Teaching Aid for Educators on “Fake News” and Alternative Facts

In Journalism, News by Andrew Selepak

One of the big stories to come out of the 2016 Presidential Election was the much discussed issue of “fake news.” Since the election, the discussion has grown to include the difference between facts and alternative facts.

But what is fake news? And how can we help students recognize it when they see it?

Fake news can be hoax websites like The Onion. Fake news can come from “news outlets” like RT News, the first Russian 24/7 English-language news channel formerly known as “Russian Today” and produces stories with approval from the Russian Government. Fake news can be supermarket tabloids like The Globe. Fake news appears can be blogs and websites that look like news sites but are opinion sites created to disseminate one side of a story under the appearance of truth – these sites can lean Right or Left. Fake news can be purposely fictitious disinformation created to deceive an audience for political or financial gain, or for the hollow satisfaction of misinforming readers.

Some say fake news can even be pundit and political talk shows that present one side of a story rather than the full truth such as Rush Limbaugh or the Ed Schultz Show.

Perhaps most significantly, fake news can be a tweet, a post, or a meme that is shared on the Internet, and becomes accepted as true by those who don’t investigate the story further before sharing it with others and thus perpetuating the cycle of fake news.

Fake news sites and some social media accounts deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation to drive web traffic promoted through social media either to generate ad revenue as a form of clickbait or to spread disinformation.

According to The New York Times, “fake news” on the Internet refers to a fictitious article, fabricated with the deliberate motivation to defraud the audience, generally with the goal of profiting through clickbait advertising. In addition to being shared through social media, they can often be found at the bottom of legitimate news sites.

An article on The Huffington Post titled, “Anne Frank was a Refugee, Too,” had what can only be considered as “fake news” at the bottom of the page.

Screenshot from thehuffingtonpost.com from 1/28/17

Even CNN has “Paid Partner Content” on their website with stories that could fall into the category of “fake news.”

Screenshot from cnn.com from 1/28/17

Fake news has been around for years with media outlets like the supermarket tabloid, The National Enquirer, publishing fake celebrity gossip, or viral emails forwarded from user to user. But as with everything in the digital age, the internet and particularly social media have led to an unprecedented increase in the creation and spread of fake news. In response, fact-checking websites have sprung up to debunk fake news such as Factcheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and Snopes.com which has been around since the mid-1990s. In fact, Snopes has a list of known fake news sites that is updates regularly.

Due to concerns about the spread of fake news, Facebook and Google announced that they would combat fake news sites, restricting their ability to earn ad revenue.

In January of 2017, Google announced it removed 200 publishers from its AdSense network in late 2016 as part of its effort to combat fake news. Also in January of 2017, Facebook announced yet another change to its Trending topics algorithm to combat fake news. The new algorithm removes personal preferences from affecting which stories users see, and instead, all users in the same region/country will see the same stories.

Most of us believe we can easily spot fake news. And sometimes spotting fake news is easy to do. The truth is, news consumers are the best defense against the spread of fake news. But this can be more difficult for younger people and those who don’t regularly follow the news, or consume news from multiple reputable and legitimate outlets.

But even the well-informed can fall prey to what is called confirmation bias, where we believe a “fake news” story because it confirms our beliefs. This can be a problem when we insulate ourselves with our own incorrect beliefs and understandings and promote our incorrect ideas without investigation.

Interestingly, the website Science Daily has a page where it defines the term “confirmation bias,” excerpted from Wikipedia, which has what can be considered “fake news” at the bottom of the page.

Screenshot from sciencedaily.com from 1/28/17

Often the most difficult part about spotting fake news is that the distortions being spread can contain bits of truth, or it can be bad news which comes from shoddy reporting by actual journalists.

In the past, fake news might have been easier to spot with anonymous authors, exclamation points, ALL CAPS, misspellings, and headlines that read “This is NOT a hoax!” But fake news has become harder to spot as sites can look like legitimate news organizations, come from poor reporting, originate from political opinion makers, or be found on legitimate news sites.

The best defense against the sharing and dissemination of fake news is an informed citizenry. But this requires personal responsibility to seek the truth on issues in the news and the necessary critical thinking to objectively evaluate information that appears on social media, on websites, on TV, and sent to us in forwarded emails.

While it is the responsibility of the electorate to be informed on the issues of the day to maintain a healthy and stable democracy, our democracy also necessitates that younger voters and soon-to-be voters possess the necessary critical thinking skills to evaluate media messages.

For this reason, educators find themselves in the critical role of teaching young people how to evaluate the news, and be able to recognize fake news and alternative facts from the actual truth and objective reporting. Educators teaching at the K-12 level will help shape the critical thinking skills of those who will soon be entrusted without our representative democracy, while college professors are provided with the opportunity to help young people continue to develop these skills as they participate in self-government for the first time.

As someone who teaches courses at the University of Florida on media, ethics, reporting, and news writing, I have examined my own teaching and assignments, and looked for ways to incorporate teaching these critical thinking skills in the classroom.

The ways to accomplish the goal of providing an environment for students to learn the critical thinking skills to objectively evaluate news and information are virtually limitless, but they also take time to create and develop. Sadly, time is not a luxury we possess.

For this reason, below are two potential assignments that educators can incorporate in their classroom. These assignments were not created in a vacuum but came from examining how others were covering the same topics. FactCheck.org provided a tremendous resource with its “How to Spot Fake News” page.

Admittedly, the assignments are similar, yet the differences allow a teacher or professor to use both and attack the issue from two sides. In addition, and purposefully, both assignments can be easily edited to allow changes based on need.

These assignments are not exhaustive but represent a start. Now, more than that ever, we need to start because while we may survive fake news, we cannot survive an uninformed citizenry in an alternative democracy.

Click here to download the teaching resources.


About the Author

Andrew Selepak


Dr. Selepak is a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, and director of the graduate program in Social Media.