How to spot fake news

What is fake news? Nicky Cox, editor in chief of First News, an award-winning national UK newspaper for children, offers this advice for parents 

If anything important happens, we'll soon hear about it. We might be on holiday, off the beaten track, but somehow news of tragedies, political resignations and celebrity scandals follows us wherever we go. However, some of this news may be propaganda, half-truths, jokes taken seriously or downright lies.

Why is fake news dangerous?

Fake news lets plausible lies pass for truth, reputations be ruined and can even manifest as a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion. In 2017 we saw examples of this both in the USA and in our own general election.

There’s always been 'biased news' or propaganda, but what’s different now is that the internet is part of the equation and we can't always trust the evidence we see.  A website may look professional, but does that company really exist and have the images been photoshopped? It’s hard to pin down facts in the virtual world.

Stories never disappear from the web, they’re just archived. Social media can act like Chinese whispers, repeating and distorting facts to create sensational headlines. Clicks can represent big money to advertisers and if there is a juicy story, people will click and read. The news – true or false – is almost irrelevant. People like to be entertained.

How can we help children spot fake news?

Children need to be protected because they don't always have the experience to distinguish between real news and fake news and, even more confusingly, there are stories that can have a kernel of truth but have have been reported with biased.  At First News, we check all our facts and then check them again. We’re also very careful to make sure that we present every side of an argument, so that our readers can make up their own mind.

While censorship runs counter to our tradition of a free press, many people feel that search engines and social media platforms, particularly those used by children and young people, have a responsibility for the content that they host. Some providers are experimenting with technological solutions to see if it’s possible to use computer-generated algorithms to root out 'fake news' from genuine reporting.

Facebook is taking a leaf out of Wikipedia's book and flagging dubious content with an alert that says: 'Disputed by third party fact-checkers.' Wikipedia succesfully trialled it with a story that falsely claimed thousands of Irish people were taken to the USA as slaves. However, while Facebook, Google and others are considering these tools, parents need to look for non-technical solutions and educate their children to be alert and media savvy.

Parents can encourage children to ask themselves these questions when looking at news:

  • Does the story sound believable?
  • Do other sites have the same facts and figures?
  • Has it been reported on more than one reputable source?
  • Does the photo or video look normal?
  • Does the website look professional or does it use poor quality graphics?
  • Is some of the text written in caps– usually a sign of sensationalism - or feature lots of exclamation marks?
  • Does the website have an About Us or a Contact section?
  • Does it have a standard address such as; .com?

If the answer to any of these questions is 'no', encourage your child to check the story again before spreading it. We all need to be more discerning and critical as we can’t take the news at face value any more.

Further resources

Fake news, and the critical literacy skills children needed to spot it, are at the heart of a new commission from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy. The commission will look at how our current education system prepares children for dealing with fake news and what needs to improve.

To help the commission, we created some surveys with the National Literacy Trust and The Day to find out what children and young people know about fake news and whether they can tell the difference between some real and fake news stories. The surveys are still in the field so there are no results to report yet.

Here is the fake news and critical literacy evidence review published on September 13 2017.

And the National Literacy Trust’s resources page.

For more information on helpng children to think critically see here.



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