Fake news and alternative facts – helping students develop the skills to interrogate their information sources -

Fake news and alternative facts – helping students develop the skills to interrogate their information sources

There is a new literacy required in today’s complicated online environment – one that provides the framework for students to critically process the information bombarding them at every turn. The sharing of knowledge is a beautiful thing and while students have immediate access to a wealth of information, not a lot of it is without agenda. So how do we ensure they are equipped with the skills to separate the credible from the click bait?

It is the best of times and the worst of times in the information age as news finds its way into  inboxes, across  feeds and onto google searches – because while the internet gives us an amazing resource, it also provides a new platform for falsehoods.

Factual falsehoods and straight-up lies are not a new phenomenon but the danger they pose in the digital era is that it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish between factual news, scientific research and agenda-driven content.

The world wide web has opened the door to new stretches of reality, with search engines and social media shaping the way we consume and share content. As a result, the push to teach media literacy in classrooms is gaining momentum as studies show students are constantly absorbing media without the skills to figure out if what they’re reading is actually true.

Because we live in an information age where there is a veritable deluge of information that students can access, it’s becoming increasing important for them to be able to detect the difference between fake and real news. This is a human issue that’s affecting the shape of our world and we have to make sure our future thinkers are given the skills to determine which information to act on and which to discard.

Teaching media literacy as part of a contemporary education creates learners who are equipped to determine the credibility of resources in a world saturated with fake news, ads and sponsored content.

This is even more important with today’s shift in focus from route learning to problem solving. In the age of google and the smartphone, it’s no longer necessary to have information committed to memory. However, having the research skills to source the right information has become more important than ever.

Fake news has emerged as a global topic of concern because it teaches people things that aren’t true – resulting in real world consequences as evidenced through the constant controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency; Washington’s ‘Pizzagate’ and the xenophobic attacks being fuelled in South Africa. It can be a tweet, a post, or a meme that becomes accepted as true by those who don’t investigate the story before sharing it with others. Perpetuating the cycle of disinformation, hoaxes or propaganda can have a far-reaching affect as once information is online it will be available for a long time and we can’t always control who sees or shares it.

Being able to analyse and evaluate online media is an essential 21st century skill. As digital technology is playing an increasing role in today’s classrooms, students need to learn how to differentiate between fake news and credible resources. Exploring the media offers a valuable resource for students – creating opportunities for class discussion and debate, as well as forming the basis for classroom activities, as they learn to evaluate the reliability of a news source.

3 simple questions to ask when it comes to interrogating information sourcers are:
  • Is it from a reputable media outlet?
  • Who is the journalist? Do they have a political or other bias?
  • Is it an opinion piece or a journailistic article/report?

While schools can vet sites and put filters in place, this does not prepare them for the real world where they are exposed to questionable content such as that floating across their social media sites – which is where most students get their news.

With the younger generation no longer getting information from credible news sites, instead being influenced by the opinions of their peers and online communities – media literacy is an issue that we need to tackle now because how can we expect students to navigate a world filled with fake news/alternative facts and sponsored content if they don’ t know how to be informed?

There is an assumption that because young people today are fluent in technology they have an equal awareness about the reliability of the content they find online. However, the reality is that most students do have trouble weeding out the plethora of unreliable information that is becoming more widespread.

Too easily, viral posts on social media are readily accepted, gaining strength through sheer numbers; and young people especially can be duped by sophisticated targeting tactics making it harder to tell sponsored content from legitimate news and actual articles from native ads. Whether driven by a marketing campaign, a political bias or other messaging, when it comes to evaluating information that pops up on social media or a google search, our digital savvy youth are vulnerable to mountains of unsubstantiated material.

Educators are the best placed to stand between fake news and students.

Teachers have started recognising the need to address this emerging digital crisis and are working hard to balance the demands of their curriculum with this new reality that their students are facing. Luckily educational resources that incorporate news media designed for a classroom setting have also been created to help students learn to discern between fact from fiction.

Editors, reporters and the media need to start being more vocal as these professions are now more important for ever in the quest for truth. Fake news is no longer just something you see on Facebook – it’s also being touted as ‘breaking news’ (among other things) on TV, radio and in newspapers across the country as news outlets try to recruit new audiences in the absence of the resources and integrity to cover the real thing.

As international attention on fake news and discussions over what to do about it continue, integrating online resources plays an increasing role in the future of education as teachers take up the push for media literacy – looking for new opportunities in the classroom to help students determine where information is coming from and why

Fairfax is a news organisation committed to fighting fake news by backing real journalism. Our digital newspapers can be easily referenced as part of classroom activities to teach students how to recognise fake news, the way it’s presented and the manner in which it is shared so students can make more informed decisions and develop a productive perspective on technology and the world in which they live.


The Fairfax Digital Newspaper Replica has been specifically designed as an empowered learning tool where students can explore the world of news and current affairs while developing steps to verify the information they are reading.

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