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.