Fake News!! Part one

Fake news!! FAKE NEWS!!! (Part One)


For years, as I checked out in the grocery store, I saw Bat Boy on the pages of the Weekly World News. That “news”paper is no longer being printed, but weeklyworldnews.com exists. According to an article on the site, Earth is going to collide with the planet Nibiru on October, 17, 2017, so don’t sweat that your retirement accounts are not up to par.


Did you know that Pope Francis carved roast cherub for the Vatican Christmas feast this year? You can see the story and the picture of him carving the slow-roasted 18-pound cherub at The Onion website.

My point is that fake news is nothing new. Weekly World News started in 1979, The Onion in 1988. Others could be mentioned—others who had the idea of writing silly news stories for our amusement. No one thought this was real stuff. We all knew it was satire or farce. Right?

But something has changed. We have an increasing number of websites putting out stories intended to deceive, to attack, and to influence in addition to the ones putting out stories to entertain. Fabricated stories are mixed in with legitimate news stories, and it is less clear which is which. The new President of the United States said that Ted Cruz’s father was “with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot.” Is that fake news? The President often tweets “Fake news!” to dismiss stories and at a press conference said, “You are fake news!” to insult to a CNN reporter. Is the reporter fake news? When the leader of the free world uses “fake news” so often, it is a term worth exploring.

Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” to be 2016’s international word of the year. They define “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Truth doesn’t matter to the body politic anyhow, so why worry about fake news?

The Founding Fathers thought that protecting the press was so important that they put in the First Amendment. They realized that a free (and respected) press would help hold government leaders accountable, publicize important issues, and educate citizens so they can make informed decisions. Attacking the press, then, is a very dicey proposition. If the press is demeaned, those three things don’t happen. Who will perform those functions? I understand that it is a brilliant strategy for rulers to discredit all news sources. Take away all possibility of being examined or critiqued or caught? Nixon would have loved the “fake news” gambit.

The Public: These reporters uncovered some evidence linking you to Watergate.

Nixon: Fake news!! You know they are all scum!

The Public: OK, sir. Then play on.

In a scenario where “fake news” get shouted all the time, truth gets buried with all the falsehoods.

But what if you think that there is truth? What if you believe that quality sources exist and we should try to find them? What if you want to help students separate fact from fiction? Let me share some ideas here and some in an upcoming post.

Teach a healthy level of skepticism

Unfortunately, we must be suspicious. Just because it popped up on your computer feed does not mean it is accurate. Just because it has a great sounding name that includes the word “news,” does not mean it is news. Also be skeptical about what has been called “fake news.” Just because the President says, “That’s fake news” does not mean you should not believe the information he is attacking. What has been called news may be fake; what has been called fake may be true. But there must be a healthy level of skepticism. It is not the case that there is no news, no truth, and it is all lies. Don’t give up. Be a detective. Investigate.

Teach checking sources

Did you have the thought, “Were there really news articles about Bat Boy and Pope cherub-eating?” I hope so. You want sources so teach students to demand sources. Legitimate articles will name sources. To prove that I did not make up the Bat Boy and Pope stories, here are my sources:



What about the other stories I told? Did Trump really say that Cruz’s father was with Oswald or was that fabricated by me? He did say it, and here is the source:


Was Cruz’s dad really with Oswald or was that fabricated? That was made up, and here is a source verifying that it was false:


Did Trump really call a CNN reporter “fake news”? He did, and here is a source:


Obvious question: how do I know if the source used is good?

Teach about analyzing sources

I wrote Researching in a Digital Age—How do I teach my students to conduct quality online research because too many teachers are sending students online without properly preparing them to think critically about what they will find. Lessons in that book about how to evaluate websites should be used to look for fake news, also. (Look at that book here for more detail.) As an example, teach students to look for the “About us” or “Home” or “FAQ” tabs. If there is no such tab, be suspicious. Ask how long they have been around. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have some pretty good history. Not so for lots of sites on Facebook with “news” in their name that were created in the last couple of years. See if you can find their purpose or a statement of beliefs. Do a web search. Someone sent me an article from “Truth Examiner.” Sounds great, right? A web query made me doubt everything on the site. Look for bias. Scan a list of recent articles. Do they lean a certain way? Share examples: Huffington Post seems to have lots of articles about how bad conservatives are; Breitbart has articles about how bad liberals are. That doesn’t mean everything at those sites is “fake news.” But maybe you shouldn’t believe everything.

Teach about using multiple sources

When I grew up in Detroit, if the Detroit News said something had happened, it had happened. Now life is trickier. About one million people engaged with an article that appeared on Facebook saying the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. Did the Pope do that? Well, had you looked for the source, you would have found Southend News Network. If you looked at their “About SNN” tab on their site, they admit that they are bogus. If you did a web search, you’d see lots of evidence that they are bogus. But assume you didn’t analyze the source as I suggested above. Then look for multiple sources. The leader of one of world’s largest religions makes a statement? That will get lots of coverage, yet no other news source had that story. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Reuters, The Guardian, The Washington Post—all of them missed it? Nope. It never happened.

Use “fake news” detectors

Snopes.com, Factcheck.org, Politifact.com, and others have as their express purpose to verify information. Can you be sure they are legit? Remember: multiple sources. You don’t need to believe one of them. Check a few.

This is a pretty good start for ferreting out fake news. I wish none of this were necessary. I wish we lived in an age where complete disregard for the truth was not common. I wish “post-truth” was a term never invented. Unfortunately, my wishes don’t matter. Begin the process of teaching about fake news.











Fake News!! Part two

Fake news!! ALTERNATIVE FACTS!!! (Part Two)

In my first post about fake news (https://goo.gl/06VyM7), I mentioned Bat Boy, the Pope carving roast cherub for Christmas, and the imminent destruction of Earth by the planet Nibiru.

I suggested that no one would believe any of those stories and would recognize that they are all fake. Well, almost no one.

Since that post, our new administration has given us other stories to challenge our thinking about news, including President Trump’s press secretary statement that Trump’s inauguration attendance was the largest in history, disagreeing with many of the news reports. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/24/fact-check-inauguration-crowd-size/96984496/ Whose “news” was accurate? A Trump surrogate suggested that the press secretary didn’t lie but rather used “alternative facts.” https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2017/01/23/alternative-facts-quip-from-kellyanne-conway-sparks-mockery/45si5b0bXrRsPB0BZGs1xM/story.html So here we are discussing whether comments from the White House are in the same category as Bat Boy, cherub carving, and Nibiru. The problem of fake news is much bigger than we might have thought and certainly bigger than we wished.

(You’ll recall that one of the strategies from my first post was to analyze sources. That can’t be done if no sources are given so I have provided many here. Consider asking students to provide sources for all their comments, too. Ban discussion comments such as “The Keystone Pipeline will wreck the environment” and encourage “According to an article in the Huffington Post, the Keystone Pipeline will cause environmental damage.” Then you can discuss sources—why should I believe the Huffington Post?—as well as the pipeline.)

Teach students to verify

 Don’t take any one person’s word as gospel. Don’t believe one source. Check everything out. For example, watch candidate Trump describing Obama dealing with a protestor: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-election-day/fact-check-trump-claims-obama-scolded-protester-video-shows-otherwise-n678351  Notice that Trump said, “You have to go back and look and study.” Good advice. Did Trump accurately describe where “they put the cameras”? Did he accurately describe what Obama said and how he said it? You can check it out yourself. Here is a video of the event Trump was talking about: http://time.com/4559072/barack-obama-north-carolina-rally-heckler-video/ Unfortunately, we live in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Fortunately, almost everything is recorded somehow which makes verification easier. If there is no recording, remember the tip from my first post about looking for multiple sources. Are other reputable news outlets reporting the event in a similar way?

Teach students to verify images

My presentations about how to teach students oral communication skills are enormously popular. Here is a picture of the crowd that came to see my last presentation:


Except that isn’t true. Well, it is true that I do presentations about teaching speaking (http://pvlegs.com/recentwork/) but that picture is not from my show. Use Google’s reverse image search. Upload an image, and Google will tell you where it is from:


Oops. Busted. If you wonder if an image is accurate, verify.

Teach students to demand evidence

As I write this, news outlets are talking about Trump’s claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes. Trump said that three to five million votes for Clinton were fraudulent. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/01/23/at-white-house-trump-tells-congressional-leaders-3-5-million-illegal-ballots-cost-him-the-popular-vote/?utm_term=.cb9173c6c951 A simple and very specific statement. Where did that number come from? What evidence supports that statement? Turns out, none. As I write this, the President is going to launch an investigation into voter fraud so maybe some evidence will turn up later. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/26/fact-check-trumps-bogus-voter-fraud-claims-revisited/97080242/

Of course, asking to students to look for evidence is not worth much if they haven’t been taught what evidence is. Teach them the five types of evidence. I talk much more about evidence in Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (https://goo.gl/svtXEw), but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the questions this teacher asked a student during a discussion about football:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

As I said in my first post, there must be a healthy level of skepticism. It is not the case that there is no news, no truth, and it is all lies. Don’t give up. Be a detective. Investigate.

Why are we susceptible to fake news?

Partly because we are lazy. It takes effort to investigate. Partly because we haven’t been taught about argument and reasoning. We make errors in thinking because we don’t know what to look for. Good Thinking also gives teachers ideas for teaching about how to avoid reasoning errors. I’ll share a couple of ideas from that book here.

Teach the availability bias

For years, my father gave money to an organization that claimed to be committed to eliminating pork barrel spending, money Congressmen and women earmark from a large budget bill to send to a local project in their district. For example, in 2006 the federal government authorized $500,000 to Sparta, North Carolina to construct a teapot museum to showcase Gloria and Sonny Kamm’s 6,000 teapot collection. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sparta_Teapot_Museum Frequently, my dad would get an email with another example. Over time, my father came to believe that pork barrel spending was the largest part of the federal budget. I told him that pork barrel spending is between 0.5% and 1% according to most studies, and eliminating all of it wouldn’t dent the federal deficit. He didn’t believe me. What he saw was what he believed. My father was misled. Easily available information crowded out significant other information. This doesn’t apply only to repeated messages. The first message we see colors our subsequent thinking. We have all said, “I think heard somewhere that…” We didn’t research it, we don’t remember exactly where we heard of saw it, but it stuck. Teach students to be wary of believing something just because it was easily available.

Teach the confirmation bias

You have opinions. Unfortunately, those opinions alter the way you view reality. Humans are apparently wired to notice things that confirm what they believe. Ever have parents who think you are treating their child unfairly? You do several hundred things well but mismark one paper: “See? You hate my kid!” None of the good stuff got noticed. We want to be right, and we notice the things that “prove” what we already think. Fake news creators know this. You are more susceptible to falsehoods if they fit your pre-existing narrative. You hate Hillary? I will write a fake story alleging she did something horrible, and you will be inclined to believe it. You hate Trump? I will write a fake story alleging he did something horrible, and you will be inclined to believe it. You don’t need to verify the because you already feel it is true. The flip side is that you will call something that doesn’t agree with you fake news even if it is true. Teach students to be very careful about making decisions about news stories based on what they want to believe.

Critical thinking is a good thing to teach students (and adults). I worry that many of us are letting down our guard, and fake news creators are counting on exactly that. I hope these two posts are useful start for media analysis. Give students tools they need to be intelligent consumers of news. Keep them from being duped.