Fake news: who can you trust?

What is fake news? Propaganda, half-truths, jokes taken seriously, downright lies? Nicky Cox, editor in chief of First News, an award-winning national UK newspaper for children, offers this advice for parents 

If anything important happens, we'll soon hear about it. We might be on holiday, off the beaten track, but somehow news of tragedies, political resignations and celebrity scandals follows us wherever we go. Now there’s a new and dangerous phenomenon: fake news.

Fake news is rarely harmless: plausible lies pass for truth, reputations can be shredded and it’s even more serious when it’s a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion. This year we’ve seen examples of this both in the USA and in our own general election.

There’s always been 'biased news' or propaganda, but what’s different now is that the internet is part of the equation and we can't trust the evidence of our own eyes.  A website may look professional, but does that company really exist and have the images been photoshopped? It’s hard to pin down facts in the virtual world.

Stories never disappear from the web, they’re just archived. Social media can act like Chinese whispers, repeating and distorting facts to create sensational headlines. Clicks can represent big money to advertisers and if there is a juicy story, people will click and read. The news – true or false – is almost irrelevant. People like to be entertained.

Children need to be protected because they don't always have the experience to distinguish between real news and fake news and, even more confusingly, there are stories with a kernel of truth but which have biased reporting.  At First News, we check all our facts and then check them again. We’re also very careful to make sure that we present every side of an argument, so that our readers can make up their own mind.

While censorship runs counter to our tradition of a free press, many people feel that search engines and social media platforms, particularly those used by children and young people, have a responsibility for the content that they host. Some providers are experimenting with technological solutions to see if it’s possible to use computer-generated algorithms to root out 'fake news' from genuine reporting.

Facebook is taking a leaf out of Wikipedia's book and flagging dubious content with an alert which says: 'Disputed by third party fact-checkers.' They trialled it with a story that falsely claimed thousands of Irish people were taken to the USA as slaves. However, while Facebook, Google and others are considering these tools parents need to look for non-technical solutions and educate their children to be alert and media savvy.

Teach children to ask themselves these questions:

  • Does the story sound believable?
  • Do other sites have the same facts and figures?
  • Has it been reported on the radio, TV and in more than one reputable newspaper?
  • Does the photo or video look normal?
  • Does the website look professional or does it use poor quality graphics?
  • Is some of the text written in caps– usually a sign of sensationalism - or feature lots of exclamation marks?
  • Does the website have an About Us or a Contact section?
  • Does it have a standard address such as .org.uk; .com?

If the answer to any of these questions is 'no', encourage your child to check the story again before spreading the word. We all need to be more discerning and critical – we can’t afford to take the news at face value any more.

Fake news, and the critical literacy skills children need to spot it, are at the heart of a new commission from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy. The commission will look at how our current education system prepares children for dealing with fake news and what needs to improve.

To help the commission, we created some surveys with the National Literacy Trust and The Day to find out what children and young people know about fake news and whether they can tell the difference between some real and fake news stories. The surveys are still in the field so there are no results to report yet.

Here is the fake news and critical literacy evidence review published on September 13.

And the National Literacy Trust’s resources page.

Further information:

Think Critically 


The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.

Image: First News

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