How to Teach Children to Think Critically and Recognize Fake News

Living as we do in a world of dark allegations, snarky social media posts and flat-out fake news, teaching kids to think critically is now a cultural imperative.

fake news

Photo by Fredrik Broden

Photo by Fredrik Broden

The internet has given us access to more information than humans have had at any other point in history. Unfortunately, that same wondrous mechanism has also unleashed trolls and manipulators peddling anger, hate and outright lies. “The canary in the mine has already suffocated,” says Stanford professor Sam Wineburg, PhD, lead author of an influential study on how students parse information online.

“In our study, 82% of middle school students had difficulty differentiating between news and advertising.” Think that’s bleak? American adults believe fake news headlines about 75% of the time.

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First, Some Backstory

In the 1700s, the rise of consistently published newspapers in the U.S. brought about the concept of getting news from beyond the microcosm of one’s personal existence. In the early to mid 1900s, radio broadcasts and television newscasts significantly furthered that notion. News was delivered much more quickly, and consequential world events from elections to assassinations to extreme weather developments could be conveyed in almost real time. 

Over the next 70 years, print, radio and television evolved while fundamentally not changing much. However, over the past 10 years, we’ve come to consume a significant portion of our media in digital form, typically via the smartphone that’s almost always in hand. Digital and social media are inherently different forms of communication from their predecessors, and we’ve had only a decade to adjust—and even less time to adapt to the rise of social media and its influence over our news consumption. The intersection of these two massive forces is producing powerful effects that, at least so far, are making it difficult to fully trust the information we’re exposed to day in and day out. It’s clear that we need to revisit our thinking on the more treacherous tendencies of digital media as well our strategies for dealing with them. We can’t rely on Facebook, Google, Twitter, Gleebox, Instagram or Snapchat to save us or our children. 

If you’re wondering what Gleebox is, it’s an incredibly pernicious and addictive social media network that doesn’t exist. Why should you care? Because you can rely on the fact that someone somewhere will invent a Gleebox-like horror in the very near future. One day you will not have heard of it and the name will sound weird and its functions will sound upsetting. Not too long after, you won’t remember how you lived without it and your kids will tell you you’re bad at it. This is just how the world works now. We need to start building some general principles around news and social media quickly, because these entities are definitely building some general principles around us. 

A Swiftly Tilting Planet 

In the “legacy media” world of print, radio and TV, there have always been skewed news outlets, but even mildly attentive consumers could keep track of who tilted in what direction: Network news played things relatively straightforward, National Review leaned conservative, The New Republic was proudly liberal and Weekly World News was a reliable source for hard-hitting stories about Elvis appearing on alien spaceships. 

Today the evening network news programs are watched by over 8 million viewers nightly, while BuzzFeed’s top videos average 17 million views. If you need a refresher, BuzzFeed publishes articles that range from scoop interviews with the president of the United States to “15 Hedgehogs with Things That Look Like Hedgehogs” (yes, this is a real article). In today’s hyper-fragmented, hyper-competitive news universe, the rules have not just changed, they have been turned inside out and then set on fire. Speed is emphasized over accuracy. Re-reporting (rephrasing existing journalism without adding facts or analysis) has become the norm, and sensationalism reigns.

Worse still, most of us (myself included) send our kids out to play in this unregulated informational Wild West without a second thought as to what it might be doing to their minds, personalities or sense of reality. Fighting back against the subtle shadings of the influence peddlers is no easy task, but we are finally starting to understand what we’re up against. Thinking optimistically, this is solvable. It’s just going to take a little work. 

Fake News: How It Works

fake news

Photo by Fredrik Broden

Photo by Fredrik Broden

In order to teach your kids to avoid it, you need to understand how fake news operates. Multiple experts explain that its success is based on interrelated and overlapping principles, none of which would be as effective without the others. These are the key concepts you need to be familiar with.

We ingest information from many more sources but read at around the same rate. Outcome: We skip more. “We live in a grazing culture,” says Peter Adams, senior VP of education at the News Literacy Project. “If a fake news site with an institutional-sounding name and official-looking logo fabricates a story that ignites people’s beliefs and biases in some way, those people will often click to share the story without having read it. That’s the main way fake news exploits people.” (There’s a good chance you’re skimming this article right now.)

The first goal of any social network is to keep you on that social network so money can be made off you. And the best way to accomplish that is to keep you both mildly entertained and mildly disoriented. Thus far the winning strategy seems to be a constant drip of shallow, decontextualized content. Your hunger for information is never sated, and so like any addict, you keep searching for a fix. 

If you saw every post from your friends on social media, it would be overwhelming. Enter algorithms, which are fine-tuned to feed you content that will get enough of a rise, good or bad, out of you to keep you on the platform. Your presence makes you vulnerable to the echo chamber and bots (right).

Science has shown that simple repetition gradually wears down your mental defenses toward false information, even for conscious disbelievers. “Familiarity breeds believability,” says Kris Shaffer, PhD, instructional technology specialist at University of Mary Washington. Put another way: Hearing something multiple times is powerful.

The Echo Chamber
On today’s internet, it’s easy to find someone to validate any point of view. (For proof, try Googling “flat earth.”) In a world full of oppositional viewpoints, social media is a choice environment to find more of what you already think. 

Bots like and share content in order to create the illusion of popular support for stories that are demonstrably untrue. They can be deployed by anyone with enough cash to hire programmers.

Fluency vs Literacy
Fluency is knowing how to use any given mode of communication. Literacy is fully understanding the information that it delivers. We confuse the fact that our kids are fluent in the use of digital devices with them being capable of analyzing the info those devices provide, says Wineburg. 

Social media favors the shiniest and most outrageous content. “You’re not navigating toward information,” says media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, PhD. “You’re in a funhouse where the most exciting or sensational link wins.”

Cognitive Biases
The latest science says our brains are biased toward simplicity (a nice way of saying they’re lazy). In practice this means that once we get an answer we like, we often stop looking for other explanations.

Free speech absolutists have long held that the answer to hateful or incorrect speech should not be censorship but more (presumably correct) speech. Unfortunately, the internet may have done significant damage to the “more speech” remedy. The overwhelming number of inputs today means there is no longer any dominant consensus narrative. 

Social networks are fun and free. But any adult knows that anything that’s fun is never really free. Still, like Pinocchio on Pleasure Island, we click away, forgetting about how the piper is paid. And make no mistake, that piper is definitely getting paid. Facebook is worth more than half a trillion dollars. They earn that money in two ways: by harvesting your data and by selling your attention. “In a real news platform, the news is the product,” says Rushkoff. “On social media platforms, you are the product.” 

In the print era, visual differentiators conveyed information about the source at a glance. These days, viewing content within a social media platform interface means every story appears with the same layout, colors and fonts, whether it’s from The New York Times or Breitbart. This dulls news reports to the point that bombings in Yemen carry the same weight as a video of the surprising friendship between a cat and a mouse. 

All Of The Above
Taken together, the aforementioned means of coercion are a formidable arsenal in the war for our attention and our opinions. So if you (and your kids) want to have any hope of maintaining a firm grip on what is or is not true in the coming years, you’re going to need to take matters into your own hands. 

Fighting Fake News

fake news

Photo by Fredrik Broden

Photo by Fredrik Broden

Demographically speaking, today’s parents are the most qualified group to take on this challenge. Most of our own parents only started using the internet once smartphones and tablets made it impossible not to. Asking our folks to differentiate between fake and real news may be a lost cause (so get used to those group email forwards). At the other end of the spectrum, our children are so immersed in technology they take it for granted, making it difficult for them to see it objectively. “They’re fish and this is water,” says Michael Caulfield, director of Blended and Networked Learning at Washington State University. “To them it’s invisible.”

Today’s parents, however, lived through digital media and technology’s “awkward years,” when going online meant using a modem and tying up the family phone line. More important, we grew up in an era when highly vetted media (newspapers, magazines, the evening news) were most families’ primary sources of information both locally and beyond. Today’s parents can see technology for what it is: an extremely powerful tool with both positive and negative qualities. Still, certain implications have gone largely unnoticed until now, even by those of us who’ve been paying attention.

“We’ve been in trouble for some time—we just didn’t know it,” says Cathy N. Davidson, director of the Futures Initiative at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “It all happened without anyone having a conversation about it.” Adams echoes Davidson’s concerns, citing a “dire media situation that we cannot count on getting better anytime soon.” However, according to Adams, we have access to more tools than ever before to combat it. 

Unfortunately, school-based digital literacy offerings aren’t very helpful. Typical curricula, developed in the analog 1990s and 2000s, don’t track with today’s internet, which evolves by the day. “The majority of what is taught is the microwaved, reheated web literacy of the 1990s,” says Caulfield. “They’re still promoting the ‘close reading’ approach, which says, ‘We’re going to look at this page very closely to figure out if it is trustworthy or not. It simply doesn’t work anymore.” 

The most important thing you can do is not underestimate the impact your own habits can have on your children’s. “Kids’ digital media use is largely influenced by their parents’ behavior and access,” says Monica Bulger, PhD, a researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute. With that in mind, take the following strategies to heart. They’re the most effective means to instill critical thinking skills in your tweens and teens.

Be of Strong Mind
Aim to instill high-integrity mental habits that kick in with any online news interaction. If you can’t personally, confidently attest that a source is reliable, assume it’s suspect, then use other sites to verify the legitimacy of both the outlet and the information it’s pushing. 

Know the Content Types
It might seem basic, but make sure your kids have a working understanding of the lines between news reporting, news analysis, opinion and advertising, regardless of whether these things are labeled as such. 

Use Common Sense
When we happen upon a story that makes us incredibly happy or incredibly upset, our brains are more likely to perceive it as true, simply because we’d like it to be. Logicians call this phenomenon confirmation bias. So if you read something that tickles you a bit too much, train yourself to be extra wary before sharing. This is counterintuitive, so it may take some time to build up this reflex. Remember, if something is a really big deal, it should be easy to verify. A wide variety of reputable sources will be discussing it. 

Cui Bono?
This Latin phrase, which means “Who benefits?,” has never been more relevant. Take 15 minutes with your kids to find as many examples of fake news as possible. Then analyze them, saying to yourselves, “We know this is fake, but who would benefit if we believed it?” Turn this analysis into a game, suggests Davidson.

Stay Positive
“More people than ever are concerned about news literacy,” says Katie Kutsko, news literacy coordinator at the American Press Institute. There is revived interest in good journalism. We aren’t living in a post-fact world. Most of the news-gathering institutions that were doing a wonderful job 20 years ago are still doing a wonderful job today. There are also a slew of new high-integrity news organizations. Don’t let the flood of fake news erode your faith.

Teaching Is the Best Way to Learn
One of the most effective strategies for engaging your kids on this topic is to not try to teach them anything. Bring them your concerns, underlining that you don’t have everything figured out, then let them teach you for a powerful lesson on both sides.

Spread the Word
Given the scope of the internet, human nature and the vested interests at stake, it is likely that fake news will remain with us and get worse. It would appear that the only cure for the internet is more internet. “Everyone should be an anti-fake-news ambassador,” says Kutsko. “No matter what the platform, when you see fake news, the best way to stop its proliferation is to politely tell the person, with as little heat as possible, that what they shared is factually incorrect.”

In the end, it’s a must to arm yourself and your kids with a steely mindset for the information wars to come. Developing solid habits in yourself and your children can make a real difference against the menace of disinformation. We probably aren’t going to be the generation that solves this problem, but hopefully we can raise the one that will. 

Twisted Logic

The English language provides a thousand ways to shade any argument. Verifying facts is one thing. Opinions are an entirely different beast. Kids need to be aware of the primary logical fallacies they may encounter when reading opinion pieces—familiarity with “bad arguments” is the best way to help them come up with good ones. Try asking them to make up their own bad arguments. It can be entertaining!

Ad hominem
Attacking a person, not the person’s argument. “Joe says gravity exists, but Joe is a petty thief. Therefore, gravity does not exist.”

Hasty Generalization
Drawing conclusions based on limited evidence. “I saw a dead bird on the sidewalk today, therefore all birds must be dead.”

Slippery Slope
The idea that taking a single step in a certain direction will lead to more steps in that direction that cannot be prevented. “If we ban sales of tobacco to minors, it will lead to banning sales of tobacco to adults.”

Red Herring
Using an argument to distract from the central issue. “Electric car sales are up 500% over the past two years. Cars must no longer be a source of pollution.”

False Dichotomy
Framing an argument as having only two sides when there may be many more options available. “Why don’t you want to legalize marijuana? Is it because you hate freedom?”