UK lays out plans to teach fake news in schools

Going viral: Fake news on social media is fuelling the dangerous anti-vaccination movement.

Can you be taught to spot fake news? Yesterday, the UK set out its plans to tackle disinformation online. It means that schools across the country will be required to teach news literacy.

Measles is an infectious disease and, in the most serious cases, can be life-threatening. Luckily, a simple solution has all but eradicated it from wealthy countries: vaccinations.

That is, until recently. The world saw a 300% rise in measles cases in the first three months of this year. New York City, one of the richest cities in the world, was forced to declare a public health emergency after a measles outbreak in Brooklyn.

Many have blamed the anti-vaccination movement and its false claim that vaccines are more harmful to children than the diseases they prevent.

Yesterday, at a Social Media and Online Harms summit in Britain, the Government said it would be working with technology companies to prevent the spread of false information on vaccinations — and fake news more broadly.

“Since ancient times, propagandists have sought to manipulate the truth,” explained Education Secretary Damien Hinds. “But in the internet age, these techniques are available not just to states but to campaign groups and individuals.”

The plan includes teaching schoolchildren in Britain to spot fake news from 2020. “They’ll learn about how so-called confirmation bias helps stories spread, and discuss why someone might want to bend the truth in the first place,” Hinds said.

The problem of “fake news” first came to prominence in late 2016, after Donald Trump won the US election.

Journalists feared that widely shared fake news stories — such as the Pope supporting Trump — had influenced the result of the election.

So far, there is little evidence of that. But a recent study found that more Americans believed that “made-up news” was a bigger problem than the climate crisis or terrorism.

Schools all over the world have introduced new lessons aimed at solving the problem. In Finland, which has the highest media literacy rate in the world, “the whole society has been targeted”, the Finnish government’s chief communications officer told CNN. “It’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy.” However, “the first line of defence is the kindergarten teacher”.

Faking it?

Can you learn how to recognise fake news? Many news literacy programs offer a checklist of signs to look out for. Does the story link to outside sources? Does it include quotes from experts? Who is the intended audience? Can you see any spelling errors in the article, or overly emotional language?

But many experts say this is not enough. To truly fight fake news, everyone needs to develop strong critical thinking skills. That means questioning everything; reading widely around an issue, and acknowledging that your own biases and prejudices can lead you astray. That cannot just be taught in a classroom — it is an entire way of life.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever been caught out by a false new story?
  2. Why do people create fake news?

Activities

  1. As a class, take it in turns to suggest things to look out for when fact checking a news story you have read. What are the signs that it is fake?
  2. One of the best ways to understand the news is to learn how it is made. In groups, find and report on a story in your local area. What happened? Where? When? Who was involved? What do they have to say about it? If you are writing about individuals or businesses, be sure to ask for their side of the story.

Some People Say...

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Yesterday’s announcement is part of the Government’s wider plan to tackle what it calls “online harms”. These also include issues like cyberbullying and content which promotes self-harm. The Government is also making health and relationships education compulsory in schools from 2020. The lessons will teach students about staying safe online, mental health issues and (in secondary schools) sex education.
What do we not know?
Whether fake news can ever truly be defeated. After all, people have spread rumours and made up false stories to influence politics for centuries. The only thing that has changed is how easily those stories can spread, thanks to the internet. We also do not know whether social media companies will ever be able to control that spread.

Word Watch

Eradicated
Removed, wiped out.
Vaccinations
These work by simulating the effects of a disease or infection so that the body’s immune system learns to fight it. Then, if you come into contact with the disease later in life, you will already be protected. There is no evidence that they are unsafe.
300% rise
Compared to the same period in 2018. Based on data from the World Health Organisation.
Confirmation bias
The idea that you are more likely to believe stories which confirm your existing opinions. For example, if you dislike Donald Trump, you are more likely to believe a fake news story casting him in a bad light.
Little evidence
For example, a January 2017 study found that most people did not remember the fake news stories they had read. It concluded that to swing the election, a false story would need to be over 30 times more persuasive than a TV campaign advert.
Study
Conducted by the Pew Research Center, earlier this year. While 50% of Americans said made-up stories were a big problem, only 46% said the same about the climate crisis. For terrorism, it was 34%.
Highest
According to the Media Literacy Index.
Kindergarten
Nursery, or the first year of school.