The Classroom Where Fake News Fails

Dec 22, 2016
Originally published on December 23, 2016 11:07 am

By now, you've probably heard about one very real consequence of fake news — the infamous "pizzagate" conspiracy theory that ended with Edgar Welch, 28, firing a real gun inside a real Washington, D.C., pizzeria filled with real people.

When The New York Times later asked Welch what he thought when he realized there were no child slaves inside the restaurant, as one fake news story had led him to believe, he responded: "The intel on this wasn't 100 percent."

Welch isn't the only one struggling to tell fact from fiction in this digital age. A recent Stanford study found that America's middle, high school and college students are shockingly bad at it, too. It's clear that something has to change in the nation's classrooms. That something, according to Professor Sam Wineburg, one of those Stanford researchers, is "practice."

"How do they become prepared to make the choices about what to believe, what to forward, what to post to their friends," Wineburg asked on NPR's All Things Considered, "when they've been given no practice in school?"

And he's right. Many schools — perhaps most — aren't doing nearly enough to help students learn how to sort fact from social-media fiction. But some are.

"Like a flu in the winter"

"The question that many of you asked on your annotation of pizzagate was 'Why would anyone start a rumor?' " Patricia Hunt says to her students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. "The question I want you to be thinking about today when we do this next lesson is 'Why would anyone believe it?' "

Hunt teaches U.S. and Virginia government. She's a 24-year veteran of the classroom, but today she's doing something she has never done before: helping to pilot a new, digital curriculum called the checkology virtual classroom. It comes from the nonprofit The News Literacy Project. The morning's lesson kicks off with a video of Matea Gold, a political reporter with The Washington Post.

"Viral content includes stories, vignettes, ads, rumors and memes that catch on like a flu in the winter, quickly passing from one person to the next, often with little regard as to whether the content is true or not," Gold says from the Post's newsroom.

Hunt's students, most of them seniors, sit in clusters of threes and fours. Each has a laptop. After the video, they're presented with a series of viral stories. Some are propaganda. Some are ads. And some are pure fact.

"We don't know which is which at this point," laughs Kahder Smith, feeling a little overwhelmed. "We actually have to sit down, take our time, and actually read it. And probably Google some stuff to see if it's real or not."

The students' first test comes from Facebook. A post claims that more than a dozen people died after receiving the flu vaccine in Italy and that the CDC is now telling people not to get a flu shot. Autumn Cooper is torn.

"I mean, I've heard many rumors that the flu shot's bad for you," Cooper says. But instinct tells her the story's wrong. "It just doesn't look like a reliable source. It looks like this is off Facebook and someone shared it."

Cooper labels the story "fiction." And she's right.

Her classmate Suvra Das takes a different path to the same answer. When he's not sure of a story, he says, he now checks the comments section to see if a previous reader has already done the research.

"Because they usually figure it out," Das says. And, indeed, he wasn't the first to question the vaccine story's veracity. "Like one comment was, 'I just fact-checked this, and it doesn't appear to be true. Where else do you see this to be true?' "

The students come up with a few other red flags they can look for whenever they're unsure: no author byline, no quoted sources, no coverage elsewhere.

"Damn, why did I just read that?"

The News Literacy Project was founded nearly nine years ago by a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times, Alan C. Miller. The group and its mission have been endorsed by 33 "partner" news organizations, including The Associated Press, The New York Times and NPR. That mission has always been to give students the tools to be smarter consumers — not just of news, but of all information. In May, the group unveiled its checkology virtual classroom. There's a free, basic version and a premium version that's more interactive for students.

"The No. 1 question that I love asking [students] is, 'Where do you get your news?' " says Elis Estrada, the group's Washington, D.C., program manager. "And the majority of them say, 'What is news?' They don't even know what it is. The fact that we have to start there is really telling."

Kahder Smith says he's happy to get the guided practice.

"I fall to fake news all the time. Even just random Twitter posts, and I'm like, 'Damn, why did I just read that?' "

Instead of teaching students the fundamentals of fact-checking, many schools simply ignore the problem, blocking social media sites on school computers.

"One of my friends says that's like teaching [students] to drive in the parking lot and then sending them out on the interstate and saying 'Good luck!' " says Audrey Church, president of the American Association of School Librarians. "This is something children don't know unless we teach them. They're not looking for bias. They take what they see on their device at face value, and so teaching them to be critical, thoughtful consumers of information is a challenge that's increasing."

Indeed, many of Hunt's students admit they don't consume news from traditional sources: not from TV networks or newspapers or even the websites of the major papers. One asked if NPR traffics in fake news.

Instead, these teens say they get their news largely from the social media on their smartphones. An infinite stream of stories. Some true. Some false. Much of it written by strangers hoping their readers can't tell the difference.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We have an update now to a story we aired recently about fake news. In that story, we spoke with Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University. He had just released a study measuring how well middle, high school and college students could tell the difference between real and fake news. Bottom line - not well at all. Wineburg didn't blame the students.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: How do they become prepared to make the choices about what to believe, what to forward, what to post to their friends when they're given no practice in school?

SHAPIRO: Some schools are trying to help students sort fact from fiction in this digital age. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team went to one.

PATRICIA HUNT: The question that many of you asked on your annotation of Pizzagate - why would someone start a rumor?

SHAPIRO: Patricia Hunt teaches government at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va.

HUNT: The question that I want you to be thinking about today when we do this next lesson - why would anyone believe it?

TURNER: Hunt's been a teacher for 24 years, but today she's doing something she's never done before. She's helping to pilot a new digital curriculum called checkology. It's from the nonprofit The News Literacy Project. It starts with a video of Washington Post political reporter Matea Gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATEA GOLD: Viral content includes stories, vignettes, ads, rumors and memes that catch on like a flu in the winter, quickly passing from one person to the next, often with little regard as to whether the content is true or not.

TURNER: Hunt's students, most of them seniors, sit in clusters of threes and fours. Each has a laptop, and after the video, they're presented with a series of viral stories. Some are propaganda, some are ads, and some are pure fact.

KAHDER SMITH: We don't know which is which at this point.

TURNER: Kahder Smith feels a little overwhelmed.

SMITH: We actually have to sit down and take our time, actually read it and, like, probably Google some stuff to actually see if it's real or not.

TURNER: The student's first test comes from Facebook. A post claims that more than a dozen people died after receiving the flu vaccine in Italy and that the CDC is now telling people not to get a flu shot. Autumn Cooper is torn.

AUTUMN COOPER: I mean, I've heard many rumors that the flu shots - they're really bad for you.

TURNER: But her gut says the story's all wrong.

COOPER: It just doesn't look like a reliable source. It looks like this is off Facebook, and someone shared it.

TURNER: Cooper labels the story fiction, and she's right. Classmate Suvra Das took a different path to the same answer. When he's not sure of a story, he checks the comments section.

SUVRA DAS: 'Cause they usually figure it out. Like, one comment was, I just fact-checked this, and it doesn't appear to be true. Where else do you see this to be true?

TURNER: The students come up with a few other red flags. Maybe the story doesn't have a byline or credible sources, or no one else has covered it. The News Literacy Project was founded nearly nine years ago by a Pulitzer-Prize-winning L.A. Times reporter. The idea was to give students the tools to be smarter consumers not just of news, but all information. Then fake news became a real problem, and in May, the group unveiled checkology. There's a free basic version and a premium version that's more interactive for students.

ELIS ESTRADA: Number one question that I love asking them is - where did you get your news?

TURNER: Elis Estrada is the group's Washington, D.C., program manager. She says she's often in the classroom, running through the first lesson with students.

ESTRADA: And the majority of them say, what is news? You know, they don't even know what it is.

TURNER: Kahder Smith says he's happy to get the guided practice.

SMITH: I fall to fake news all the time, even just like random Twitter posts. And I'm like, damn, why did I just read that?

TURNER: And Smith's not alone. Many said they don't watch or listen to the news or read newspapers or even use the websites of newspapers. Instead, they said, they get their news from social media, an infinite stream of stories - some true, some false, all shiny and enticing. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.