Learning to distinguish between reliable and bogus information is a crucial skill in the 21st century. For a brief time, it seemed search engines might help people to zero in on accurate, well-researched information. Instead, social media has made it easy to share “news” that has no basis in fact.
The proliferation of fake news has accelerated because of websites that exploit the pay-per-click feature of online advertising. Nothing gets more clicks than an outrageous or too-good-to-be-true headline. When people share such stories without thinking, they ricochet around cyberspace, encouraging people to mourn celebrities who aren’t dead, worry about risks that aren’t real, and feel outrage over things that never happened. The problem has become so serious that Google is reportedly investigating ways to rank its results to factor in accuracy as well as popularity.
Now that nearly a third of Americans get their news from Facebook according to the Pew Research Center, that company is also making efforts to stem the tide of fake news. To report something problematic, users can click the downward arrow in the upper right corner of the post. Select “Report problem.” Select “I don’t think this belongs on Facebook.” Choose the option that explains why the story shouldn’t be shared.
Of course the success of this tactic depends upon people being able to recognize fake news when they see it. Parents can help their children become part of the solution rather than the problem by routinely talking about news and encouraging kids to ask the following questions, especially about stories that seem true because they’ve appeared so often in social media.
Why was the story written? Even elementary age children can think about why someone is telling them something. Are they trying to be helpful? Are they self-serving? Are they joking? Are they lying? Help children understand that, in general, journalists and scientists are trying to help people understand things better. They may get things wrong sometimes but most do objective research and present their findings fairly.
Is it a Joke? A number of websites make fun of the news in order to expose foolish policies and corrupt behavior. The Onion, for example, is famous for its satire, but not everyone gets the joke. A website called Literallyunbelievable shares posts from gullible people who have posted an Onion story as though it were true. Since satire can be a difficult concept for kids, teach your child to check websites for disclaimers. Lightly Braised Turnip, for example, says simply, “The LBT retains the right to invent facts for its own financial health.” When you can’t find a clear statement about what the website does, do a search that includes the name of the site and the word satire, hoax, or fake.
Who wrote and published the story? Some of the most notorious fake news sites include World News Daily Report, The Daily Currant, National Report, The Daily Currant, Empire News, and The News Examiner. Despite their newsy names, these sites regularly fabricate stories simply because they will earn more money if they can get people to click and share. In contrast, legitimate news organizations make a distinction between news, editorial opinion, and advertising. Professional journalists take pride in their work, so stories will have a byline and often it will be possible to contact the reporter. To help your child understand some of what journalists do to get to the bottom of a story, check out the informative videos at thenewsliteracyproject.org/learn-channel. Among other things, there’s a fascinating explanation of how editors confirm the reliability of a photograph.
Has the story been confirmed by other news organizations? Stories that are true will quickly show up on websites for major news organizations. To find out whether a story has been picked up by other news outlets, check a news aggregator like Google news. (news.google.com). Kids can also make use of websites that specialize in uncovering hoaxes. Snopes.com debunks a wide variety of urban legends and false stories. Factcheck.org investigates the reliability of statements by politicians. The Washington Post does a weekly column about what was fake on the Internet. (Go to washingtonpost.com and search for what’s fake.) Hoax-Slayer.com and thatsnonsense.com also try to keep people informed about the latest viral foolishness.
What’s the source? As kids get older, they need to know how to evaluate sources so they can put their faith in people who deserve it. A media literacy program developed by professors at Stony Brook University uses the memorable acronym I’M VAIN to help students judge the reliability of news sources.
I – Independent. A source that tries to be objective is better than a source that is trying to sell a product or an idea.
M – Multiple. A story is more reliable when it’s confirmed by multiple sources rather than a single person.
V – Verify. Sources who can back up a story with facts are preferable to sources that simply have opinions.
A I – Authoritative and Informed. A story is more reliable if it comes from an expert who has the respect of peers.
N – Named. Sources that are willing to go on the record are better than anonymous sources.
Of course, adults know that information is never perfect. New facts are always coming to light, and people can have legitimate differences about how to interpret facts. Still, helping kids recognize blatantly fake news means that, at the very least, they won’t be misled or embarrassed by sharing something foolish. Better yet, they will become adults who are able to form opinions and make decisions, confident that they are based on the most reliable information they can find.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns.