Teaching Truth in an Age of Misinformation and Fake News

Studies show that Americans are now spending up to eleven hours per day with electronic mass media. (source) While media content is not always produced to educate us, much of it does indeed educate our students about the world around them. How do we teach truth, then, when information travels at the speed of light regardless of its accuracy?

Fake news, propaganda and misinformation have been around forever. The difference now is its sheer volume, our ability to create it ourselves and our preference of our beliefs over facts. It’s more important than ever to give our students critical thinking skills so they can evaluate the deluge of information at their fingertips.

So how do we begin? Our students must continually ask themselves about the source of messages. In his book “I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works”, tech writer Nick Bilton claims that our students can no longer distinguish between material produced by the Washington Post or CNN and material produced by Joe down the street. The democratization of online content creation may have leveled the playing field for producers, but the playing field does not easily recognize or label misinformation. That filtering is now our responsibility.

It’s also important to recognize what our students consider “news” and “newsworthy”. When I grew up, Walter Cronkite was one of three sources of news on evening television. Our students have thousands of choices for information gathering, and that information is not typically delivered by men on television programs. Information is a meme. A tweet. A post. A viral video. While many times these can indeed include true information, our students must get into the habit of determining what is real, meaningful and valid.

Perhaps the most challenging part of teaching truth is the inability for many of us to recognize our own biases and predispositions to certain sources and facts. In my media literacy classes, I specifically showed examples from both Trump and Clinton last semester. However, my students simply refused to believe anything negative about the candidate they favored. One student said “I want this to be false, so I’m going to ignore it”. How do we teach truth in a world where our beliefs will trump any facts we encounter?

Teachers have an uphill battle when it comes to information literacy. Thankfully, there are some excellent sources to help us navigate this minefield. In no particular order, I suggest the following:

  • Snopes: This is the granddaddy of all fact-checking sites. They are especially good at pointing out when old photos are re-purposed as memes created to promote a political idea.
  • Emergent: This site handles rumors in real time. So if something goes viral this morning, Emergent will have its analysis up this afternoon.
  • Hoax-Slayer: What I love about Hoax Slayer is that they have all of their misinformation categorized by type: memes, emails, trends. It’s extremely easy to search.
  • News Literacy Project:  This site is chock-full of lesson plans and ideas for helping students view news with a critical eye. Check it out.
  • Poynter Institute Fact Checking: This site is the home of the International Fact Checking Network. One can spend hours here.

I teach college students, which means I have a bit more flexibility than a typical K-12 teacher. Which is why I don’t necessarily suggest these sites for your classroom, I merely want you to know they exist in case you feel adventurous or want to investigate on your own.

I have actually assigned my students to create fake news. Why? Because once they create something false, and see how easy it is to do, they will never consume news in the same way again.

  • News Jack: Enter the URL of any news site, and then start editing. Take a screenshot, and you suddenly have the New York Times (or any other source) showing your material.
  • Twerker App: This app will give you the mobile version of any news site’s URL that you enter. Simply double-tap a photo or story, and enter in your own information. Screenshot it and now you have a legit-looking source telling your story.
  • Break Your Own News: A super fun site that lets you upload a photo and description so that it looks like a television breaking news story.
  • Make Your Own Prank: This site will generate a fake news story you’ve created and put it in ready-to-share Facebook news format.

News and information literacy is a 21st Century survival skill. Our students need it. Heck, my older relatives need it! But we cannot wait any longer. Our democracy depends on it.


Julie Smith is the author of Master the Media and has been teaching media lit at Webster University in St Louis for fifteen years. She travels nationally and internationally to speak to parents, teachers and students about how to live and teach in this digital world.

1 thought on “Teaching Truth in an Age of Misinformation and Fake News”

  1. Important article, and media literacy is an essential aspect of today’s learning, just ask Renee Hobbs at the Media Education Lab. However, when one discusses Information Literacy and excludes school librarians and academic librarians from the mix, that is a cause for concern. (http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency).
    Information Literacy is a teacher librarian’s “content” area. Or perhaps I should say “process” area.

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