A few weeks ago I asked teacher friends on Facebook how they might approach the topic of “fake news” in their classrooms. A lot of friends responded, teachers and non-teachers alike, and I cobbled together their ideas into a last-minute lesson plan. The following post is mostly for teachers, or for those with an interest in how we navigate the so-called “post-truth” world—and how we teach it. It’s a long post. But I encourage teachers to use whatever is helpful here, and I welcome feedback (not just from teachers) on how to most effectively and impartially navigate this territory.
This isn’t written out as a conventional lesson plan, but here’s my sequence of activities, handouts, etc., with reflections along the way on how it all went for me.
A troubling note: in some ways this lesson is already outdated. When I introduced this lesson, most of my students had not heard the term “fake news”; within a week, our president elect labeled CNN “fake news” in a press conference, and since then his administration has frequently thrown that phrase at reputable, fact-based news outlets. Since I put this lesson together, the conversation about fake news has already shifted and is still evolving. In the meantime, it’s only more and more important that students be given tools for sifting through facts, bias, and outright fakery. So this—with the help of many friends and resources—is my first stab at that.
Back in August, in the first week of our first semester this year, my class started with icebreakers. After that, the first substantive thing we did was watch a TED Talk: Eli Pariser’s discussion of “filter bubbles.” This is a great video to watch with students, and I was surprised by how surprised they all were at this concept. I showed them The Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed, Blue Feed experiment, and we discussed the ways in which our interactions with current events is curated (by algorithms!) to fit our apparent biases. We also looked at how different headlines promoted different interpretations of the same news story, and considered how our online experience of the news can work to distort our perception of events and reinforce our biases.
I was upfront about the the objectives of this lesson. I told students I wanted them to:
+ be informed consumers of media—to be on the lookout for implicit bias and manipulation
+ seek out differences of opinion than their own—to expose themselves to, and truly listen to, the opinions of those they might disagree with
+ first assemble the facts, then form their own opinions—to think for themselves, rather than just internalize and parrot the opinions fed to them by their feeds (or by their parents or friends or their news source of choice)
That was the first week of our first semester.
I didn’t decide to tackle “fake news” until the night before our second semester started. I don’t think about school very much over the holidays. But suddenly I thought it would be very timely—and would give perfect symmetry to our year—if we started Semester Two with a new round of icebreakers, and then with a new look at how we receive our news. Instead of talking about news bias, filter bubbles, and manipulative headlines, this time we’d talk about the “news” that isn’t even based in fact.
I had no idea how to teach this. And I’d run out of icebreakers. So the night before school started back I asked Facebook for icebreaker tips, and I got a million of them. The next night I asked for help in teaching fake news:
I went to bed and woke up very, very early. And, with the help of my friends, I put together a lesson that worked remarkably well. This, adapted from my notes that morning, is what we did:
I remind students of the conversation that started the year, about filter bubbles. I remind them of why we talked about that to begin with (to make ourselves better informed, to seek out a diversity of opinions, to form our own opinions for ourselves). But, I say, one thing we didn’t talk about was this: how do you even know the news is real? We can argue about the interpretation of facts, but how can we be sure we’re discussing facts to begin with?
Since we talked in August (I said), the subject of fake news has become an increasingly important, and much-discussed, topic.
So: here are five headlines from the last few months. Which ones, if any, do you think are reporting facts?
2. Pope Headlines:
I put five Pope-related headlines on the projector. I tell students that all five circulated the internet widely sometime in the last year (which is true). I hand out notecards. I tell them to identify which headline, if any, is factually true. It might be zero. It can’t be all five—they contradict each other—but it could conceivably be as many as three. Then, on their notecards, they have to briefly explain how they made their decisions.
Here are the headlines:
A. Pope Francis Endorses Bernie Sanders for President
Sources: National Report, USAToday.com.co
B. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement
Source: WTOE 5 News
C. Pope Benedict XVI Forbids Catholics From Voting for Hillary!
Source: Tell Me Now
D. Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Hillary Clinton for President, Releases Statement
Source: KYPO 6 News
E. The Pope Says Spreading Fake News is Like a Fetish for Poop
I take up the notecards (and they’re fascinating—this lesson is already going better than I expected). After looking through the cards I tell students the results, but don’t tell them the answer: only one (out of 20) students got it exactly right. Only one of the headlines reported a fact; and only one student correctly identified the real story without also being duped by other fake ones. I tell them, too, that the most common answer was guessed by 11 students—but was wrong.
I tell them to hold that thought, that we’ll get back to the answer.
3. Chart: Fake News Outperforms the Real
Then I show them this chart.
BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman calculated which news stories—that is, fact-based news stories—received the most engagements on Facebook in the months leading up to the presidential election: which stories received the most clicks, likes, and shares. He did the same for “fake” news stories, reports whose most basic details were objectively false. Looking at the top twenty stories from both categories, he compared which got shared more, the real stories or the fake ones. Look at the chart for yourself. But, in summary: as the election approached, the top 20 fake stories were shared more and more—until, finally, the top 20 fake stories received more Facebook engagements than the top 20 real news stories.
There are, by the way, some issues with this chart, and I indicated my questions and concerns to my students, too. Most of the fake stories showed a pro-Trump bias, while many of the real stories, though reporting facts, carried an obvious anti-Trump bias of their own. The difference was that while some of the “real” stories were clearly slanted—with inflammatory headlines or an overall liberal voice, the sorts of biases we’d discussed last semester—the “fake” stories reported outright lies as truth. I again encourage my students to seek out unbiased reporting—or at least to know how to critically recognize bias—but I suggest there’s a difference between bias and outright untruth. While I may have minor reservations about Silverman’s methodology, his findings are certainly reason enough for concern, indicating the widespread presence of fake news in our culture.
Then we talk about “Pizzagate.” Only one of my students had heard of this. So I give quick background and show this video. There are probably better clips than this, but any reporting on the Pizzagate gunman will get the point across: that motivated by an unfounded news story, a gunman walked into a pizzeria to wreak his vengeance. Fortunately no one was hurt, but students immediately recognize that fake news can have real world consequences. I add that a pizza restaurant in Texas has also suffered harassment for its alleged, utterly unfounded involvement in the Pizzagate scandal.
5. How False News Can Spread
Then I show this video. It’s not so much about what we’ve come to call “fake news” (Pizzagate, etc.), but about how even well-intentioned news sources can get the news wrong.
6. The Pope, Part Two
Now, back to the Pope. (We went pretty quickly through all these items, so it’s only been about 15 minutes since the Pope teaser.) The answer, of course, is that only item E is correct: “The Pope Says Spreading Fake News is Like a Fetish for Poop.” Again, only one person guessed this and only this answer. About three people guessed this answer at all, but the others also guessed a false headline was real.
(As a fascinating aside: 11 students out of 20 guessed that this was the real headline: “Pope Francis Endorses Bernie Sanders for President.” On the whole, students in this class are fairly conservative; several voted in November for the first time, and voted for Trump. But a few wrote as explanation for the Bernie headline—“It just seems like the most believable/plausible headline.”
Those who accurately guessed the “poop” headline, incidentally, all said something along these lines, in explaining their choice: “You just don’t make that up.” Some who rejected the poop story as false offered essentially the same explanation as grounds for disbelief: “That one’s just too bizarre to be real.”)
For kicks, I share with them multiple headlines from the poop quote, to show how different writers will emphasize different elements of a story, even if all are reporting the same facts. So, a few related headlines:
Pope Francis compares fake news consumption to eating feces | The Guardian, Newsweek
Pope Francis compares consuming fake news to eating excrement | Sydney [Australia] Morning Herald
Pope Francis says spreading fake news is a sin | New York Post
Pope Francis compares media focus on scandals to fecal fetish | USA Today
Pope Francis: People Who Report Fake News Are Like Those Who Eat Poop | The Christian Post
Pope Francis: Fake news is like getting sexually aroused by faeces | The Independent
Why the Pope Compares Fake News to Sh*t; Its Readers to Sh*t Eaters | Daily Beast
Did Pope Francis Liken the Spread of Fake News to Taking Pleasure in Poop? | US News and World Report
I also share the Pope’s actual quote, so they can choose for themselves the best way to report the story: “I believe that the media should be very clear, very transparent, and not fall prey—without offence, please—to the sickness of coprophilia, which is always wanting to communicate scandal, to communicate ugly things, even though they may be true,” he said. “And since people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia, it can do great harm.”
The victim of many fake news stories, it’s no surprise the Pope would speak out against it—even if his analogy is pretty bizarre.
One other important point about all this: for each of the original headlines, as indicated above, I indicated one or more source. A few of my students were savvy enough to take those source names into consideration in determining what was real—but those students still got the answer wrong. Some said they chose the Bernie headline not just because he seemed the most Pope-friendly candidate, but because the sources listed—National Report, USAToday.com.co—“sound legit.” “Those sources sound familiar,” someone wrote. And this, we discuss, brings up an essential point in vetting your sources: National Report sounds real, but is somebody’s blog, made to look like a news source. You have heard of USA Today; but usatoday.com.co is not usatoday.com. Fake news sites will do their best to appear legitimate, so you’ve got to be sure you don’t let their names fool you.
Other students, meanwhile, said that these sources—WTOE 5 News and KYPO 6 News—sounded like legitimate news sites. Again, this allows us to discuss vetting our sources: the fakers are deliberately, and easily, making up local news stations that will sound real but aren’t. You have to dig beneath the surface to find out whether you can trust it—but a random “local” news network you’ve never heard of should invite suspicion.
Lastly, I’ll admit to one deliberate sneaky trick. Many reputable news sources reported the Pope/poop story, but I sourced a more marginal site (qz.com) that I figured none of my students had heard of (neither had I), and whose very name I thought might invite mistrust. Again, a couple of savvy students—who fell for usa.com.co, because it sounded legit—wrote that they rejected the poop story because qz.com sounded illegitimate. This quick activity, then, offered several good opportunities to discuss the challenges of deciding what sources we can trust—what pitfalls to avoid, and how to confirm a source is reporting real news.
7. BBC quiz:
Then students take this quiz—and briefly discuss the results. I mention how absolutely I failed this quiz. (This quiz, I tell students, is another good reminder of the pervasiveness of fake news online—but it’s only so useful or telling in itself, since the headlines are totally out of context here. As we’ve already discussed plenty by now in this and last semester’s lesson, you have to go beneath the headlines and examine broader contexts. Still, this or similar online quizzes (there are several) can at least reinforce the simple truth that there’s a lot of fake news out there, and that it’s up to you to be wary.)
Finally, students take a survey (real-vs-fake-news-survey), about their own online habits. Please note, the survey comes from the New York Times’ “The Learning Network” blog, almost verbatim. I reworded or cut a few questions to fit my classroom. You can find the original text—and many other useful resources—here.
This was a lot for a single period, but we did manage to do it all. I had to be much more careful than usual to move the class at a quick pace, but I think the variety of activities and the quick pace made it more interesting—and still allowed for pretty eye-opening conversations along the way.
A Few Days Later…
Later that week, I came in with an embarrassing confession. It was embarrassing for me, first, to admit to my students that I’d shared a cheesy, fluffy, celebrity-gossipy, feel-good article at all online in the first place, something I almost never do (I actually avoid sharing articles in Facebook in general, though I do read plenty). But it was doubly embarrassing to have shared a cheesy, fluffy, totally fake story, at that—and the very same week that I was teaching my students about how to recognize fake news.
It’s a really common fake news trope, too: Celebrity Has Nice Things To Say About Random Small Town. I’d even corrected somebody on Facebook for posting a similar fake story about Birmingham about a year ago. But recent weeks had battered at my defenses and senses, and I saw this innocuous but nice article about Bill Murray (who I like) and the town of Millbrook, Alabama (where I’ve often been), and it was the first positive story in my Facebook newsfeed in days, and so I re-posted it. Because Lord knows Alabama needs more positive stories.
On rereading it, it’s absurd. The story, in short, is this: that Bill Murray was driving a rental car through Alabama, and it broke down on the interstate outside of Millbrook (I know—I cannot explain how I fell for this). And so a local took him to a mechanic and while they waited took him out “to the finest dining spot in Millbrook—some place called Joe Mama’s,” where he got a burger. “Great freakin’ burger too.” And so Bill Murray had all these wonderful things to say about the good, salt-of-the-earth types—real people, not Hollywood fakes—who lived in Millbrook. And the best part: they didn’t even recognize him! (Because, one imagines, in Millbrook, Alabama, no one has ever seen Ghostbusters.)
And here’s the thing, and I told students this, too, when I confessed to them my Facebook sin: while I was reading it I thought to myself, why didn’t they take him to the Millbrook Smokehouse? But I went ahead and believed it anyway, and hit share.
Within five minutes a friend had commented that the story was fake, that indeed the exact story had been published, word for word, about multiple celebrities in multiple small towns.
I told my students all this in shame. So how, I asked, can you know if a story is fake? Then I did, with my students, what I should have done myself before I shared the story: I cut and pasted a quote from the article into a Google search, just to see what we could find—and, voilà:
“Hugh Jackman Said This About Windsor, Colorado Residents”
… and Adam Sandler about Billings, Montana
… and Bill Murray about Rochester, New York
… and Blake Shelton about New Albany, Indiana
… and Bill Murray about Toowoomba, Australia…
Exact same story, every time, just different celebrities and towns—and different restaurants, so locals will read it and believe (there is a Joe Mama’s in Millbrook, though I still doubt it’s finer than the Smokehouse). Our simple Google search also revealed multiple sites that identified this or that story as a hoax. This, I might add, is the same way I catch my students for plagiarism—a simple test that has caught more students through the years than I care to number. But I hadn’t taken the five easy seconds necessary to investigate this story before I hit “share.”
I told my students, attempting to regain a little pride, that I could have deleted my original post. But, as I’d seen modeled by other friends online, I posted an update and apology instead, and edited my original post to confess my mistake. Only after 24 hours, did I take down my original post.
It’s a stupid thing, but I thought it important to share with my kids: that—as a smart, informed consumer of media, and as someone who’s teaching students this week(!!) how to avoid fake news—even I was duped, that I temporarily abandoned my own standards for navigating the truth, simply because I wanted to spread some positive vibes. I told them how embarrassed I was, but I also explained my reasons for not deleting the post altogether. Sometimes we still might screw up. When we do, we have to own it.
Other fake news stories might help sway how we vote—or might send a lunatic into a pizza parlor with a gun. Thankfully my fake news story had no serious real world consequences: it was a silly, innocuous celebrity fluff piece that happened to be fake. But there are consequences for accepting lies, however innocuous they might be, as facts. We become uncritical in our thinking—in fact, we are not thinking at all—and we contribute to a culture where reality and facts no longer matter. And that’s scary.
A Few Days After That…
Later that week, in his first press conference since the election, the president elect publicly refused to acknowledge CNN, saying the network was “fake news.”
Since then, with repeated iteration of that claim, it’s become increasingly fashionable—from the White House on down—to label as “fake” any news source with which you disagree. So the fake news phenomenon has just become more complicated—for students, teachers, and any other citizens—than it already was.
Wrapping Up: A Resource foe Students
After I tell my Bill Murray story and acknowledge the president’s adoption of the “fake news” label, I present students with this handout: “Ten Questions for Fake News,” by the News Literacy Project. I recommend the handout to other teachers—it takes just a few minutes to go over, and there’s some good advice on it.
One Last Handout
Remember the survey that ended our first day’s lesson? One series of questions was this:
How much more careful are you with online sources when you are doing work for school than when you are simply surfing the web for fun? How do you decide what is a reliable source for your schoolwork? Do you use similar methods outside of school?
Universally—not at all surprisingly—students said that they are much more careful checking the reliability of sources for schoolwork than for sources they might engage outside of school. The most common explanation—again, not surprisingly: “In school, it’s for a grade.”
But a couple of students wrote, in effect, this: “Teachers show us how to choose reliable sources for schoolwork, but not for the news.” One student said: “We have a handout about how to choose scholarly sources for school, but we don’t have a handout for this.”
For me, this was one of the most profound discoveries of this lesson. I already suspected this: that we hammer home to students how to choose reliable sources when they research poetry or history, but we don’t have the same conversations about how to engage the immediate, day-to-day world around us. But this student’s comment, in all its helplessness—“We don’t have a handout for this!”—really made this failing sink in. And so I made a simple handout: what-do-you-know-about-these-news-sources.
All it is is a list of news media—online, in print, on TV or on the radio. There’s white space, so students can take a few notes on the different sources named; I won’t require students take notes on this, but I hope some of them will. Clearly, it’s far from exhaustive—I only name a few news magazines and news sites—but it’s a start. I wanted the size of the list to be manageable, and we could debate just what to include; if you teach this, you can tweak the list.
I passed out the handout and asked: what do you know about these sources? Which of these would you trust? Which would you not trust? Which would you trust, but with a grain of salt—or with the expectation of bias? When I introduced this in class, we only had a few minutes to discuss. One student said, “I wouldn’t use BuzzFeed for real news. It just doesn’t make sense to me to get important news from the same site where I take stupid quizzes like ‘Which Harry Potter Character Are You?’” I said I thought that was good logic and asked: What do you think is the purpose of a site like BuzzFeed? The consensus was “entertainment” and “to get more clicks.” That seemed like a good start to the conversation. Then the bell rang.
We haven’t had a chance to come back to this handout, but I plan to give it a quick second look with students next week, since most admitted to knowing nothing about most of these sources. I’ll give my own best, most objective descriptions of the sources and their reputations. The students will have to take it from there.
Postscript: Final Thoughts
1. I already see, by the end of this lesson, my students throwing up their hands in despair and resigning themselves to this possible conclusion: there’s no way to know the truth anymore! You simply can’t trust the media! “This is scary,” a lot of them say, and some—to whom all this is new territory—look either helpless or hopeless. This, though, is the most important part of this lesson, and it needs to be reiterated more than once: that it’s increasingly hard to know the truth, but it’s more important than ever to seek it out. Giving up on the facts is simply not an option. You have to be vigilant and diligent, but you have to do it. We are neither helpless nor hopeless. It may be hard work and scary, but we have no choice but to do the work of being informed and committing ourselves to truth.
2. Here’s a topic for another conversation, but I’ll bring it up briefly here. The Trump era presents challenges for educators as well as journalists. As a public high school teacher, I’ve never discussed my own politics with students, even when we’ve discussed current events—which we’ve done a good deal over the years. I take this seriously.
I would love to hear from fellow teachers (in the comments below, via email, or in person): how you deal with the challenge of teacher neutrality in the new world of Trump? What if, in its first weekend in office, an administration lies about the size of its inaugural crowd? What if a president claims, without evidence, that nearly three million illegal votes were cast in the last election? What if a president suggests that real news organizations are “fake”? Putting aside (for the moment) every other concern that comes with this administration: how do you objectively discuss current events with your students, when the president makes wildly unbiased claims—and actually, actively lies? What happens when it’s perceived as partisan to simply point out a fact?
Are other teachers struggling with this? Where do you stand on these questions?
What do you do?
P.S. Thanks to multiple friends who shared their suggestions on Facebook; as I mentioned above, this lesson is entirely a pastiche of others’ ideas and work. Kate Harris—who has herself created outstanding, relevant lessons (like this!) for the New York Times—pointed me to the Digital Resource Center and the NYT‘s Learning Network. Heather Fann suggested the Pope activity, which was enormously successful and provoked great conversation. And William Davis quickly kindly pointed out my Bill Murray mistake. Many other friends contributed other ideas and questions and sent me resources I’m still culling through. So thank you, thank you, thank you to all. Let’s keep the conversation going.