Combating Fake News with Media Literacy
Nicole Waid, State University of New York-Oneonta
Fake news is news that intentionally misleads readers and is often verifiably false. Alcott and Gentzkow (2017) noted that some types of inaccurate information, like unintentional errors in reporting, satire, conspiracy theories, and news that is misleading but not factually inaccurate, are related fake news. During the presidential election of 2016, there was an explosion of fake news stories that permeated many forms of media. In the CIA report on Russian interference in the election, it made estimates that the Russian government used strategically placed pieces of propaganda to depress voter turnout or cause divisions among the American people. Since the CIA report, emerging reports by Alcott and Gentzkow (2017) revealed that approximately 38 million shares of fake news led to 760 million instances of a user clicking on a story and reading it. Using social media as a primary news source is a relatively new phenomenon. Gottfried and Shearer (2016) reported recent evidence that 62% of adults in the United States view news on various social media platforms. With electronic devices readily available, it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate information for its integrity. Silverman (2016) asserted that the most sought-after fake news stories were shared on Facebook more than mainstream news stories.
While using social media platforms to spread false news reports seemed like a novel approach to influencing public opinion, fake news is hardly a new phenomenon; the dissemination of false news accounts spanned centuries. Fake news stories date back centuries in Europe. In 1475, a two 1⁄2-year-old baby went missing in Trent, Italy on Easter Sunday. Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, delivered a series of sermons claiming that the Jewish community had killed the child, drained the blood and consumed it to celebrate Passover. The Prince-Bishop of Trent Johannes IV Hinderbach responded to the sermons and ordered the immediate arrest and torture of the city’s entire Jewish community. Fifteen Jewish community members were found guilty, and their punishment was burning at the stake. The story inspired surrounding communities to commit similar actions against Jewish people. The papacy intervened and attempted to stop the spread of both the story and the murders. Hinderbach felt threatened by the papacy’s attempts to discredit his claims, so he spread more fake news stories about Jews drinking the blood of Christian children. Hinderbach was not the first to disseminate false stories about Jewish people. Historians have cataloged fake stories maligning Jews that added to the foundation of anti-Semitism, back to the 12th century (Michael, 2008).
There were official news stories in the 15th century like church and political documents. There were also news accounts from merchants and sailors, but there were no journalistic ethics, and the statements lacked objectivity. By the 17th century, historians attempted to verify their reports by publishing footnotes that included their sources. After the trial of Galileo, Galileo’s court proceedings in 1610 also created a demand for scientifically verifiable news. The desire for accurate news sources led to the creation of respected news sources. Despite the push for more scientifically valid news stories, after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 stories were written attributing the earthquake to retribution against sinners. Philosophes like Voltaire disputed religious explanations of natural events making Voltaire an early critic of fake news concerning religion (Soll, 2016).
Fake news also caused divisions before the French Revolution. The French government had engaged in frivolous spending that created a massive budget deficit. Several groups in France produced conflicting news stories about the causes of the budget deficits. Thanks to governmental leaks and other verifiable news stories, people were able to have a general understanding of France’s finances. Just like in today’s political climate, the information and numbers that were released were still suspect to some people, and they had to skillfully figure out the truth in the news accounts.
In recent years, there have been changes in the way teens consume media. Mindich (2005) asserted that 80% of people under the age of 30 do not read newspapers daily. The median age of TV news viewers is 60. Mindich discussed how the generational shifts in news consumption could impact the future of how people engage in the democratic process (Mindich, 2005). Patterson (2007) cited a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy that also noted declining teen news consumption on public affairs. The findings of declining news consumption among teens reflect Bennett’s (2008) disengaged youth paradigm, which measures the possibility of a healthy democracy with young people voting and consuming news about public events. It is imperative that students are taught techniques to detect fake news stories, so they can be part of an informed electorate when they turn 18 and can vote.
The current explosion of fake news has created a challenge for social studies teachers to incorporate instruction that will help students develop media literacy skills so they can be more responsible about what information they share. Bennett (2008) stated that both informal and formal instruction of how to use critical media literacy skills could build a foundation for positive civic engagement. Martens and Hobbs (2015) explained that media literacy skills addressed multiple competencies such as analyzing media messaging and understanding how the media works. Improving these competencies in students may enhance their ability to weigh in on current events responsibly disseminated on social media. They went further to suggest when media literacy is incorporated into secondary education classrooms, teachers can assist students to make sense of news stories through inquiry learning. Hobbs (2010) said that if students had the skills to analyze media sources, they may be more responsible about what stories they share. That understanding provides students the appropriate social and intellectual support they need to become engaged in civic matters as adults.
Eighteen pre-service social studies teachers took a BBC online media literacy quiz in their social studies methods course to test their ability to detect fake news stories. On the seven-question quiz, no students answered all of the questions correctly. Twenty-two percent of the students correctly identified four or five as fake news stories. Forty-four percent of the students were able to identify three of the seven fake news stories. Thirty-three percent of the students were able to detect two or none fake news stories. After the fake news quiz was over, the students were asked about their responses. Some of the students said they had seen some of the questions on social media, and believed the stories. Most of the students indicated that they see so many news articles they are not sure what to think anymore.
The discussion about the fake news quiz was used as a springboard for a lesson on strategies to detect fake news stories. The students were given the following steps to detect fake news:
- Read the full story, not just the headline. Some articles use headlines that will elicit a reaction from the reader. Having a provocative headline to lure users to click on a story is referred to as “clickbait.” Clicking on a story often will take you to a website that has ads so that this practice may be a deceptive way of increasing advertisement revenue. An example of this would be http://www.infowars.com. When a story is clicked, there are multiple ads for supplements and vitamins sold by Info Wars.
- Verify the story through credible sources. The key to verifying a story is to find two other credible sources that have reported on the story. Sometimes multiple news articles will use a common article for sourcing. For example, when Tom Petty was near death, TMZ circulated a report of his death. Many other news sources reported on the singer’s death before he had died.
- Try to determine the purpose of the story. There can be many purposes for publishing news stories, ranging from to inform to damage a person’s credibility.
- Do not rely on technology to vet the reliability of news. Fact checking services sometimes can have an underlying bias. It is best to use first-hand accounts to verify news stories.
- Consider the source. The RJI Reynolds Journalism Institute conducted the Trusting News project, which asked twenty-eight partner newsrooms to ask viewers their views about the credibility of news sources. From 8,728 questionnaire responses, the Trusting News project provided lists of the ten most trusted and least trusted news sources. Not surprisingly, there were differences based on the political leanings of the respondents. People who said they trusted Rachel Maddow were liberals and people who trusted Rush Limbaugh were conservatives.
Teaching students to critically view media sources will make them less susceptible to being swayed by fake news. If students improve their knowledge of the media, independently analyze news stories for their truthfulness, and explore multiple sources to gain information on a topic, it may help them want to become more civically involved.