Turning Your Students Into Web Detectives
Five vetted resources students can use to separate truth from fiction online.
Our students use the web every day—shouldn’t we expect them to do better at interpreting what they read there? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Often, stereotypes about kids and technology can get in the way of what’s at stake in today’s complex media landscape. Sure, our students probably joined Snapchat faster than we could say “Face Swap,” but that doesn’t mean they’re any better at interpreting what they see in the news and online.
As teachers, we’ve probably seen students use questionable sources in our classrooms, and a recent study from the Stanford History Education Group confirms that students today are generally pretty bad at evaluating the news and other information they see online. Now more than ever, our students need our help. And a big part of this is learning how to fact-check what they see on the web.
In a lot of ways, the web is a fountain of misinformation. But it also can be our students’ best tool in the fight against falsehood. An important first step is giving students trusted resources they can use to verify or debunk the information they find. Even one fact-checking activity could be an important first step toward empowering students to start seeing the web from a fact-checker’s point of view.
Here’s a list of fact-checking resources you and your students can use in becoming better web detectives.
A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the nonpartisan, nonprofit FactCheck.org says that it “aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Its entries cover TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases. Science teachers take note: The site includes a feature called SciCheck, which focuses on false and misleading scientific claims used for political influence. Beyond individual entries, there also are articles and videos on popular and current topics in the news, among a bevy of other resources.
From the independent Tampa Bay Times, PolitiFact tracks who’s telling the truth—and who isn’t—in American politics. Updated daily, the site fact-checks statements made by elected officials, candidates, and pundits. Entries are rated on a scale that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire” and include links to relevant sources to support each rating. The site’s content is written for adult readers, and students may need teachers’ help with context and direction.
The popular online resource Snopes is a one-stop shop to fact-check internet rumors. Entries include everything from so-called urban legends to politics and news stories. Teachers should note that there’s a lot here on a variety of topics—and some material is potentially iffy for younger kids. It’s a great resource for older students—if you can keep them from getting distracted.
OpenSecrets.org is a nonpartisan organization that tracks the influence of money in U.S. politics. On the site, users can find informative tutorials on topics such as the basics of campaign finance—not to mention regularly updated data reports and analyses on where money has been spent in the American political system. While potentially useful for fact-finding, the site is clearly intended for more advanced adult readers and is best left for older students and sophisticated readers.
Internet Archive Wayback Machine
This one isn’t a site that performs fact-checking. Instead, the Internet Archive Wayback Machine is a tool you can use yourself to fact-check things you find online. Like an internet time machine, the site lets you see how a website looked, and what it said, at different points in the past. Want to see Google’s home page from 1998? Yep, it’s here. Want to see The New York Times’ home page on just about any day since 1996? You can. While they won’t find everything here, there’s still a lot for students to discover. Just beware: The site can be a bit of a rabbit hole—give students some structure before they dive in, because it’s easy to get lost or distracted.
Want to take your students’ knowledge of fact-checking a step further? Engage them in discussions around why these sites and organizations are seen as trusted (and why others might not be trusted as much). Together, look into how each site is funded, who manages it, and how it describes its own fact-checking process.
You can also help your students think critically about the media they’re consuming and creating with Common Sense Education’s News and Media Literacy Toolkit for teachers.
This article was written by Jeff Knutson from Common Sense Education in collaboration with Edutopia.