How to teach students to sniff out fake news

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Profs use Four Moves model in classroom experiment

Screen shot of Ginni Thomas' Facebook page, showing the post of the bloody Mexican officer meme.

Last week I shared with my class the story behind the bleeding Mexican cop meme that went viral in immigrant caravan conspiracy circles.  When I got to the punchline — that the photo of the bleeding officer was actually made six years ago in a Mexico City protest march — my students’ jaws dropped.

The students are more critical of information sources than most — we teach these young journalists the old adage, “If your mom says she loves you, you better check it out.” But this blatant fake news shared by prominent people floored them. I was surprised that they were surprised.

But I shouldn’t have been. They are like any of us: barely keeping up with our splintered news gathering and distribution system. We are showered with links that meld news, opinion, fact and fiction in our social media timelines.  Stanford found that even professional historians had a hard time correctly identifying fake news provided by an organization that many consider a hate group.

“Four Moves” to spot fake news

Graphic shows the four moves and a habit for quickly determining whether an online article is fake news: 1. Check for previous work. 2. Go upstream to the source. 3. Read laterally. 4. Circle back. The habit: check your emotions.Over two recent class periods, my Media and Influencer Relations class participated in a teaching experiment to improve online and civic information literacy.

We followed a simple set of steps outlined in the Four Moves blog, the work of Mike Caulfield at Washington State University.

We started with a warmup exercise: Would they use this information as a source for an article on bullying? Two-thirds said they would NOT use this source. Of those, most said they started with a “gut feel” that the article was fake news. They noted the lack of psychology sources and the “low professionalism” of the writing.

Of these doubters, most tried to verify their hunch. Primarily, they went to the “about” page and did general Google searches on the subject terms. Some of them researched the organization itself.

In the end, maybe two of the 15 students ran this to ground, discovering that the source masquerades as a legitimate medical association, but is really a front for people opposed to adoptions by gay couples. They took up to five minutes, in a classroom where they were expected to spot fake news.

Who among us gives that much diligence to investigating links friends share with us?

Developing new habit

The cool thing about the Four Moves method is that there are quick verification steps you can take before you even spend time reading an article. It can become a habit like washing your hands before eating: Google search a headline or source name, filter it down to News results, or do a reverse image search.

My students were clearly engaged. They said they and their acquaintances have trouble quickly discerning whether information is fake news. As they plan for careers in journalism and public relations, they worried about the difficulty they will have breaking through the noise and building credibility in their communication. They also noted the impact that false information has had in politics.

They said the Four Moves classes taught them techniques they hadn’t known before: The reverse image search and the “add Wikipedia to the source URL” technique were brand new to them. Many had not known about the Google News filter. They appreciated the short cuts, such as searching headlines and source names to narrow results.

In the end, they believed that the two class periods was time well spent. And they agreed that this kind of teaching would be valuable for students in other fields.

The class was conducted under the auspices of the Digital Polarization Initiative, sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and University’s American Democracy Project.

Steve Krizman is a communication and PR change agent who has led innovation in health care, journalism, and higher education. He currently is a tenure-track professor of PR and journalism at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Steve is sole proprietor of Connected Communication, LLC, a consultancy that helps organizations develop integrated PR, communication, and marketing programs. His particular expertise is in the health industry, including insurance, health delivery systems, and digital health.

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