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Thinking critically and spotting fake news

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Fake news, unfortunately, is everywhere. Online rumours, conspiracy theories and scams have a tendency to spread like wildfire across social media.

They’re hard to resist because they play on emotions that are quick to arouse – fear, fury, hatred. We feel these emotions and then we want to do something about them – share the news, show we care.

The approach that we actually need to deal with fake news – a cool head, careful judgement – is much slower to develop, which is why fake news can spread so rapidly.

In April 2020, there were more than 30 attacks on phone towers and other telecomms installations in the UK as a result of online rumours that 5G was responsible for Coronavirus. 

It’s vital that children develop the skills to tell fake news from accurate reports: as the success of anti-vaxxers has shown, our health depends on it. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, says that fake news is one of the three most disturbing internet trends that have to be dealt with if technology is going to serve humanity rather than harm us.

But fake news can look persuasive, so how do you teach children to tell what’s true from what’s false?

The good news

In 2019, researchers from Princeton and New York University published a study that showed that young people were less likely to share fake news. Age was a more important factor here than education, sex or political views. The over-65s were most likely to share fake news. Those aged 18-29 were least likely.

What do you need to think about?

This is not to say that children won’t share fake news, of course. Here are some of the things to talk to children about, to help them think about whether something is fake news or not:

  • Consider the source. Websites and social media accounts can be set up to look serious and reputable when they aren’t at all. Don’t just share something that looks interesting. Consider where it came from. Where does the original source connect to? Is it to lots of groups with extremist views, for example?

  • Look at the supporting sources – are they real? Again, looking at what the source of the information connects to will help you work out why this information is being shared.

  • Review your own biases – do you want this to be true? If you do, you have to work even harder to prove it’s real.

  • Check with the experts. What are the leaders in the field saying about this? (In the case of anti-vaxxers or Coronavirus and 5G, for example, what is the WHO saying?)

  • Check out the authors. What else have they written? Are they reputable? Could they be bots or trolls? During the Covid-19 pandemic, troll farms in North Macedonia and the Phillippines pushed fake news about the virus.

  • Read beyond the headline.

  • Make sure that what you’re sharing isn’t a joke, or satire.

It’s difficult…

Of course, spotting fake news is often hard, which is one reason why it’s so successful.

And the term has become problematic: President Trump has a tendency to call anything he dislikes or that criticises him fake news. The British government has stopped using the term at all because it’s so hard to define.

But we know it exists. And it’s very important for children to learn to think critically, because a world in which nothing can be trusted is a dangerous and unpleasant place. Fortunately, media literacy is being taught more and more in schools. And parents can help by teaching children to challenge what they read and to approach things with an open mind, questioning and looking for backup outside their own social media bubble. 

There are also websites, such as Full Fact, which is the UK's independent fact-checking authority, Snopes, and Channel 4 News Factcheck, that specialise in drilling down to the facts of a news story.

Updated: July 2020

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