Combating fake news with critical literacy tools for the 21st century
by Ron Darvin
Fake news has become a catch-all term for everything from hoaxes to conspiracy theories and junk science. Sadly, it has also become a term to refer to news that people just don’t want to hear or don’t agree with. In this “post-truth” world, it becomes easier for us to rely on what feels right, rather than to figure out what is right, and emotions rather than facts can shape public opinion.
Simply defined however fake news is fabricated, deceptive or distorted information meant to mislead the public. It has consequences and important implications for whom we elect, the laws we pass, and the kinds of choices we make in our lives. Without the right critical tools, our students can become not only victims of fake news, but also promoters of it by indiscriminately sharing things online.
Fake news isn’t new. Since the invention of the printing press and the camera, fake news about everything from sea monsters to dancing fairies has been designed to fool people. With technology however, it’s become a lot easier for people to create subtly deceptive stories, imitate news formats, and distribute them to a general public. Motivations for fake news can be political or personal. Others do it to get their five minutes of fame; while for some, fake news is a business. Digital ads generate profits, and websites with sensational fake news are paid for every click that they get.
How can we help students detect fake news when they read stuff online? It’s important to arm them with critical literacy strategies that let them pay attention to verbal and visual clues. This includes examining URLs or domain names, Twitter handles, logos, writing styles, and webpage design. Critical readers in the 21st century need to read not just horizontally by scrolling down, but laterally, that is, by opening tabs and googling sources.
Parents need to recognize that kids of this generation have two worlds: offline and online. If before, they’d ask their child “How was school today?” now they also have to learn more about their child's online lives. What have they seen on Snapchat or Instagram? Anything interesting they’ve read on Buzzfeed? To role model critical literacy, parents need to understand, themselves, how information is disseminated on the internet, and to socialize their children into recognizing legitimate sources of information.