True or false? Only 2% get the answers right
Educate readers or clamp down on sources? A new report found that half of students worry about fake news. MPs say this is harming their “wellbeing, trust in journalism and democracy itself”.
Can you tell which stories in the image above are fake?
This was the quiz given to 2,000 students in the UK by the National Literacy Trust. In the end, only 2% got all of the answers right. (Go to the Word Watch to find out how you did!)
The report was released yesterday by a commission of MPs who have spent the last year investigating fake news. It found that half of children are worried about not being able to spot fake news, and almost two thirds of teachers thought fake news was harming children by increasing anxiety and damaging their self-esteem.
It is easy to see how. A teenager named Mitch told the BBC how he had shared a story about a missing plane that had been found. He felt shocked and embarrassed when he realised it was false and that “the families hadn’t found their loved ones” after all.
Lucy Powell, the MP who chaired the commission, said that a “dangerous lack” of literacy skills was causing children to fall for fake stories. And it is not just about feeling embarrassed — it also risked exposing young people “to malign agendas”.
The debate around fake news has been raging for almost two years. It started around the time of the US election in 2016, and quickly became an insult lobbed at politicians and journalists alike. Only yesterday, US President Donald Trump called fake news “our country’s biggest enemy”.
Now only 42% of Americans trust the media, according to the 2018 Edelman report. The figures are higher in Britain — the National Literacy Trust found that 80% of students who watch TV news trust it. However, only a quarter trust what they get from social media.
All of this matters. The 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke called the press the “fourth estate”, an institution “more important” than the king, clergy and commoners in Britain. (These are what he called the UK’s first three “estates”. Now they are often seen as the government, parliament and legal system). It is the media’s role to inform the public and hold powerful people to account.
So what is the best way to tackle fake news?
Truth will out
We must get better educated, say some. Schools should equip young people with everything they need to spot a made-up story. When everyone has a healthy scepticism and a good nose for finding facts, it won’t matter what lies people write; readers will know what to take seriously and what to ignore.
This is a pipe dream, argue others. Human brains are hardwired to believe the most dramatic, scary news — that is why fake stories spread so quickly. It is time to get tough on the writers producing misleading stories, as well as the social media platforms that help them spread. Only then can we start to trust what we read.
- Have you ever fallen for a fake news story?
- What is the best way to combat fake news?
- Create a poster which gives 10 tips for spotting fake news stories. (If you need some help, look under Become An Expert.)
- One of the best ways to understand the media is to learn how stories are written in the first place. In groups, investigate a news story from your local area. Double check the sources used in the story, try contacting people for quotes, and research how it is affecting local people. When you are done, write a report and present it to the rest of your class.
Some People Say...
“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”US President Thomas Jefferson
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Yesterday the National Literacy Trust released a “Children’s Charter on Fake News”, written with input from young people. It demands “the right to access accurate news from trustworthy media companies”; “the critical literacy skills we need to navigate the digital world”; and says “we should be encouraged and supported to talk about the news”.
- What do we not know?
- There is surprisingly little evidence about how common fake news is, or even what counts as “fake news”. Among academic researchers, it means demonstrably false reports which are presented and designed to deceive. However, it is not always clear if this should include satire, or articles with unintentional mistakes. The term is also often used as an insult to discredit true stories that someone does not like.
- To be precise: 1,832 secondary school students took the quiz and 0.6% got all six answers right; 388 primary school students took a slightly different quiz and 3.1% got all six answers right. The combined figures make 1.9%.
- The stories from Pink News and i Newspaper were both false. The other four stories were true.
- Malign agendas
- For example, some have accused Russia (and others) of using fake news to disrupt democracy elsewhere in the world.
- Biggest enemy
- Yesterday Trump specifically called out US television news stations CNN and NBC. It is important to note that while both have made mistakes, they employ reputable journalists and are not deliberately making up false stories.
- The report was released in January. Trust in media had fallen from 47% last year and 51% five years ago.
- This is because our brains have evolved to be more alert to potential threats. We are also more likely to reject information that does not fit our worldview, which is another reason why fake news can be so appealing.