One of the biggest stories of this election cycle was the rise of “fake news” — false news stories that look real but aren’t. They often go viral on social media, and some say they helped influence the election.
While many social media sites are trying to stop the spread, Maine educators are stepping up, too, helping students differentiate between fact and fiction.
At Portland’s Lyman Moore Middle School, 6th-grade social studies teacher Carrie Foster isn’t afraid to talk about politics. Today, she brings up a sensitive subject in the news: alleged Russian interference in this year’s election, where the government hacked into private Democratic email accounts.
“I also mean they went on the Internet and hired trolls, and tried to spread fake news — things that were blatantly untrue — to try to get Trump elected. Are you guys cool with that?” Foster asks the class.
“No!” a student replies.
Foster tells the students that this fake news is a big deal. These are false articles meant to look real, with widely shared, false headlines about “secret transcripts” or candidates’ connections to ISIS.
To explain why this is bad, Foster makes it simple. This is lying, she says, with real consequences.
“It drives me crazy when people lie to me,” she says. “Especially if I make a decision based on that. Like, if someone tells me, ‘Try this, it’s amazing,’ and it’s gross, then I’m annoyed, right? So this is a big deal, ‘cause if we’re basing really, really important decisions on lies, we’re in trouble. No matter if you like or don’t like Trump, if you voted for him based on something that isn’t true, that makes you feel kinda dumb, right? So it’s important to be able to figure out facts.”
Teaching kids how to do that isn’t new for educators. Teachers have long emphasized the importance of hard facts found in books and databases. But now, the Internet has introduced a whole new sea of information. Foster says it’s hard for anyone, kid or adult, to tell what’s true online.
“It’s just really unhealthy and bad for social studies and democracy and citizenship and communities in general,” Foster says.
Her approach to teaching comes in the form of a little sheet of paper that she hands out to every student, stressing the difference between facts, opinions, reasoned judgments and untruths. She then presents the students with stories, mostly from fake sites , for them to figure out what’s true and false themselves.
Foster advises the students: don’t just read the headline, but the whole article. And she wants them to understand the difference between a website that anybody can make and a database or a fact-checked article.
“Showing them where to find good information,” she says. “Even though some people find it more difficult and frustrating to do that.”
In South Portland, the approach is slightly different. In teacher Julie York’s computer science class, she tries to keep politics out of the discussion. Instead, she plays students videos and has them create a library brochure explaining the difference between real and fake news.
The goal, she says, is to show how fake news affects real life.
“I think once you get them to realize that it affects them beyond a research paper that they do in a class once a year, once you get them to realize that, they start to go, ‘Oh, oh, this isn’t good,’” York says. “Because I don’t think anybody likes being lied to.”
For students Jeremiah Sanville and Annika Savage, the class has made them skeptical of just about anything online.
“You gotta get multiple sources,” Sanville says. “A lot of sources that are actually good.”
“Or it’s just, everything’s a lie,” Savage says with a laugh. “Nothing is real.”
York and Foster admit that teaching this is hard, and both say they’re not sure how much the message is sticking. But what may give their students a slight advantage are the laptops that sit in front of every 7th and 8th grader in Maine’s classrooms.
“So your laptops are having an important impact on students’ ability to conduct research,” says Don Leu, a professor of education at the University of Connecticut.
Leu’s specifically talking about the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, the program started by former Gov. Angus King 14 years ago that guarantees that every 7th and 8th grader in the state has access to a laptop or iPad.
In a recent study, Leu found that with these computers, 7th graders in Maine were much better at researching online than students in Connecticut. This is good news, he says, and it shows that Maine students have a step up in digital literacy.
But even though Maine’s students did better, it’s tough to say they did well. An earlier study found that less than 4 percent of students can tell whether an online source is reliable.
“So while Maine students are doing better, we need to focus a lot more attention on social studies, online research skills and resources,” Leu says.
The state has invested some resources to improve digital literacy. However, wealthier districts like South Portland have an advantage, with more resources to hire dedicated technology teachers and integrators. Leu says that needs to expand to every district.
“To many of us in education, this needs to be our No. 1 priority,” he says. “Because if we don’t, we’re really going to jeopardize our society. And that’s not an exaggeration.”
Leu says it takes knowledgeable citizens to make the best informed choices at the ballot box. The first step toward getting there is by educating them in the classroom.