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Between the election cycle and coverage of President Trump’s first 100 days, we’ve all seen some fake news online. We talk to two educators about the harm that can be done when people believe fake news, the education crisis involved when students believe fake news, and tips we can all use to identify lies online and keep ourselves informed by only the truth.

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  • Dr. Robert Probst, educator and author of the book, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters
  • Dr. Kyleen Beers, educator and author of the book, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters

Links for more information:

Fake News

Gary Price: Fake news is a hot topic these days. We hear about it on newscasts, around the water cooler, and in White House press briefings. Fake news articles have been spread around on social media and may have even played a role in how people voted in the last election. Fake news has become such a problem that pundits and politicians alike have begun to wonder how we can stop the epidemic of fake news. But before we can eradicate fake news, we have to understand exactly what qualifies.

Dr. Robert Probst: Fake news is a term that describes fictitious news, news that really isn’t based on fact. It may be loosely attend to actual events, but it is largely invented, imagined, created.

Price: That’s Dr. Robert Probst, professor emeritus of English education at Georgia State University and co-author of the book Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. Probst says contrary to what some people say think, satire written by outlets like The Onion doesn’t qualify.

Probst: Satire, we have argued is predicated upon the notion that the reader will be smart enough to see beyond the exaggerated or even absurd claims the writer might be making to the real position he takes, which is hidden beneath it a little bit.

Price: Instead, fake news is made to intentionally mislead readers toward a bias or simply to create a controversy. Probst’s co-author Dr. Kylene Beers, the former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, says the creation of fake news follows an unfortunate trend in this country of chasing profit over fulfilling an institution’s original purpose.

Beers: We see that at one point the purpose motive of sharing news was to have an informed democracy, to have an informed citizenry. And now when news became part of the ratings game, the whole profit motive shifted, so that when people realize they can create fake news that became literally click bait so that you would click on and then advertising dollars would go up, it had nothing to do with wanting to share what was accurate and realizable, but just wanting people to click on a story.

Price: As educators, both Beers and Probst say they have a deep interest in why people are so easily influenced by fake news. They say it is partially an issue with how children think about reading, and is something Probst hopes will be addressed in schools.

Probst: The habit we want to change is the habit of just reading quickly, carelessly without checking on sources or confirming other reports. We want to make the student a more conscientious reader of the text the world is going to throw at him. We saw so many adults and kids who seem to read just to take information away from the text, just to extract from texts. And that’s fine at the first grade level or second grade level where you are teaching kids the fundamentals and you have reliable trustworthy teachers providing reliable trustworthy texts. We would expect kids to just extract from those texts. But we found that as they matured, as they moved toward adulthood they had to begin not just to take information from texts, but figure out whether the information, the ideas, the perspectives offered by texts were worth taking away from them.

Price: So how can teachers begin the battle against fake news infiltrating young minds? Beers says students need to be taught first and foremost to think critically at all times, especially when they’re on the Internet.  

Beers: Just because these kids that you’re teaching in front of you have grown up in a digital world and they are, as they’ve been called, digital natives, that has nothing to do with them actually being savvy participants in that world. In the same way that you wouldn’t say to a sixteen year old “you’ve grown up being driven around in a car so here’s the keys, go drive.” You still recognize there’s a lot for them to learn about driving. Well, kids who’ve grown up in a digital environment still have a lot to learn about how that digital environment works.

Price: Though their focus is teaching educators how to disrupt the fake news cycle, Beers says it’s important for everyone to realize that age and experience don’t make someone immune to falling for fake news.

Beers: It reminds me of a study that was released just this October 2016 by Stanford University that looked at how elementary, middle school, high school and college kids view fake news. And they found that college kids were just as taken in by fake news stories as were middle school kids. And when we have done our research with teachers who are adults and shown them stories and said how would you identify if this website or this story linked to this website or this photograph is from a fake news source or not, the number of teachers who have told us, well, we wouldn’t know how to do it has always been a high number.

Price: And Beers says once the teachers have been trained in teaching students to identify trustworthy sources, it can lead to interesting discussions in classrooms. Take a recent example Beers recounted about a classroom studying a debate over vampire bats. First, students read the perspective of cattle ranchers who wanted to eliminate the bat population that was attacking and killing their cattle. Then, those same students read the position of biologists in the area who argued vampire bats are an essential population to study in researching blood clotting…

Beers: And when the sixth grade teacher had the students reading about this from both the perspectives of the cattlemen and the zoologists and biologists, the kids looked at the teacher and said, so what’s the answer? And that’s the problem. Right there. We’ve convinced kids that for complex problems there is a simple 140-character Twitter level answer and there’s not. And the teacher actually said to the kids, what do you think? Maybe there’s more than one answer. And you could watch these little eleven, twelve year old minds try to process and one kid finally spoke up and said, “Well, you have to know about it from all different perspectives.” And then this teacher very smartly said, “Let’s pick a topic and listen to it from the news stations.” And they named some news stations some far leaning left and some far leaning right, and come back tomorrow and let’s talk about how the different news stations presented the same information. And the kids the next day just bubbled up with information. Now that is a teacher who is disrupting thinking; who is saying to kids that your thinking ought to change how you understand something. And that’s what we want to see going on in more classrooms. And frankly it ought to be what happens around more dinner tables at night.

Price: But of course, it’s not always that simple. Probst says unfortunately, parents can often be a barrier to teaching students about objective thinking more than they are allies.

Probst: It’s a problem for the teacher because the teacher will confront students whose parents are deeply committed to a stance, often to a political party let us say, or maybe just some other group, some other organization, and when the parents are deeply committed to that, they become opponents almost of what the teacher is trying to do. Adults, of course, are the ones who purvey a great deal of fake news because they’re the ones in position to disseminate it, to send it around. But they have been trained by their years in school to do that. They have not been taught to question. They have not been taught to question themselves and their own positions.

Price: Beers says the other difficulty in teaching children to ignore fake news is that the term “fakes news” itself is being abused by people in power to mislead audiences. As a result, Beers and Probst both say instructing children… and adults… to think independently will be the key to defeating fake news.

Beers: We want to teach kids and adults as well three simple questions when they look at news in particular online. How does it look? What does it say?  And how does it make me feel? And if we can keep those three questions in someone’s head, you know… How does it look? What does it say? How does it make me feel? Those three questions may encourage the reader to pause long enough to say, wow it’s making me feel really angry, or this headline looks funny there’s words in all caps and then words not in all caps. If we can just get you  to think a little dear reader then you’ll probably do a little bit of research to decide if it’s fake or not.

Probst: We have to be willing to question stuff we agree with. We should be cautious about stuff that is obviously outrageous. We ought to examine that, but we should be also cautious about the stuff that we immediately agree with, that we leap up and say “Yes, I have thought that all my life.” That’s something that we should also question because we are too ready to do that. We should invite the possibility that we’re going to change our mind about something.

Price: Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Dr. Richard Probst and Dr. Kylene Beers is available now. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.