Media Literacy

The Pedagogy of Fake News: A Four-Part Critical Thinking Exercise for Upper Elementary Students

May 12, 2017 Updated May 8, 2017

As educators we have a responsibility for instruction in basic media literacy. Claims of fake news have recently complicated analysis of current events in civics education. Because instruction in critical thinking for media literacy is vital when cultivating awareness of digital citizenship, incorporating lessons on fake news presents a timely opportunity for student engagement. With even our youngest students fully immersed in a digital world, equipping students with the skillset necessary for evaluating media they encounter is more vital than ever. Yet while lessons for middle and high school students abound, creating age-appropriate and relatable lessons for upper elementary students presents its challenges. Here are four key steps to developing a pedagogy of fake news for upper elementary students.

Part 1: Basics: Evaluating Digital Media Content

A good place to start engaging students on the topic of “fake news” is a study published by the Stanford History Education Group.The study confirmed that students are generally weak evaluators of news and other information they see online. While the study explores middle, high school, and college students, two of the exercises lend themselves nicely for assessing critical thinking skills in upper elementary instruction: an analysis of a home page where students identify advertisements on a news website and an evaluation of a photograph published on a photo sharing website. In the former, students learn to distinguish between a traditional banner ad, native advertising, and news stories. Identifying native advertising vs. news presents a challenge for students--both in the Stanford Study as well as my own class of 5th graders. A follow-up lesson on parsing advertisements can be assessed by having students identify traditional advertising vs. native advertising vs. news stories on screenshot images of home pages from different news sites. For digital instruction, students can download each image to the Pic Collage app, label different ads accordingly as traditional or native, and email the images back to the teacher.

Part 2: Reading Images for Emotion and Authenticity

Considering that visual messages are uniquely powerful, learning to properly analyze visual images is a central task of education in media literacy. A second exercise from the Stanford study involved students evaluating the credibility of a photograph from Imgur, a photo sharing website. The picture involves a strange looking field of daisies accompanied by the claim that the flowers have “nuclear birth defects” resulting from the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

Each and every one of my upper elementary students was convinced that the image was authentic, citing the image of the mutated daisies as evidence. All of my students failed to question both the source of the image and its authenticity (Who posted the image and was it real?). Concern about the environmental crisis at the Fukushima site, amplified students’ willingness to accept an image as authentic. Only when I asked students what they knew about the source of the image did they begin to think more critically.

As a teaching activity, have your students analyze photos that circulated through social media during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. In an article titled “Think Before You Retweet: How to Spot A Fake Storm Photo” published in The Atlantic, its author deconstructs several photos that went viral during the storm, some of which were even picked up by the mainstream media. With your students, analyze each image and then offer the author’s explanations for “Why We Want to Believe It’s Real” and “Why It’s Totally Fake”. Emphasize for students how images play on human emotion and energize the viral nature of fake news. Discussion of emotions as they relate to popular images is vital. Also, this is a good time to introduce students to Google’s reverse image search in order to determine origin of images.

Part 3: Collaborative Deconstruction

While political fake news stories abound, there are also plenty of non-political stories. Find these on fact-checking sites, including or Relatable topics are best suited for active inquiry including, for example, “More People Have Died From Shark Attacks Than Selfies This Year” and “World’s Biggest Starbucks Opening In Phoenix AZ: Roller Coaster, Underground Water Slide & Robot Baristas”. Have students work in pairs to determine whether the stories are fact or fiction--without using a fact-checker. Have students collaboratively record their strategies, consisting of steps and results.

Part 4: Virality: Bots, Platforms & Emotions

To learn about news consumption habits, create a brief survey for students to share with as many adults as possible. Compare your results with national statistics on news consumption, “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016.” Then discuss “Why we fall for fake news.” Have students find headlines showing how fake news thrives on sensationalism, emotions, and catchy phrases.

Next, utilize the 60 Minutes (CBS) segment  “How Fake News Becomes a Popular, Trending Topic.” The segment explains how fake news publishers use bots, fake Twitter accounts, to automatically like or retweet a message. With the help of these bots, the number of times the message is retweeted quickly grows exponentially until it is picked up by human account users who continue to disseminate it. Students understand that fake news is a problem once it goes viral.

In sum, when looking at fake news, it is not enough to explore the content of a message; instead, news consumption habits and the role of social media platforms are equally important to explore. The skills students acquire while studying the topic of fake news empower them to critically assess media.  Students build a personal toolkit for media literacy that includes an emotional process check. For a culminating project, students could create digital toolkits, listing the steps for spotting fake news.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Media Literacy
  • Critical Thinking
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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