During the creepy clown scare of October 2016, when rumours and social media posts about threatening clowns shook schools across the US, students in Danina Garcia-Fuller’s eighth-grade language-arts class mostly shrugged in disbelief.
“Some people were getting scared because they saw things on social media,” said Patricia Visoso, 13, one of Garcia-Fuller’s students at a school in Maryland. “But they never looked into seeing who was saying this.”
The Instagram and Facebook posts were made not by mainstream news outlets, but by teenagers who offered no hard evidence that clowns really were plotting to attack students. The story turned out to be a hoax.
“I think a lot of people just look at one thing and automatically assume it’s true,” Patricia’s classmate Ivy Brooks, also 13, said. “It’s really important to know what’s going on, so you need to look at the right sources and pay attention to what is opinion and what is fact” – or, in the case of the crazy clowns, to what is simply rumour.
Garcia-Fuller’s students are some of the many across the country working to think critically about information they’re seeing in the news and on the internet. It’s an increasingly important skill at a time when stories can spread lightning-fast and when seemingly anyone can make a website to frame opinions, or outright lies, as facts.
According to a new report by Common Sense, a non-profit organisation that studies the way kids interact with the media, only 44 per cent of young people said they feel that they can tell real news stories from “fake news” that is intentionally wrong or inaccurate. About one-third said they had shared a news story online that they later found out was inaccurate.
There are a few ways students can avoid falling for fake news stories and be better consumers of “real” news, says Peter Adams, a senior vice president of the non-profit News Literacy Project.
“One of the first steps is to slow down,” Adams said. If a story or social-media post or even a photo seems “too perfect, too good to be true,” stop and think: is there evidence that supports what’s being claimed? And where is this coming from? Is it from a news organisation that has standards, such as correcting things when it gets them wrong? Does the author or organisation have any bias or prejudice?
Distinguishing between fact and opinion, as well as between fact and fiction, is a crucial skill that allows democracy to work, Adams said. “If we can’t agree on what exists, on what’s a demonstrable truth and what is someone’s take on that, then it becomes very hard to have a national conversation.”
Six of Garcia-Fuller’s students said they got most of their news from watching television programmes on local channels, or on national networks. When they read stories on their phones or in print, they said, they often search for specific facts to check for accuracy and potential bias.
They’re practicing skills that they learned in part through Checkology, a News Literacy Project tool that features reporters discussing journalistic principles such as fairness and using balanced sources. The interactive Web programme lets kids play the role of a newspaper editor, where they have to decide which stories to emphasise.
It also covers the difference between fact and opinion, in the news as well as in political propaganda, where officials try to win readers or viewers to their side.
“Opinions are good to read,” said McKenzie Campbell, 13, “but you also have to go back to your facts and make sure they don’t contradict.”
Sometimes it can be tricky to distinguish fact from fiction, Garcia-Fuller acknowledges. She tests her younger students with a website that appears to provide information on an animal called the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.
The site is full of information on this tree-climbing creature, along with a few grainy photos. But like the creepy clowns, it’s entirely made up.
The lesson, Garcia-Fuller tells her students, is to “double-check the information you’re seeing” and “question everything – including things that I say”.