Whenever I’m about to teach middle school students about “fake news”—a pervasive problem by anyone’s standards—I tell them a story that helps them understand how online misinformation can be made and shared. Here’s the well-known tale I tell:
During the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, some enterprising young people in the small town of Veles, Macedonia, discovered an ingenious method of making fast, easy money--by spreading fake news to Americans. The outcome of our election didn’t matter to them one bit; their interest was purely economic. In a town where the average annual wage is the equivalent of $4,800, the possibility of earning thousands of dollars by simply posting news stories seemed almost too good to be true. So these youth took advantage of our existing, and entirely legal, social media and revenue-generating advertising systems, and most Americans were none the wiser.
To start, the young Macedonians would create a website that looked as much like a legitimate American news site as possible (self-hosted WordPress sites are free for the making). Then, they’d give their site an American-sounding name. Next, they’d go on the hunt for news stories. It didn’t matter if these stories were true or not (mostly they were not), the only real criteria was that they had to be sensational. The youth would then copy the stories, give them catchy headlines, like “Pope Francis Forbids Catholics from Voting for Hillary,” and then post these stories to their own websites.
Because two-thirds of U.S. adults were getting their news from social media networks, especially Facebook, the youth decided to share their stories there. They paid the social media network to target and share their fake news with the perfect audience, easy to do using Facebook’s cheap, audience-targeting tools. When Facebook users saw a catchy headline, assuming it was legitimate news, they’d click on the story, and like and share it with other users who would do the same. This would generate traffic back to the websites where the stories were hosted, and that’s how money was made. Income was generated from the Google AdSense ads placed on the websites the youth made. The more people who clicked on these ads, the more money the Macedonian kids generated.
My students are astonished to learn that so many American adults fell for this scheme. But, sadly, it turns out today’s kids are no better than adults are at critically evaluating online information.
American Students’ Ability to Evaluate Online Information is “Bleak”
In 2016, researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Education discovered that young people’s ability to effectively evaluate the information they find online is, in a word, “bleak.” Their study, which focused on the “civic online reasoning” of middle school, high school, and college students in twelve states, revealed, “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when they evaluate information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”[i]
Here’s a glimpse at what researchers discovered:
- More than 80 percent of middle-school students were unable to distinguish a paid story branded as “sponsored content” from a real news story.
- High-school students did not recognize the difference between two posts, one from the real Fox News and one from an account that looked like Fox News.
- Most Stanford college students could not tell the difference between a mainstream news source, The American Academy of Pediatrics, and a fringe news source, a group that splintered off from the AAP, called ACPeds.
- From middle school through college, students involved in this study displayed an appalling inability to assess the credibility of online information.
This, my friends, is bad news. Students desperately need an education in digital media literacy.
Teaching Digital Media Literacy
Teaching young people how to critically evaluate online information is easier than it seems. Here’s a method I like to use.
If you’re at all familiar with middle school kids, then you know they love anything remotely scatological (think fart jokes). That’s why I love telling my students I’m going to teach them about crap. It gets their attention every time.
I learned about “crap detection” from cyberculture expert Howard Rheingold in his book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. In this book, which is something of a guidebook for the digital age, Rheingold defines “crap” as “information tainted by ignorance, inept communication, or deliberate deception.”According to Rheingold, “Learning to be a critical consumer of web info is not rocket science. It’s not even algebra. Becoming acquainted with the fundamentals of web credibility testing is easier than learning the multiplication tables. The hard part, as always, is the exercise of flabby think-for-yourself muscles.”
So, with Rheingold’s test, I help my students exercise these muscles by using the handy acronym, C.R.A.P. An unforgettable tool to assess the veracity of online information, C.R.A.P. is a set of four questions you can ask yourself whenever you encounter something dubious online. Variations can be found all over the internet, and here are mine:
- How current is the information?
- How recently was it was posted? Has it been updated?
- How reliable is the information?
- Does the author provide references or sources?
- What proof do you have that the information is reliable?
- Who is the creator or author of the information? What are her credentials?
- Who is the publisher or sponsor of the information? Is this a reputable information source?
Purpose/Point of view
- What is the purpose of this information? Is it intended to inform, entertain, or persuade?
- Does the information sound like fact or opinion? Is it biased?
- Is the creator or author trying to sell you something?
Today’s middle school students will be tomorrow’s news and information consumers. So if we want to break the unfortunate cycle of internet users falling for and sharing false information, we’ve got to equip youth with a simple strategy they’ll remember and use. Rheingold’s test might be just the thing to help them find their way through any crap they encounter online.
Unfortunately, not every school offers digital literacy lessons to their students. Which is too bad. So in my book, “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationships with Technology,” I offer families a fun activity they can do together at home to learn how to detect false information online. I urge families to make time to do this together, because it’s a critical skill we all need.
[i] “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,” Stanford History Education Group (November 22, 2016). Retrieved on April 3, 2018 from https://stacks.stanford.edu/file/druid:fv751yt5934/ SHEG%20Evaluating%20Information%20Online.pdf.