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The News Is Fake, Totally Fake by John Dabell

False, bogus, phony,  sham, hoax, artificial, mock, pseudo, spurious….take your pick but the one word that has upended all of these synonyms is ‘fake’ and it’s a word we hear a lot about in relation to the news.

‘Fake news’ has become big news itself these days as more and more people remind us that there is  a lot of it about.

Spurious news stories have always been around but the weaponised buzzword ‘fake news’ rocketed and went viral after Donald Trump used it to describe some news reporting in the run-up to the US Presidential election and beyond. He has described himself as a victim of ‘fake news’ although it has been alleged that fake news might have been pivotal in his election success.

Donald Trump is probably the most prolific user of the sticky phrase ‘fake news’ and milks media moment to voice his disapproval of dishonest reporting.

In July this year during a joint press conference with the Polish President Andrzej Duda, Mr Trump took the opportunity to say,

“What we want to see in the United States is honest – beautiful, free – but honest press,” Mr Trump said. “We want to see fair press. I think it’s a very important thing. We don’t want fake news. By the way, not everybody is fake news, but we don’t want fake news. Bad thing. Very bad for our country.”

The media ecosystem is full of ‘fake news’ and we are all vulnerable to being tricked, deceived and misled with children especially susceptible.

According to the NASUWT in a survey of over 1500 teachers, more than 1/3 said their pupils have quoted fake news as fact in lessons and written work (see here).

Digital Safeguarding and ‘fake news’

Fake news is of growing importance and Mr Trump is right – fake news is ‘very bad’ and not just for the US but the whole world and as teachers we share the responsibility of helping children sort the wheat from the chaff.

Talking about the science of fake news is now a key part of our news literacy and digital safeguarding efforts. Develop critical thinking and helping children to analyse and judge the truth and accuracy of stories or information online is a core skill.

According to the National Literacy Trust’s 2017 August report, ‘Fake news and critical literacy’;   “children and young people in England do not have the critical literacy skills they need to identify fake news.” (see here). This must-read report is packed with insights and includes practical guidance for teachers.

Following on from this report, on 13 September 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy launched the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools. To inform the commission, the National Literacy Trust has launched three surveys for primary and secondary school pupils, to discover what children know about fake news and to measure their ability to identify phoney news.

The surveys are open from 13 September to 22 October 2017 and after completing them you can get access to free teaching resources to use with your pupils. Access the surveys here.

But what exactly is ‘fake news’? 

To kick-start any discussion about fake news and develop children’s news literacy we need to talk about the concept itself, join forces and come to an understanding of what it is.

A quick trawl of the internet shows that there are lots of definitions ‘out there’ with plenty of cross-overs but no real consensus. For example, compare the following:

We define “fake news”’ to be news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers.

(Source: Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow,  ‘Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 31, Number 2, Spring 2017, Pages 211–236)

A type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation published under the guise of being authentic news to mislead in order to gain financially or politically.

(Source: www.unhoodwinked.net)

Fake news means fictions deliberately fabricated and presented as non-fiction with the intent to mislead recipients into treating fiction as fact or into doubting verifiable fact.

(Source: Paul Chadwick)

Fake news is made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word. 

Which definition do children think offers the best description? Can they write their own?

In January 2017 the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee (now called Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) launched an inquiry into fake news. Damian Collins argues we need to fight for a clear definition of the term fake news. He says,

Fake news is when people knowingly spread lies, but dress it up to look like real news. The intention of people spreading fake news is to confuse and mislead people, and to undermine confidence in the media and public institutions in general…

(for more information about the inquiry click here).

Fake news has lots of cousins and it is important to differentiate between them.  For example, fake news could be confused with flawed journalism and intentional reporting mistakes, rumours, conspiracy theories, propaganda, satire, innocuous entertainment, partially true reports and biased reports. There are mischief makers who mean no harm and then there are extremists and tyrants who mean plenty of harm.

Barriers to entry in the media industry have dropped precipitously and this democratisation of media allows anyone now the opportunity to be a “journalist”. Coupled with that, it is now easy to set up websites and sharing via social media means news can travel fast and often generates significant advertising revenue.

A 2017 report from Harvard University about combatting fake news talks about the power of social media (see here)

“Social media platforms provide a megaphone to anyone who can attract followers. This new power structure enables small numbers of individuals, armed with technical, social or political know-how, to distribute large volumes of disinformation, or “fake news.” Misinformation on social media is particularly potent and dangerous for two reasons: an abundance of sources and the creation of echo chambers.”

Under new plans agreed by the German government, social networks that fail to remove defamatory “fake news”, hate speech and other illegal content will be fined up to €50m (£43m).

A slice of fake       

The proliferation of phoney news online has been enormous and dubious news features appear on several types of websites. Some of these are set up wholly to print deliberately untrue and misleading stories. The names of these websites are often carefully selected to resemble those of legitimate news organizations.

Other sites that parody the news contain features that might be interpreted as factual when seen out of context. There are then sites that mix factual articles with some false articles.

The entertainment website www.react365.com has been set up to show how easy it is to create a fake news story.

How to spot a fake

Andreas Schleicher, the education lead of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that children should be taught how to spot fake news in schools. He says that being able to distinguish fact from fiction is an essential skill in the modern age and teachers are well placed to provide guidance, leadership and support.

“Exposing fake news, even being aware that there is something like fake news, that there is something that is written that is not necessarily true, that you have to question, think critically. That is very important. This is something that we believe schools can do something about.”

Teaching children to be news-savvy and read between the lines is crucial but where do we look for resources?

One useful site worth visiting comes from Common Sense Media who have produced a practical and thought-provoking video which looks at ‘5 ways to spot fake news’ (see here)

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has produced an excellent infographic to help support us when spotting whether a news item is for real or not.

Another resource you can use comes from the News Literacy Project. They have produced the checklist ‘Ten Questions For Fake News Detection’ and supports children with identifying whether they have spotted an illegitimate news source – for more details see here.

Sometimes websites are so convincing they can hoodwink us into thinking they are credible especially when they use images and videos. Worryingly, it is clear that many young people are not making critical judgments about the information they find online.

For example, take a look at the BBC ‘Fake News’ report found here. They visited one school and gave children six stories to read on their iPads and they were asked to try and work out which ones were fake– in fact they all were and the children’s reactions are interesting and insightful. Take a look at their fake news quiz too found here.

The UK Safer Internet Centre ‘Power of Image Report’ (see here) found that images and videos “found that despite 70% of 8-17 year olds recognising that images and videos can be misleading and don’t always tell the full story, just a third (33%) of young people said they find it easy to check if the images and videos they find online are truthful. Almost half (48%) said they are more likely to trust something has happened if they see an image or video of it.”

Ofcom’s 2016 report ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes report’ found that 28% of 8-11s (28%) and 27% of 12-15s believe that if a website has been listed by Google then it can be trusted, while around one in ten in each age group don’t think about whether the results can be trusted.

Reality check

The UK’s independent fact-checking charity is www.fullfact.org and they provide free tools, information and advice so that anyone can check the claims we hear from politicians and the media. Their toolkit is well worth looking through at www.fullfact.org/toolkit/#schools

Since the mid-1990s www.snopes.com has been writing about viral claims and online rumours and it maintains a list of known fake news websites.

Other fact-checking sites include www.politifact.com , www.factcheck.org, www.Hoax-Slayer.net and www.TruthOrFiction.com. See as well www.poynter.org, the home of the International Fact-Checking Network.

You can also use Google Reverse Image Search to check an image (see www.ctrlq.org/google/images/). In March 2017 Google introduced Project Owl, their initiative to combat the fake news that’s corrupting the web (see www.blog.google/products/search/our-latest-quality-improvements-search/).

Social media platforms are often demonised and get considerable bad press but children need to see the efforts some companies are making to combat fake news too. For example, Facebook has developed 10 Tips to Spot False News (in partnership with Full Fact) which can be found at www.facebook.com/help/188118808357379?helpref=search&sr=1&query=fake%20news

And finally….

Whilst children might have high levels of digital literacy, we mustn’t let this fool us into thinking that they can understand the torrent of information they see every day. Media literacy is a key life skill and part of our duty of care is to help children develop an active and critical relationship with the news.

We can do this by making sure that they have strategies for spotting what’s fake and what’s for real, stopping the spread of false information and promoting a culture of truth. Schools have a key role to play in encouraging the generation of factual information and making the truth louder.

In the US, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication hold an annual News Engagement Day and this year it is on 3rd October. This has now grown into a global event, where people of all ages across the world are encouraged to read, watch, listen to and discuss news. Perhaps we can start our own version in the UK so that children can engage with the news positively and not accept ‘the news’ at face value (see here).

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