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The Classroom Where Fake News Fails

Hanna Barczyk for NPR

By now, you've probably heard about one very real consequence of fake news — the infamous "pizzagate" conspiracy theory that ended with Edgar Welch, 28, firing a real gun inside a real Washington, D.C., pizzeria filled with real people.

When The New York Times later asked Welch what he thought when he realized there were no child slaves inside the restaurant, as one fake news story had led him to believe, he responded: "The intel on this wasn't 100 percent."

Welch isn't the only one struggling to tell fact from fiction in this digital age. A recent Stanford study found that America's middle, high school and college students are shockingly bad at it, too. It's clear that something has to change in the nation's classrooms. That something, according to Professor Sam Wineburg, one of those Stanford researchers, is "practice."

"How do they become prepared to make the choices about what to believe, what to forward, what to post to their friends," Wineburg asked on NPR's All Things Considered, "when they've been given no practice in school?"

And he's right. Many schools — perhaps most — aren't doing nearly enough to help students learn how to sort fact from social-media fiction. But some are.

"Like a flu in the winter"

"The question that many of you asked on your annotation of pizzagate was 'Why would anyone start a rumor?' " Patricia Hunt says to her students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. "The question I want you to be thinking about today when we do this next lesson is 'Why would anyone believe it?' "

Hunt teaches U.S. and Virginia government. She's a 24-year veteran of the classroom, but today she's doing something she has never done before: helping to pilot a new, digital curriculum called the c heckology virtual classroom. It comes from the nonprofit The News Literacy Project. The morning's lesson kicks off with a video of Matea Gold, a political reporter with The Washington Post.

"Viral content includes stories, vignettes, ads, rumors and memes that catch on like a flu in the winter, quickly passing from one person to the next, often with little regard as to whether the content is true or not," Gold says from the Post's newsroom.

Hunt's students, most of them seniors, sit in clusters of threes and fours. Each has a laptop. After the video, they're presented with a series of viral stories. Some are propaganda. Some are ads. And some are pure fact.

"We don't know which is which at this point," laughs Kahder Smith, feeling a little overwhelmed. "We actually have to sit down, take our time, and actually read it. And probably Google some stuff to see if it's real or not."

The students' first test comes from Facebook. A post claims that more than a dozen people died after receiving the flu vaccine in Italy and that the CDC is now telling people not to get a flu shot. Autumn Cooper is torn.

"I mean, I've heard many rumors that the flu shot's bad for you," Cooper says. But instinct tells her the story's wrong. "It just doesn't look like a reliable source. It looks like this is off Facebook and someone shared it."

Cooper labels the story "fiction." And she's right.

Her classmate Suvra Das takes a different path to the same answer. When he's not sure of a story, he says, he now checks the comments section to see if a previous reader has already done the research.

"Because they usually figure it out," Das says. And, indeed, he wasn't the first to question the vaccine story's veracity. "Like one comment was, 'I just fact-checked this, and it doesn't appear to be true. Where else do you see this to be true?' "

The students come up with a few other red flags they can look for whenever they're unsure: no author byline, no quoted sources, no coverage elsewhere.

"Damn, why did I just read that?"

The News Literacy Project was founded nearly nine years ago by a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times, Alan C. Miller. The group and its mission have been endorsed by 33 "partner" news organizations, including The Associated Press, The New York Times and NPR. That mission has always been to give students the tools to be smarter consumers — not just of news, but of all information. In May, the group unveiled its checkology virtual classroom. There's a free, basic version and a premium version that's more interactive for students.

"The No. 1 question that I love asking [students] is, 'Where do you get your news?' " says Elis Estrada, the group's Washington, D.C., program manager. "And the majority of them say, 'What is news?' They don't even know what it is. The fact that we have to start there is really telling."

Kahder Smith says he's happy to get the guided practice.

"I fall to fake news all the time. Even just random Twitter posts, and I'm like, 'Damn, why did I just read that?' "

Instead of teaching students the fundamentals of fact-checking, many schools simply ignore the problem, blocking social media sites on school computers.

"One of my friends says that's like teaching [students] to drive in the parking lot and then sending them out on the interstate and saying 'Good luck!' " says Audrey Church, president of the American Association of School Librarians. "This is something children don't know unless we teach them. They're not looking for bias. They take what they see on their device at face value, and so teaching them to be critical, thoughtful consumers of information is a challenge that's increasing."

Indeed, many of Hunt's students admit they don't consume news from traditional sources: not from TV networks or newspapers or even the websites of the major papers. One asked if NPR traffics in fake news.

Instead, these teens say they get their news largely from the social media on their smartphones. An infinite stream of stories. Some true. Some false. Much of it written by strangers hoping their readers can't tell the difference.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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