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Illustration by Patrick Faricy

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.8, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society

SPOTLIGHT

Fake News Invasion!

Made-up stories are taking over your news feed. How can you tell what's fact—and protect yourself from fiction?

As You Read, Think About: How can we stop the spread of fake news?

You’re scrolling through your Twitter feed when all of a sudden, a shocking headline fills your screen: “England BANS VIDEO GAMES!!” Outraged, you text your friends, who in turn text their friends. Could the United States be next, you wonder?

Soon, millions of people across the country are sharing the article on Facebook and Twitter. Within hours, the story has gone viral. The only problem? The article is fake—and you fell for it.

Made-up stories like that one are designed to look real but are completely or partly untrue. Sometimes it’s easy to tell when an article is false—words might be misspelled or randomly capitalized, or the headline might contain multiple exclamation points. But more often than not, fake-news writers are careful to make their stories seem real by including headlines, details, and data that sound believable.

You are scrolling through your Twitter feed. All of a sudden, a shocking headline fills your screen. “England BANS VIDEO GAMES!!” Outraged, you text your friends. They in turn text their friends. Could the United States be next, you wonder?

Soon, millions of people across the country are sharing the article on Facebook and Twitter. Within hours, the story has gone viral. The only problem? The article is fake—and you fell for it.

Made-up stories like that one are designed to look real but are completely or partly untrue. Sometimes it is easy to tell when an article is false. Words might be misspelled or randomly capitalized. The headline might contain multiple exclamation points. But fake-news writers are usually careful to make their stories seem real. They include headlines, details, and data that sound believable.

Such articles may seem harmless, but they can have real consequences. For example, experts say that false stories may have influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election. During the campaign, made-up articles about the two main candidates—including current president Donald Trump—were shared on Facebook nearly 38 million times. Many people now worry that deceptive stories could affect the outcome of next year’s presidential election.

That would be a major problem, says Alan C. Miller. He’s the founder of the News Literacy Project, an organization that helps students learn how to spot misinformation. Part of being a good citizen means knowing what’s happening in the world around us—and being mindful that not everything we see on the internet and social media is true.

“The overwhelming majority of information available online has not been verified,” says Miller. “It has not been approved by an editor or signed off on by a fact-checker. So we all need to have a healthy amount of skepticism about what we see.”

Such articles may seem harmless, but they can have real consequences. Experts say that false stories may have influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election. During the campaign, made-up articles about the two main candidates, including current president Donald Trump, were shared on Facebook nearly 38 million times. Many people now worry that false stories could affect the outcome of next year’s presidential election.

That would be a major problem, says Alan C. Miller. He is the founder of the News Literacy Project. That organization helps students learn how to spot misinformation. Part of being a good citizen means knowing what is happening in the world around us. This includes being mindful that not everything we see on the internet and social media is true.

“The overwhelming majority of information available online has not been verified,” says Miller. “It has not been approved by an editor or signed off on by a fact-checker. So we all need to have a healthy amount of skepticism about what we see.”

Illustration by Patrick Faricy

History of Lies

The act of influencing people with fake stories may seem new, but it’s been around for centuries. During the American Revolution (1775-1783), Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation’s founders, was himself guilty of spreading false stories. He attempted to increase support for the war by writing articles that falsely claimed that the British had teamed up with Native Americans to murder colonial women and children.

In the late 1800s, newspapers competed for readers by printing shocking headlines and overdramatizing stories. Sometimes writers made up quotes altogether and cited experts who didn’t exist. The practice of creating scandalous news came to be known as yellow journalism.

The act of influencing people with fake stories may seem new. But it has been around for centuries. Benjamin Franklin was one of the nation’s founders. During the American Revolution (1775-1783), he was guilty of spreading false stories. He tried to increase support for the war by writing articles that falsely claimed that the British had teamed up with Native Americans to murder colonial women and children.

In the late 1800s, newspapers competed for readers by printing shocking headlines and overdramatizing stories. Sometimes writers made up quotes altogether. They quoted experts who did not exist. The practice of creating scandalous news came to be known as yellow journalism.

False Stories Spread Online

But fake news really took off with the rise of the internet and social media. When your parents and grandparents were kids, most people learned about current events from a few respected newspapers or national news shows on major TV networks. For the most part, that news came straight from professional journalists, who had been trained to conduct thorough research, fact-check their stories, and report the facts.

Today, however, almost anyone can write and post articles online—and potentially reach a large audience. Many fake news sites currently exist, including ones with official-sounding names, such as The Political Insider.

Of course, plenty of trustworthy websites report news, including The New York Times (nytimes.com), The Wall Street Journal (wsj.com), and Junior Scholastic (junior.scholastic.com).

In addition, many politicians have begun using the term fake news to refer to factual stories they simply disagree with or don’t like. That’s making it even harder for Americans to distinguish fact from fiction—and discouraging people from believing stories that are real.

But fake news really took off with the rise of the internet and social media. When your parents and grandparents were kids, most people learned about current events from a few respected newspapers or national news shows on major TV networks. For the most part, that news came straight from professional journalists. They had been trained to do thorough research, fact-check their stories, and report the facts.

Today, however, almost anyone can write and post articles online. It is possible for them to reach a large audience. Many fake-news sites currently exist. These include sites with official-sounding names, such as The Political Insider.

Of course, plenty of trustworthy websites report news. These include The New York Times (nytimes.com), The Wall Street Journal (wsj.com), and Junior Scholastic (junior.scholastic.com).

In addition, many politicians have begun using the term fake news to refer to factual stories they simply disagree with or do not like. That makes it even harder for Americans to tell fact from fiction. It discourages people from believing stories that are real.

Many experts worry that fake news stories could influence next year’s presidential election.

Fake News Means Big Money

Why might someone want to post a fake story in the first place? During presidential campaigns, people may be trying to influence Americans’ beliefs and, in turn, how they vote in the election. In other cases, the answer is simple: to make money.

Many companies pay to place ads online—and websites that get a lot of visitors can charge high fees to run those ads. That’s because the more visitors a site has, the more views the ads get.

Fake news websites often attract a lot of readers—and thus, a lot of money from ads—by posting stories with outrageous headlines that people are likely to click on and share. “I make like $10,000 a month,” fake-news writer Paul Horner told The Washington Post in 2016.

In fact, one recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that, on Twitter, false stories spread six times as fast as factual ones—and reach far more readers. MIT researchers discovered that, on average, a false story can spread to 1,500 Twitter users in just 10 hours. By comparison, a factual story can take 60 hours to reach that many people.

Why might someone want to post a fake story in the first place? During presidential campaigns, people may be trying to influence Americans’ beliefs and how they vote in the election. In other cases, they simply want to make money.

Many companies pay to place ads online. Websites that get a lot of visitors can charge high fees to run those ads. The reason is that the more visitors a site has, the more views the ads get.

Fake news websites often attract a lot of readers by posting stories with outrageous headlines that people are likely to click on and share. All those clicks mean a lot of money from ads. “I make like $10,000 a month,” fake-news writer Paul Horner told The Washington Post in 2016.

One recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that false stories on Twitter spread six times as fast as factual ones. They also reach far more readers. MIT researchers discovered that a false story can spread to 1,500 Twitter users in just 10 hours on average. By comparison, a factual story can take 60 hours to reach that many people.

Don’t Be Fooled 

The good news is that a lot is being done to stop the spread of fake news. In recent years, for example, Google and Facebook have banned fake news sites from advertising on their pages. Facebook is also working with fact-checking organizations around the world, including PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org, to help identify and flag made-up articles that are posted on its platform so they can be deleted.

In addition, lawmakers in several states, including Connecticut, New Mexico, and Washington, have recently passed or introduced bills requiring public schools to teach media literacy. Such lessons would show students how to analyze information from websites, TV, and other forms of media, and how to detect bias.

In the end, however, it’s up to each of us to be skeptical of what we see online. For starters, if a story doesn’t seem quite right or appears too good to be true, investigate it. Spend a few minutes researching the headline, the author, the sources, and the website it came from. And if you suspect a story might be false, don’t share it on social media.

“It’s our responsibility to stop the spread of fake news,” says Jonathan Anzalone, the assistant director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York. “We need to be committed to seeking out the truth.”

The good news is that a lot is being done to stop the spread of fake news. In recent years, for example, Google and Facebook have banned fake-news sites from advertising on their pages. Facebook is also working with fact-checking organizations around the world. Such organizations include PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org. They help identify and flag made-up articles that are posted on Facebook so they can be deleted.

In addition, lawmakers in several states, including Connecticut, New Mexico, and Washington, have recently passed or introduced bills requiring public schools to teach media literacy. Such lessons would show students how to analyze information from websites, TV, and other forms of media. They also would teach students how to detect bias.

In the end, it is up to each of us to be skeptical of what we see online. For starters, if a story does not seem quite right or appears too good to be true, investigate it. Spend a few minutes researching the headline, the author, the sources, and the website it came from. And if you suspect a story might be false, do not share it on social media.

“It’s our responsibility to stop the spread of fake news,” says Jonathan Anzalone. He is the assistant director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York. “We need to be committed to seeking out the truth.”

Write About It! Why is fake news a major problem? What can people do about it? Make sure to cite evidence from the text in your response.

How to Spot a False Story

Research shows that many middle schoolers can’t tell the difference between a factual story and a fake one. But don’t worry—we’ll show you how! Just ask yourself these questions.

Who’s behind the article?
Start by researching the author of the story and the website it came from. Does the writer or site often publish stories making outlandish claims? Also, look at the URL itself. Sites ending in .com.co often can’t be trusted.


What’s the evidence?

Evaluate whether the writer has backed up his or her claims with valid reasons and facts. What sources does the author cite—and are they trustworthy? Does the writer quote experts qualified to comment on the topic?


What do other sources say?
Conduct research to find out whether respected news outlets have published the same information. Or try to verify the story on a fact-checking website, such as PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org.

Who’s behind the article?
Start by researching the author of the story and the website it came from. Does the writer or site often publish stories making outlandish claims? Also, look at the URL itself. Sites ending in .com.co often can’t be trusted.


What’s the evidence?

Evaluate whether the writer has backed up his or her claims with valid reasons and facts. What sources does the author cite—and are they trustworthy? Does the writer quote experts qualified to comment on the topic?


What do other sources say?
Conduct research to find out whether respected news outlets have published the same information. Or try to verify the story on a fact-checking website, such as PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org.

Interactive Quiz for this article

Click the Google Classroom button below to share the Know the News quiz with your class.

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