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The teenagers attending Nathan Libecap’s media literacy class at Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School are in many ways world-class sleuths.

Using social media such as Snapchat or Facebook, the teens can spy on classmates, check out potential dates, send secret messages and photos or coordinate meet-ups.

But can they spot fake news? Libecap tested the class last week by displaying the surreal image of what appeared to be a college basketball game taking place aboard an aircraft carrier.

“That’s fake,” a girl seated at the rear of the room said without hesitation.

Discerning fake news from legitimate reported fact has taken on new urgency in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, in which false, often hyperpartisan information spread via social media sparked confusion, anger and even violence. In one instance, a man fired a rifle in a Washington, D.C., pizza joint after he read a false report that employees were helping Hillary Clinton run a child sex ring.

Fake news generally is false or misleading articles on what appear to be legitimate journalistic websites. And while such disinformation is nothing new, social media and the internet have made it infinitely easier to spread falsehoods — and harder to detect them.

“We’ve entered the second chapter in the history of the internet,” said Bill Adair, a Duke University journalism professor and founder of PolitiFact, a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others on its Truth-O-Meter. “Chapter 1 was, ‘Wow, this is so cool. It lets us connect with everyone and information from all these places.’ Chapter 2 is, ‘Hey, wait, the internet is misused by people who don’t have a lot of respect for the truth.’ ”

Two North Coast lawmakers — Bill Dodd and Marc Levine — have entered the fray by introducing education bills that take aim at fake news and historical accuracy.

Dodd, a Democratic state senator from Napa whose district includes part of Sonoma County, is one of two state lawmakers to introduce legislation that would direct a state curriculum board to develop resources for schools to teach students how to navigate the blurred lines of fake versus real news. Senate Bill 135 specifically would add media literacy training to social sciences standards for first through 12th grades.

Dodd said current lesson plans centered upon critical thinking skills haven’t kept up with the digital age and the manner in which social media can spread fake news and misinformation “at lightning speed.” He said his bill is intended to “empower” students so that they can make informed decisions.

“It’s about civic responsibility,” he said.

Adair, who also is on the faculty of the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism advocacy organization, applauded Dodd’s effort.

“We need to do a much better job of teaching media literacy,” Adair said. “Many college students don’t even understand what they are reading sometimes because they haven’t been given a road map to understanding the difference between opinion, journalism and news. They haven’t been taught what is original reporting and what has been aggregated.”

A recent Stanford study showed that 82 percent of middle school students struggled to distinguish advertisements from news stories. In the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign, false election stories on hoax websites and blogs at times outperformed those that appeared on the websites of major news organizations.

Libecap is doing his part to reverse those trends at Casa Grande, where his class last week was focused on helping students trace stories and images to their original source or employing fact-check sites, such as Snopes.com, to ferret out fake news.

He encouraged the teens to “stalk the news” the same way they follow friends on social media.

“Not in a creepy way,” he quipped.

Of the six recommendations Libecap outlined for fact-checking information, he said the most important was for the teens to challenge their own biases.

“We all like to be right, and it’s hard to be wrong,” he said.

And what about that odd image of basketball being played on an aircraft carrier? It turned out to be from an actual event — the 2011 “Carrier Classic” game aboard the USS Carl Vinson. Libecap proved it to students by tracing the image back through Google to a Los Angeles Times story about the game.

The Casa Grande educator holds a credential to teach digital and media literacy. But he said the curriculum is taught on an ad-hoc basis and not as part of a stand-alone class.

“I do this on an as-needed basis,” Libecap said. “A law would maybe push the school district and school board to set aside actual money to focus on this.”

Dodd, a Democratic lawmaker in perhaps the nation’s bluest state, acknowledged that some might view his bill as a partisan attack on President Donald Trump or Republicans. But he insisted his efforts cross party lines.

“I think it cuts both ways,” Dodd said. “I think liberals can manipulate the media just as expeditiously as conservatives can. I think what’s important in the curriculum is that they teach critical thinking skills so they (students) can determine what is fake and what is true.”

Levine’s bill is of a different sort, seeking a revision in history and social science textbooks to include instruction on Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.

American intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election in Trump’s favor through a coordinated hacking effort that then leaked damaging information about his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Levine said there is “no doubt” in his mind that the Russians swayed the outcome of the election to Trump. He said his concern now is that Trump will attempt to whitewash that history.

“It’s been said the winners write the history books, and we’ve already heard President-elect Trump talk about his landslide victory, which is certainly not the case,” Levine said.

His bill is provocatively named the “Pravda Act of 2017” — Pravda means “truth” in Russian and also was the name of the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

However, Adair, who has made it his business to fact-check politicians through PolitiFact, said Levine’s legislation could benefit from more time to let the facts emerge.

“It seems a little early to be specifying what should be in history books about something that happened a month ago,” Adair said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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