the first and only place it’s appeared
  • what links and sources it includes (none? hmm – dubious)
  • where the quotes and photos come from (no quotes? – that’s a red flag)
  • if their friend told them, where they got their information from
  • online factcheck sites – they’re experts at debunking fake news.

Sadly, tragedies caused by misinformation are very real, which is why it is so important for students to learn to separate fact from fake. The information here and in the resource Exploring Fake News is designed to help.

About the author

Dale Sutherland has been a media studies and English teacher. She has a background in film and media, along with a passion for contemporary issues facing young people today. Now living in New Zealand’s Far North, she researches and writes full time.

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