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School for skeptics

In the internet age, literacy means distinguishing between fact and fiction

By  Illustrations by

When the BBC offered a quiz titled “Can You Spot the Fake Stories?” I was confident that I would do well. With a master’s degree in journalism, I thought falling for “fake news” only happened to other people. But I was fooled four times on the seven-question quiz.  

I’m not the only one who has trouble with this. Even the digitally savvy generation now growing up has a difficult time distinguishing credible content from fake stories. In 2015, Stanford University launched an 18-month study of students in middle school, high school, and college across several states to find out how well they were able to evaluate the information they consume online. 

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Nearly 8,000 students took part in the study, and the results showed that they were easily duped. Many middle schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between a news story and an ad. College students weren’t able to distinguish a mainstream source from a group promoting a certain point of view. Students often decided if something was credible just by how polished the website looked. The study highlighted a fundamental problem: Today’s students are struggling to differentiate fact from fiction online.

“We’re living in the most overwhelming information landscape in human history,” says Peter Adams, a senior vice president for the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that aims to add information literacy to middle and high school classrooms across the United States. “It’s confusing because people are consuming information in an aggregated stream, and social media gives things uniformity. A post from a conspiracy theory blog looks the same as a post from the Washington Post.”

To help students learn how to evaluate and verify information, the News Literacy Project launched a virtual classroom called Checkology. One part of the web-based tool allows teachers to present students with news reports, tweets, and other social media posts. The students must determine whether they are credible by looking for a variety of “red flags.”

Jodi Mahoney found Checkology last summer while researching ways to educate her students about fake news. Now she uses it in her classroom, where she teaches students about technology, from email etiquette to basic coding.

“What’s the best way to prevent yourself from spreading misinformation?” she asks a group of sixth-graders at Carl Von Linné Elementary School in Chicago. Eleven-year-old Michael raises his hand. “I think, first you double-check the site where you got it from,” he says. “Then look for clues to see if it’s credible.”

“Good. What kind of clues?” Mahoney encourages the students to start naming them. One student calls out that you want to avoid clickbait. “OK, what’s clickbait?” she asks. The room is quiet. “If you’re not sure, look it up. Let’s Google it.”

Are students in your community news literate? The Center for News Literacy and the News Literacy Project offer lessons that teachers can integrate into existing curricula. Free resources from the Center for News Literacy can be found at The News Literacy Project’s virtual classroom is at In New York, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Chicago, the News Literacy Project also offers the opportunity to bring in journalists to teach part of its curriculum.  “If a Rotary club in one of those markets wants to sponsor a more substantive engagement at a school, reach out to us,” says Peter Adams of the News Literacy Project. Contact them at Michael Spikes encourages Rotary members to visit, where they can also request a speaker from the Center for News Literacy.    

The class decides that clickbait is something “designed to get attention or arouse emotion.” The students have learned that’s a red flag because a strong emotional reaction can override your ability to critically evaluate information – a tendency often exploited by people trying to spread misinformation. Next, Mahoney asks them to log in to to practice figuring out whether information is fact or fiction. 

“Go to module three,” Mahoney instructs. The students put on headphones and log in. A few minutes later, 12-year-old Guadalupe struggles to determine whether a sample Facebook post sharing an article headlined “CDC Issued a Warning – Don’t Get a Flu Shot This Year” is real. She ultimately decides it’s real because the post “gave a lot of facts about the flu” and included a source. She clicks “fact,” and Checkology corrects her. This post was fiction. 

“That lesson shows that just looking at it doesn’t give you what you need to know,” Adams explains. “If you don’t go upstream to another source, you can’t know if it’s true or not.” 

While the sixth-graders can’t always tell fact from falsehood, Mahoney says she appreciates that Checkology encourages students to be skeptical. “They are so comfortable using the internet that they don’t question it,” she says. She sees it at home too. “My [third-grade] daughter recently told me that the platypus wasn’t a real animal because of a YouTube video she saw.” 

After the class completes a module, Mahoney can create a spreadsheet to see how the students did. “The first week, they all scored very low,” she says. “The data showed me that I needed to be concerned.” At that point, her students couldn’t distinguish among types of media: News, entertainment, ads – they all seemed the same to them. After 13 weeks, she says, she’s starting to see students connect the dots, but emphasizes that they need to continue to practice. She adds, “This needs to be taught all the way through college.” 

Mahoney included a unit on fake news for her sixth-graders, because that’s when most of her students get a cellphone. “They start getting bombarded with content in fifth, sixth, or seventh grade,” she says. She also wants schools to put more emphasis on teaching news literacy. “We spend a lot of time lecturing kids on what not to do on the internet and how to be safe on the internet,” she says. “Now we need to teach them how to understand the content that’s out there.” 

Former teacher Michael Spikes agrees. When he taught media studies and news production to high school students in Washington, D.C., he would tell them, “You can’t be SpongeBob and just absorb. You have to be an active consumer of information.” His mantra: “Where is the evidence?”

The Literacy Action Group can help you start a project: “We’re a consultant for clubs,” says Carolyn Johnson, vice chair of the Literacy Rotarian Action Group. “If a club has a project that they’re looking to do, and they’d like to get other clubs involved, we can help match people.” Johnson says the action group is eager to support clubs that are interested in taking a broader perspective on literacy, including supporting information literacy. Find out more at  

Now he’s the project director for educator training and digital resources at the Center for News Literacy, a program of New York’s Stony Brook University. Part of his job is to help teachers integrate news literacy into their curricula. “I make my workshops very teacher-centric,” Spikes says. He often encourages educators to use the center’s free resources within an existing curriculum – social studies, language arts, civics – given that every state has its own standards and that teachers can’t always adopt a whole course. “We take a ‘train the trainer’ model in our approach and focus on teaching educators our content,” Spikes says. “High school teachers are our largest audience right now, followed by college educators.” But, he says, the center plans to expand to middle school as well, calling that age the “sweet spot” to learn information literacy.

“We’ve gone from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg,” Spikes says. “We now have unfettered access to information. Along with that, we’ve become not only consumers of information, but publishers as well.” Because anyone can put content online and reach a wide audience, he’s adamant that information literacy needs to be integrated into public education. “We teach much more than spotting fake news,” he explains. “It’s about developing a critical eye, so when a student comes across a Facebook or Twitter post, or a site that seems to have all the answers they need, they ask, ‘Hold on, is this info verified? Is the source independent, or is it tied to some type of organization?’ 

“We thought of young people as digital natives who would know how to discern information because they know how to turn on the cellphone and get on the internet, but less than 20 percent know how to critically evaluate the information that’s in front of them. In our media landscape, it’s up to us to figure out what’s reliable and what’s not.” 

California Rotarian champions news literacy: In 1985, Vicki Whiting was a third-grade teacher who wanted to encourage her fellow educators to use the newspaper as a teaching tool. So she created KidScoop, a page of child-friendly content that is now syndicated in 300 newspapers across North America. Whiting, a member of the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley, California, started KidScoop after seeing how reading the newspaper with her class helped her students learn not only to read, but also to think critically. “If there were an article on a fire, we’d talk about what the fireman thinks about the fire. Then I’d ask the kids to write a sentence or two about what the family thinks about the fire.” Studying the newspaper, she says, helped the children learn to see the same facts and information from different perspectives.  “Compared with a lot of educational programs, it’s cheap,” Whiting says. “For the cost of a dictionary, a Rotary club can give a classroom a newspaper for a year.”  Learn more at

In July 2017, the Pew Research Center partnered with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center to solicit experts’ predictions on whether new methods would emerge over the next 10 years to block false narratives and allow accurate information to prevail online – or if the quality of information online would deteriorate. They collected responses from 1,116 people, including experts in the technology sector, researchers, journalism professors, experts in internet policy, and media watchdogs. 

Just over half of respondents (51 percent) said the accuracy of information online would deteriorate. The rest thought it would improve. Of those who believed it would not improve, many said our natural preference to believe stories that confirm our biases and craving for validation would continue to be reinforced on social media, worsening echo chambers. They also couldn’t imagine a technological solution that someone couldn’t manipulate. 

But those who were more optimistic predicted that technological advances would become better at stopping the spread of misinformation. One compared it to how spam filters were created to sort out junk email. They also predicted that improved information literacy would help people become better judges of the accuracy of content online. 

“Echo chambers and filter bubbles will continue to exist, as these attitudes are typical of people’s behavior offline and online,” said survey respondent Sharon Haleva-Amir, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “In order to change that, people will have to be educated from early childhood about the importance of the credibility of sources as well as the variability of opinions that create the market of ideas.”

Pew researchers summarized one of the main themes to emerge from the survey this way: “Technology alone can’t win the battle. The public must fund and support the production of objective, accurate information. It also must elevate information literacy to be a primary goal of education.”  

 “Figuring out what’s news and what’s credible is a daunting task for most adults,” Adams says. “News literacy skills give all consumers, but especially teens, a chance to discern credible information, which is vital to civic involvement and democracy.” 

• Read more stories from The Rotarian

Can you spot the fake stories?

Test your own ability to identify false information online at