Tips for Fake News Lesson Planning

Graphic showing a news article with speech bubbles over the top

Fake news is everywhere and it’s causing very real problems – from interfering with political elections to undermining public health.

Nearly 80% of United States consumers report having seen fake news related to Covid-19, according to research by Statista. More broadly speaking, all global citizens who have access to digital information are subject to fake digital information. However, despite fake news being at an all-time high, media literacy is low. The same research found that only one in four American adults felt “very confident” in their ability to recognize fake news and for 21st-century learners, these figures are even less promising.

As students spend more time online and navigating the world of social media, the risk of exposure to fake news increases. That’s why teaching media literacy and arming learners with the skills they need to spot fake news, evaluate reliable sources, and understand the importance of fact-checking is more crucial now than ever before.

What is fake news and why does it matter?

While the term ‘fake news’ may have increased in popularity during the 2016 election, the concept is nothing new. In its simplest form, fake news is false or misleading information designed to appear like real news. Misleading information can be misinformation, disinformation, or a combination of both.

“Misinformation and disinformation are often used interchangeably, but there’s a distinct difference between the two:

Misinformation: Incorrect information presented either intentionally or unintentionally.

Disinformation: False information that’s deliberately spread with the intention to deceive.”

Fake news can take many forms: From commercialized clickbait to conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and biased content intended to sway a reader’s political opinions or beliefs.

Fake news predates the internet; propaganda, or deliberately misleading material designed to promote a biased point-of-view, and has been used by politicians for hundreds of years. Social media, however, has changed the media landscape by creating an environment where fake news can be published and shared by anyone, and encouraged by algorithms designed to identify and promote polarizing content.

While the intentions of fake news sources may be negative, those who share them often do so unknowingly. This is particularly true for young learners who, despite being digital natives, are highly susceptible to fake news. As technology has advanced, doctored information that’s posted on a familiar or “trusted” social media platform can be more difficult to critically discern what is true and what is fake. Stanford University researchers found that not only were many students unable to differentiate between verified news articles and fake news stories, but that they lacked key information literacy skills; were often unable to recognize ads or sponsored content, and did not understand key indicators to verify the reliability of sources on the internet or on social media.

Fake news lesson planning

By making media literacy a core part of your curriculum, teachers can help learners become responsible digital citizens and reduce the harmful impacts of misinformation and disinformation online. Here are some tips for planning fake news lessons.

  • Make an example
    Start with a real example to gain traction and engagement; beginning by saying “let’s learn about fake news” will dilute some of the impact that would be powerfully gained from an activity that instead leads to discovering something is fake news.
  • Guage your learners’ media literacy skills
    Don’t assume that because your learners are digital natives, they’re less vulnerable to fake news. Start your fake news lesson by assessing students’ understanding with a news quiz. Prepare two similar articles: One from a verified news source and one from a fake news account. Then, ask students to work independently or in pairs to determine which news article is from a reliable source and how they can tell. After giving students some time to formulate their responses, lead a class discussion where learners rationalize their decisions. This will flow naturally to signposting.
  • Run some experiments
    Allow students an opportunity to create some fake news and to survey a population of people to find out if they sense it to be real or fake. Get students to ask a varied age range and to find out the reasons for the conclusion each person comes to about the sample fake news.
  • Dig deeper to uncover bias and motivation
    The underlying objective of some types of fake news is obvious. Clickbait, for example, tends to be generated to drive traffic to heavily commercialized content. Other forms of false information, however, are far more nuanced. When teaching students how to spot fake news and evaluate online information, take things further by encouraging them to think critically about the motivation for publishing (and then sharing) this information in the first place.
  • Make it memorable
    Introduce some fun and catchy mottos for students to remember and carry through their learning journey:
    “Beware and compare before you share”
    “Don’t promote or quote, until you check what they wrote”
    “Think twice before you site”

Getting your students prepared for and able to navigate the world of online information is a vital and crucial part of their learning journey. It’s super simple to get started, once you plant the seed and build the habit, students are able to go off on their own and finetune their abilities. Organizations such as Common Sense Media, Kilkd, and MySocialife are great go-to places for educational resources that help students to develop awareness and discernment. Try introducing a few quick lessons the next time you’re researching with your learners!