Fake News and Teachable Moments

In the world of alternative facts, media literacy is becoming an increasingly essential component for raising critical thinkers in the classroom. A recent movie promotional campaign highlights this need and offers a great teachable moment. 


When academic writing students at The Hill Center in Durham, North Carolina, sat down at their computers to investigate the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, there was a range of reactions. Some knew immediately they were being asked to investigate a hoax; others were so sure the tree octopus was real that they spent that evening trying to find more information.

Welcome to the world of fake news and alternative facts! Although fake news has been around as long as real news, it has recently entered the classroom with a newfound boldness. Often described as intentionally trying to deceive readers, creators of fake news use click bait (scandalous or enticing headlines) to drive up traffic and to appeal to readers’ emotions. The study of fake news fits neatly into media literacy units, during which students are taught to consume and view media critically. Fake news forces readers to not only discuss the purpose of media and its influences but also to question how it is spread. Given a recent Stanford University report that suggests 80 percent of teens can’t tell the difference between fake and real news, young people are especially vulnerable to falling for fake news.

Tina Bessias knows a thing or two about this. She teaches an online course about fake news that is used in 65 different schools. Fake news is more concerning now than ever before, she says. “The ability to make it more realistic makes it a more insidious force.”

Consider the recent controversy surrounding 20th Century Fox’s promotional campaign for The Cure for Wellness, which created websites for fake newspapers and published fake news stories. One story, about the (alleged) dangers of vaccinations, went viral. 20th Century Fox has since apologized, but this campaign is a teachable moment for classrooms discussing fake news.

 “It’s a nice example,” Bessias agrees, “because it’s not political and it’s film, which is such a popular medium.” She shares how she would approach this example with her students:

  1. Review the story with students.
  2. Discuss the context and the ramifications of false vaccination information. Ask students, “Are there public health ramifications because people may not get vaccinated after this film campaign?”
  3. Ask students, “What do you think should happen in the wake of the fake news disseminated by this campaign?”

The 20th Century Fox viral campaign is a great starting point for classroom teachers and students who are looking to understand fake news. Teachers can curate examples like the ones created by the film studio, embedding links into a PowerPoint presentation or creating a resource page for their students. After watching videos and reading articles, students learn to ask, “What is the source?” Teaching students to spot news organizations that vet, edit and research is productive and helps them avoid fake news and understand how to fact-check.

Students might be interested to read stories about people who create fake news and their motivations. After all, sometimes the writers are teens like them, living in places like Macedonia. Other times, the writers live closer to home, such as the recent Davidson College graduate who created a fake news story about fraudulent votes being stored in an Ohio warehouse, ready to replace actual votes; that story was shared 6 million times. The author ended up getting fired from his job as a lobbyist. This is a particularly compelling example to use when discussing students’ analyses of the consequences that will follow the author for the rest of his career.

In the end, Bessias says, someone “feeling fearful and powerless is more subject to being duped.” You can empower your students by teaching them to take apart fake news: Read URLs, read articles all the way through, question flashy advertising, double check stories against trusted sources and examine websites for authenticity. Educators can also discuss steps for determining a website’s authenticity, such as the suffix of the domain, the author’s expertise, the inclusion of reputable sources and the intended audience. After all, these strategies reinforce teachers’ objectives to nurture critical thinkers. 

Teachers work hard to use technology in positive and meaningful ways and want students to understand how to mitigate online risks while promoting civility and respect. Combating fake news as part of a broader media literacy program is a great step in teaching students to be effective researchers and informed individuals—in the digital world and elsewhere.

This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.

Mgongolwa is a high school English and writing teacher in Durham, North Carolina.

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