Identifying and Avoiding False Information: A Matter of Comprehension in the Classroom

Students looking for information on the web

When looking for news articles or other information on the web, students may come across false information (such as fake news) intended to mislead. Help students identify and avoid false information with explicit instruction and practicing good media literacy skills.

By:  

Sean Thompson

Communications Specialist, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: August 8, 2017

A ninth-grade student is assigned to write a summary of a news article of her choosing for her English class. She is interested in health sciences and how the body works, so she decides to summarize an article about cancer. She finds an article on a health news website about a promising new potential cure for cancer from an unusual source: dandelion root.

A doctor in Canada claims in the article the only thing that helped patients with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia was extract from the common weed. In another case, a 72-year-old patient was told there was nothing more doctors could do to treat his cancer, so in desperation, he tried drinking dandelion root tea. Four months later, he was cured, thanks to the tea, the article reports.

The student’s summary of the article is masterfully written. She succinctly captures each of the main points and draws connections between pieces of information. Her expansive understanding of vocabulary is on display, too. The prose in her summary is the best in the class.

There is only one problem. The article she has summarized is riddled with false information. Dandelion root is being researched in Canada and elsewhere as a possible cancer treatment, but results are inconclusive to this point. The headline “Scientists Find Root That Kills 98% of Cancer Cells in Only 48 Hours” appears to be mostly made up from thin air, according to a fact check by Snopes.com. The website that posted the article, Health Eternally, no longer exists less than a year later.

The student has fallen victim to using a source providing false information for her reading and writing assignment. In this scenario, the source is of the “fake news” variety, a term that has become a fixture in our lexicon over the past year or so. It is likely that the article was deliberately written to mislead and excite in order to garner website clicks.

False Information: Intended to Mislead, not Accurately Inform

For the purposes of this discussion, false information includes any content (e.g., written, visual, audio) which is crafted and portrayed in a way that is meant to confuse, mislead, advance an agenda, or entertain, with little or no regard for whether or not the information is truthful or accurate. Often, the content includes fabricated facts. It can also include real facts that are deliberately presented in a way by which the result is a fundamental misunderstanding or heavily slanted portrayal of a topic.

Subcategories of False Information Include

  • Fake news: False information that is presented as an article based on journalistic reporting of facts or as news commentary.
  • Paid/sponsored content: False information that appears as though it were an objective news article or headline but is actually a form of paid advertising. The content usually contains a disclosure that the content is paid for, but the disclosure may not be readily apparent. The content often can be found on legitimate news websites or apps, intermingled among real news items. By presenting it as news, the advertiser is in part hoping to gain journalistic credibility for the content which has not actually been earned.
  • Parody/satire: False information that is presented as fact with the intent to entertain. Sometimes the author intends for the reader to be in on the joke, but other times, the entertainment is provided for those aware that some readers are being misled.

The Presence and Impact of False Information in the Literacy Classroom

In junior high and high school, students begin seeking out sources of information for a multitude of reading and writing assignments. Students may be asked to find and read a news article in order to expose them to different vocabulary and a new writing tone. They may be writing an explanatory or persuasive essay about a current event. Perhaps they are looking for examples of journalistic writing for a journalism class.

In order to demonstrate comprehension in these types of circumstances, students must be able to select and read texts that do not contain false information. The Iowa Core standards describe numerous expectations that require students to be discerning when it comes to identifying and analyzing false, fake, and slanted information. After all, if a student processes false information thinking it is accurate, are they truly showing understanding of the text? Have they determined the author’s point of view? Can they “distinguish among fact, opinion and reasoned judgment in a text,” and are they identifying “false statements and fallacious reasoning” (Iowa Department of Education, 2016)?

Encountering a Web of Lies in Cyberspace

As you likely already know, the web can be a cornucopia of accurate and reliable information.  At the same time, it also can be a petri dish of false information published by those looking to advance an agenda, make money, or simply cause havoc. Given how much students rely on the web for research, it is no wonder they can be susceptible to finding and using the false information that exists on the web. A Pew Research Center study shows 94% of middle and high school teachers say their students are “very likely” to utilize an online search engine for a research assignment (Purcell et al., 2012). Doing research is becoming synonymous with “Googling,” according to the study.

As students are doing their research via web search, what happens when they come across false information? Results from a recent Stanford University study were not promising. In fact, the authors said middle school, high school, and college students’ ability to judge the credibility of online information was “bleak” (Wineburg, McGrew, Breakstone, & Ortega, 2016). For example, more than 80% of middle school students believed an advertisement denoted by the label of “sponsored content,” but posing as news, was a real article. Only 9% of high school students taking AP History were able to tell that minimumwage.com was a front for a Washington lobbyist. Nearly 40% of high school students said an image on photo-sharing site Imgur allegedly showing deformed daisies at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster site provided strong evidence because it showed proof in the form of a picture. Although compelling, the image contained no information about the person who posted it nor provided any proof that the photo was taken where it claimed to be taken.

The Rise of False Information via Social Media

The presence of false information is not a completely new dilemma in the classroom. But given the increasing presence of false information on the web and the ease of sharing it via social media, as evidenced during the 2016 presidential election, the issue is emerging as a prominent concern. Fake news stories actually received more engagements on Facebook than real news stories during the final three months of the US presidential election, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed News (Silverman, 2016). The 20 top-performing false election stories from fake news sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8.7 million shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. During that same time, the top 20 real stories from 19 major news websites like The New York Times and NBC News generated 7.3 million engagements on Facebook.

Individuals are able to access and spread false information by tapping a phone screen or clicking a mouse. This presence of false information on social media platforms provides another off-ramp for students to take toward unreliable information. To get a sense of this, we can look to high schoolers’ slightly older counterparts observed during the Stanford University study. College students failed to critically evaluate information provided in a tweet about NRA members supporting politicians who were in favor of background checks (Wineburg et al., 2016).

The tweet came from a liberal advocacy organization (MoveOn.org), citing another liberal advocacy organization (Center for American Progress) that sponsored a poll by Public Policy Polling. Students who critically evaluated the tweet would have pointed out that polling results from a professional polling firm may be very strong and reliable. Only a few made that point. Students should also have talked about the political biases of the organizations in the tweet that might have slanted how the statistics were portrayed, but less than a third did. Instead of focusing on the particulars involved in this tweet, students made general statements of concern related to the reliability of social media content and polling results.

Countering False Information in the Classroom and Beyond

Some educators are doing an excellent job of recognizing the need to improve students’ comprehension skills by providing instruction on how to identify and avoid false information. For example, a librarian in Ralston, Nebraska, uses a website to teach her students about a tree octopus roaming the forests of the Pacific Northwest. She later reveals that the website dedicated to saving the animal is false information, in order to convey the need for discerning (Dejka, 2017). Students as young as 8 years old in Washington state are learning from previous examples of news and other information that was slanted, biased, or false (Cardoza, 2017). These educators are teaching media literacy, defined by education advocacy organization Media Literacy Now on its website as teaching students to “apply critical thinking to media messages and to use media to create their own messages.”

Key Steps Educators Can Take to Help Students Build Media Literacy Skills and Identify False Information

  1. Explicit instruction: Especially when it comes to news and other information on the web, students need explicit instruction on how to identify false information and avoid false information by instead seeking out credible, reliable information. Provide students with descriptors or red flags they should be looking out for when evaluating information, such as the presence of certain words like “paid content” or an article with numerous claims but no quotes from or attribution to credible individuals or organizations. Tell students why certain sources are more credible than others and provide examples, such as The New York Times, whose long history of producing fact-based news articles makes it more credible than news organizations without that kind of reputation.
  2. Formative exercises: By assigning students certain tasks, you can gain an understanding of each student’s level of media literacy. The authors of the Stanford University study suggest using the tasks they used in their study, which are described in the report, in a formative way (Wineberg et al., 2016). Educators can administer them as part of a broader lesson on media literacy and false information, and adjust instruction as needed to meet students’ needs. For example, students could be given an article expressing deep skepticism about climate change with no byline and from a website with an apparent political bias. If the students deem the aricle as credible, the teacher would provide follow-up instruction on why properly attributed information is more credible. This instruction would include specific examples of more appropriate sources of information, such an article about climate change written by an environment writer for National Geographic.
  3. Practice: Beyond initial assessments and explicit instruction, students will need to practice media literacy much like they would any other literacy skill. In a recent article, Crocco and her coauthors (2017) argue students need more opportunities to examine the credibility of an author and analyze the arguments they are making about a topic, especially when it comes to topics of public policy. They will develop these skills only through regular practice. The authors recommend helping students recognize their own political viewpoints and biases and how those might influence the students’ viewpoints on a topic or public policy issue. Not only will this help students recognize their slant toward a particular kind of evidence, the authors say, but it also may help them question whether or not their personal viewpoints are making them susceptible to believing fake news and information.

Discerning False Informational is a Foundational Skill

Educators play perhaps the most important and direct role in developing media literacy skills and helping young media consumers identify and avoid false information. However, through modeling good media literacy skills, including employing discernment in their own consumption of information on the web, parents can play a role as well. Furthermore, in conjunction with their newspaper or television news faculty advisor, high school students interested in pursuing a career in journalism can model good media literacy skills by presenting on false information and media literacy in front of classes of younger peers’. It is in those student journalists’ interests to lessen the negative impact of false information and preserve credibility for journalists.

The increasing prevalence of false information on the web threatens to not only harm students’ comprehension abilities, but also threatens a functioning democracy built on a well-informed citizenry. The effort to counteract those threats begin with today’s literacy educators and parents.

Additional Resources

References

Cardoza, K. (2017, June 6). How media literacy can help students discern fake news. PBS NewsHour. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media-literacy-can-help-students-discern-fake-news/

Crocco, M., Halvorsen, A. L., Jacobsen, R., & Segall, A. (2017). Teaching with evidence. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(7), 67-71. DOI: 10.1177/0031721717702635

Dejka, J. (2017, March 27). In ‘fake news’ era, educators emphasize media literacy to teach kids how to tell fact from fiction. Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved from http://www.omaha.com/news/education/in-fake-news-era-educators-emphasize-media-literacy-to-teach/article_0c3ec2a5-5b61-540f-a96f-c4e973364082.html

Iowa State Board of Education. (2017). Iowa Core. Retrieved from https://iowacore.gov/

LaCapria, K. (2016, September 29). Dande-Lying. Snopes.com. Retrieved from http://www.snopes.com/dandelion-kills-cancer/

Purcell, K., Rainie, L., Heaps, A., Buchanan, J., Friedrich, L., Jacklin, A., . . . Zickuhr, K. (2012, November 1). How Teens Do Research in the Digital World. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/11/01/how-teens-do-research-in-the-digital-world/

Silverman, C. (2016, November 16). This Analysis Shows How Viral Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News on Facebook. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.jmbGzea5GL#.bpx1LRQO1G

Wineburg, S., McGrew, S., Breakstone, J., & Ortega, T. (2016). Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Retrieved from https://purl.stanford.edu/fv751yt5934


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