Program to teach students, teachers to detect fake news online

January 2, 2019

Deciphering what news is real and what is fake can be tough for anyone these days, but especially difficult for young people who get much of their news from social media and online sources.

The nonprofit MediaWise will teach a workshop Jan. 7-10 on fact-checking online for students and teachers at Memorial and Spring Woods High Schools and Spring Forest Middle School.

Holly Hartman teaches journalism, yearbook and newspaper at Memorial and attended a conference in October where MediaWise educated student journalists about the subject and knew she wanted to bring that program to her school.

“I just think it’s vital to the next generation that we teach them how to look at a story objectively, think about what is the motivation behind this story,” she said. “Who is posting this story? Why would they be posting this? Is it true? Is it not true? How can I find out if it’s not true?”

The Poynter Institute, the Stanford History Education Group, the Local Media Association and the National Association for Media Literacy Education partnered together and launched MediaWise in March 2018. The project is a part of a Google news initiative and is being funded with $3 million from Google.org.

MediaWise is aiming to reach 1 million students across the nation by 2020, according to Byron.

Katy Byron, editor at The Poynter Institute and MediaWise project manager, said she is looking forward to teaching in the Houston-area schools because they will be showing a student body at large, not just those interested in journalism, how to fact-check.

“It’s the first time that we’re going into a classroom or into an assembly hall in this case where the students are, which for me, is my dream way, my dream scenario of how to reach a lot of kids because we’re going to be teaching 600 students in just the sophomore class alone at Memorial High School,” Byron said.

In total, she said the program is expected to teach more than 1,750 students and teachers live at the events and more than 5,000 if you include those watching through video.

MediaWise plans to do the workshops in other schools around the country as well, but most of the 1 million students will be reached through an online curriculum that Byron said will release in the fall.

MediaWise has also been teaming up with social media influencers to create original content and with people like popular author John Green, who wrote “The Fault in our Stars” and has a YouTube channel called CrashCourse. On Jan. 8, a 10-part teaching video series focusing on teens will launch. Its content will be geared toward teachers and students, but Byron said it will be free and available through the SHEG website.

Byron said a method called lateral reading is the best way to tell what is fake online.

“If you’re on a bogus website or this bogus story, if you read laterally, you just copy and paste the story headline into another tab,” she said. “You’re going to discover that there’s no other information either to back it up or that the fact-check organizations like PolitiFact, Snopes, FactCheck.org or just additional reliable news sources [are] debunking the information or calling it out.”

Byron said photos can also be misused and misleading, adding that sometimes photos that are used are years or even a decade old. She cited misinformation caused by images circulating about the recent migrant caravan issue. A reverse Google image search, which just involves right-clicking on an image and selecting “Search Google for image,” or using the Chrome app on a phone will tell where the photo first originated.

MediaWise plans to have at least half of the 1 million students come from low-income or underserved communities, Byron said.

“We don’t want anyone to be left out. This is a problem for everybody, truly. It’s not specific to any group of people,” she said.

During the past two to three years, Hartman has begun cutting some things out of her curriculum at Memorial to carve out more time for teaching about fact-checking because of the political environment and how President Donald Trump has brought out the issue.

“[Trump’s] using it over and over and it becoming such an issue coupled with the internet and the fact that anyone can be a journalist now and anyone can post anything on the internet now, I just have noticed in the past few years that it’s becoming much more a topic that needs to be taught to students because they of course hear the term fake news and they understand it at its basic level, but I don’t think they understand how sophisticated it can be and how subtle it is sometimes,” she said.

Hartman encouraged parents and teachers to engage with their students about they are seeing online.

She also mentioned what she called an echo chamber, where social media outlets are designed to run news or posts into their feeds that agree with what they or their friends like. So she said users should make an effort to have friends and like pages with diverse viewpoints in order to “see the other side.”

Byron said teaching American students how to act like real fact-checkers is important and that the program at the Spring Branch schools is a good place to start.

“Most people just don’t know how to figure it out, and that’s really the whole goal of the project, is to give people the tools, teach them how to do it and just using the skills that fact checkers use,” she said.

For more information, follow MediaWise at www.instagram.com/mediawise.


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