Empowering Students to Tackle Fake News

by Michael Catelli and John O’Leary

In today’s global society we are bombarded with sources of information from thousands of different outlets with varying degrees of expertise and knowledge. All consumers of media have heard the term fake news as a catch all term to describe information that is falsified or misrepresented, but not many know what to do about it.  When people have a question, the first step most take is to input the question into Google or to check out social media for a list of relevant links that friends have shared. A study of the 2016 presidential election determined that 62% of adults obtained some of their news through social media (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). With the rise of the internet comes easier access to established news sources, but also easier access to unverified information. In a 21st-century classroom, our students need to examine fake news in all its forms which must be integrated through a robust media literacy lens.

One of the difficulties in discussing methods to teach fake news is that the term itself is fluid and ever changing.  In the past, the term fake news was generally used to describe fabricated news, but recently the term has also been used to refer to other types of news typically targeting opinions. To break down some of these complexities for educators, we will divide fake news into two types: falsified news and biased news.

The most obvious use of the term fake news is news that is completely made up, or fabricated news. It could be fabricated to target a specific issue or it may be fabricated based on a rumor that was not validated by a source. The reasons for creating fabricated news may be as varied as the fake news itself. It may be for political motives, for profit, or an author provoking responses for their own amusement. It is important to note that there is a difference between fabricated news and news that was reported, but turned out to be wrong—rather, fabricated news refers to news that is intentionally falsified. What’s more, the term fake news is frequently thrown around as a means of discrediting opposing viewpoints, making the term even more convoluted.  In today’s social media landscape, many fake news sources start as Facebook or Twitter posts, but students must learn essential media literacy skills to test the validity of sources like this and how to confirm information to determine if something is true.

Biased news, or articles that clearly state an opinion, is a more nuanced category that may be labeled fake news by some. It is not inherently false information, but may be called fake by a person with an opposing point of view. Opinion pieces are clear examples of this, as they express a viewpoint which can be disagreed with, the reader’s bias often plays a large role regarding how they view these types of sources. This category can also be applied to more subtle issues, such as news that is trying to change the focus of an issue to distract from debatable points on the topic at hand. These types of articles may attempt to redirect the topic away from relevant facts to focus on a different issue. Critics of an opinion may refer to it as fake news in an effort to bring up a new idea that they want to discuss since the initial opinion may not be favorable to them. Students cannot simply check if a fact is true to assess this type of information, but rather need to examine an author’s voice and argument.

Teachers and schools cannot hide from discussing the concept of fake news because they feel it could be a politically heated. Media literacy, or the ability to interpret and evaluate information from news sources, is an essential 21st-century skill, but this skill has become far more complicated and is ever-changing. Schools cannot simply block fake news websites on their servers or provide a simple list of credible versus non-credible publications—after all, students can still access them outside of school. Also, these strategies fail to teach students how to deal with the issue when they encounter it in their daily lives. Some school districts have approached this topic with their media specialist, but fake news has become more nuanced over time and all teachers need to accept responsibility to teach this topic.  Social Studies educators must make sure students are equipped with the necessary critical reading and thinking skills that will help them evaluate what is credible within the news source. Educators must make sure students are comfortable using strategies outside of the classroom, this is the only way to create real change.

There are many ways to help students be successful with these skills in the classroom. The best way to address fake news is for educators to push their students to make an argument for why they do or do not support a point of view based on credible facts, not just opinion. Educators must work with students to examine how critically they are examining a source, but students must also learn to think about their own confirmation bias (Nickerson, 1998)—in other words, are students giving more weight to an article because it confirms something they want to believe? Students also need to understand the dangers of a filter bubble (Flaxman, Goel, & Rao, 2016) and examine multiple sources of news. If students are only taking in information from sources that support their opinions, they may be stuck in a filter bubble. It can be difficult for students to gauge if they are only getting one perspective, since it can seem like a person in a filter bubble is taking in a lot of information. Staying in touch with news that is different, even counter, to one’s opinion can help them to understand multiple perspectives on an issue. Over multiple days, students can collect information on what media sources and websites they see news from, then create a word cloud using sites like wordle.com to visualize their information sources.

As mentioned previously, a person’s inherent beliefs or bias can play a large role in how they view a particular topic. This can be even more troubling when viewing fake news, since the difficulty of deciphering what is credible increases exponentially. The first hurdle that one must approach with students is making them more self-aware of their own implicit biases. Implicit biases refers to the idea that we all have positive and negative beliefs that affect the way we view certain issues, people, and events. Since we all have these inherit beliefs, the natural reaction for most people is to find information to reinforce what they already believe. Confirmation bias helps explain this idea of why we gravitate towards information that confirms our thoughts and opinions. Social media outlets and search engine filters have made it convenient for consumers to omit information and stories that do not coincide with their opinions and instead selectively choose stories that reinforce their current beliefs and biases.

The cornerstone to helping students understand and decipher fake news can be found in a set of skills often used in the Social Studies classroom: sourcing, close reading, contextualizing, and corroborating. Sourcing asks students to think about who produced the document in order to determine the author’s viewpoint and intentions. Close reading asks students to analyze the language within the text and think about what is said and how it is said. Contextualizing then focuses on when and where the event took place. This helps students place the document into a broader context of what they are reading. Lastly, corroborating allows students to determine points of agreement and disagreement and to compare these points across multiple documents (Whelan & Leon, 2016). This also helps with biased news because students can utilize these skills to see how different pieces of information can create a narrative across different sources.

Once you have established a set of skills necessary for the analysis of informational text like close reading and contextualizing students will be in a more comfortable position to discuss some of the nuances that appear when analyzing fake news. A good way to introduce the topic of fake news is to play a modified version of the game telephone. This game is fun and familiar to students and is a simple way to pull them into the complexity of the topic. In this version of telephone the only difference is prior to the game starting secretly place a student in a location to tell them to spread a false message regardless of what they are told. At the end of the game you can debrief with students to discuss how misinformation can spread so easily either unintentionally or intentionally through fake news sources. This introduction helps enforce the idea with students that just because they hear information for a source doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true, their job as consumers is to know how to decipher who is telling the truth versus who is trying to manipulate their thoughts or opinions.

The next step in teaching fake news is to equip students with a set of strategies they can use to determine whether or not a source they are viewing is a credible news source or falsified in some manner. We would recommend that students use four basic steps laid out in Mike Caulfield’s (2017) Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. These are simple strategies to pick up and apply since they leverage the power of the internet to help with the investigation. The first step in this approach asks students to check already established fact checking sites like the ones listed in the appendix section of this article, to see if another source has already analyzed the source in question. The next step students take in this investigative process is to use the power of search engines like Google to find the original origin of the source they are analyzing. Once students have found the source the last step research what others say about aspects of the source such as author and publisher to determine if the source should be deemed trustworthy. If at any point students run into roadblocks, have them return to the original source and search a different aspect of the article to help find the original source (Caulfield, 2017). Once an investigation method has been established it is helpful to practice these new skills with students. A fun and engaging way to do this is by playing a game where students need to detect the fake news story and what makes it fake. If possible, arrange students into teams and share various fake news sources with them electronically. It helps to have a mixture of absurd sources to those that are only slightly biased so students can understand the different iterations of fake news. After each source review with students what makes the source fake or false. It is recommended that you pick some sources that deal with important issues. This is important for debriefing with students at the end of the activity. Picking issues of significance helps students understand the dangers and influence articles and news sources like the ones presented in the attached lesson can have on individuals and communities. 

Common questions that students should ask when analyzing a news source for perspective and bias are: What are the motives or intentions of the author? Why is the reporter’s information credible? Who is the intended audience? What other relevant stories or events have recently taken place? Having students ask these questions about fake news sources will help them start to realize that rarely is any news source completely unbiased. Often the author has their own opinion on the subject, or they may be motivated to get the reader to buy a certain product. By using historical thinking and close reading with news and current events teachers can make a process students often see as tedious feel more connected.

Covering fake news in a classroom will vary depending on time available, objectives, and the level of the students in the class. Using the lesson described above and partnering with your media specialist to discuss the resources and goals you have in mind when having students analyze fake news is a great place to start. Due to the complexity of the topic, the approach that one may take will be influenced by grade level and ability. A media specialist can provide you with school resources you may not know about. If time is a constraint and devoting a full lesson to analysis of fake news is not possible, there are still ways to incorporate the same analysis strategies into other places within the curriculum. Handout One is a tool that can be used either as homework or in class activity to analyze sources that are found online. This could be incorporated into a multitude of different subjects including early explorers. One suggestion would be to show students various new sources regarding who discovered America and have them determine what sources are credible or false.

Lastly, since biased news is so nuanced, a teacher may wish to approach the topic with a long-term assignment. Many politicians and pundits now use various social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to reach their followers. Have students track the links and language used by these various figures and answer questions about the intent behind their posts. Students could even compare various figures and see how they discuss similar events, or start a Twitter account themselves where they play the role of fact-checkers and correct mistakes or fabrications by these individuals.

Our primary goal as social studies educators is not simply to transfer facts of history, but to help students develop necessary civic discourse and civic engagement skills that will make them productive citizens. Fake news has created an obstacle that our students must overcome if they wish to effectively be part of true civic discourse. Addressing fake news is a complicated task for a social studies educator. It is a multi-layered issues that requires multi-layered approaches to be able to tackle in a classroom. The risks, however, of not addressing it in classrooms are too great. Students will come across falsified news or extremely biased news when they are not in school, and they must be equipped with the tools to be able to address that situation.


Allcott, H. & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211 – 236.

Caulfield, M. (2017).Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers. (n.p.) Author

Flaxman, S., Goel, S., & Rao, J. M. (2016). Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online news consumption. Public Opinion Quarterly 80(Special Issue), 298 – 320.

Nickerson, R. (1998). Confirmation bias: a ubiquitous phenomenon, many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175 – 220.

Whelan, S. & Leon S. (2008). Model of historical thinking. Loudon County Public Schools. www.chnm.gmu.edu/tah-loudoun/wp-content/guidelines/historical-thinking.pdf

Appendix A: Teacher Resources

1.  Media Bias/Fact Check: A website that looks at the bias of various news sources- https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/

2.  Lead Stories: a website that debunks fake news stories using international fact checking sites- https://leadstories.com/

3.  FactCheck: a website that fact checks mostly political news stories- https://www.factcheck.org/fake-news/

4.  Snopes– A fact checking website that looks at a verity of topics- https://www.snopes.com/

5.  Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers- a book that provides helpful tips on how students can become fact checkers- https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com/

6.  William Paterson University Library– Tips from media specialist on how to determine the validity of a source- https://guides.wpunj.edu/fakenews

7.  Pace University Library- Tips from media specialist on how to determine the difference fake and real news- https://libguides.pace.edu/fakenews

8.  Politifact- Fact checking website that looks at the truthfulness of political news stories- https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/

9.  PBS News Hour: Contains lessons regarding the topic of fake news and how analyze the news. Includes lessons for grades 7-12. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/tag/fake-news/

10.  TedEd Damon Brown: A short video that gives helpful hints regarding how to approach the news and tips to ensure that you are being a smart consumer of information. https://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-to-choose-your-news-damon-brown#watch

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