Spotting fake news and doing something about it
By Nelson Graves
What is fake news? How does it spread? What can we do about it?
News-Decoder has been working with students around the world to address these questions, which have acquired urgency as mainstream media lose their grip on the news ecosystem and imposters seek to influence the outcome of democratic elections.
Plugged in and armed with a burgeoning range of mobile applications, young people are at technology's cutting edge -- and also exposed like no previous generation to the seductive powers of fabricated digital content and misinformation.
A recent Stanford University study found that secondary school students struggle to distinguish between fake and real news online.
"Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak," the study's authors said.
To regulate or not to regulate?
News-Decoder has hosted three webinars on the subject, bringing more than a thousand students and faculty from over three dozen schools together with experts on our virtual platform.
In the first webinar, students at Princeton Day School floated three proposals to identify and control the spread of fake news.
One team of students proposed the creation of a government agency to fact check and flag false articles. Another recommended tax breaks for media platforms that used an algorithm able to spot fake news. And a third rejected any government regulation or censorship.
Counterparts at Greens Farms Academy and Indiana University's Media School then critiqued the proposals during a session moderated by Reuben Loewy, a school teacher and founder of Living Online Lab, and Peter Bale, president of the Global Editors Network.
Then earlier this month we partnered with Global Online Academy, an international consortium of secondary schools, on a two-week mini-course with more than 1,200 students and almost 100 teachers from 25 different institutions.
"Truth does exist."
During the course, entitled "The Truth About Fake News," students identified and discussed fake images on the Internet. The exercise underscored the power of visuals to spark an emotional response and to make fake news go viral.
They drafted their own fake news stories, using attention-grabbing headlines and arresting images. (Not to worry -- none of the stories were published.)
They contributed to a quiz that aims to help people recognize fake news. And they wrote guides -- engaging and user-friendly -- to help Internet users identify and avoid fake news.
Bale led one online discussion with the students in the mini-course, and a second webinar featured Elaine Monaghan, a News-Decoder correspondent and a professor at Indiana University's Media School.
In comments at the end of the two-week mini-course, Tina Bessias, a teacher at Durham Academy and course facilitator, said truth is complicated and under siege from fake news.
"But truth does exist," Bessias said. "It exists in journalism, in government, in science, in business, in whatever walk of life you find yourself in. And you'll be reminded that truth exists whenever you encounter its opposite."
Over the next two days we'll feature student work from the fake news mini-course and snippets from the webinars.
As I said at the end of the final webinar, finding a reliable news source is a bit like choosing a friend: It has to be based on trust and shared values. There are pitfalls and it's risky business, but in a free society you exercise judgment and are free to choose.
That's worth repeating -- "in a free society."