How to prepare children for a world of fake news

Young people have to to be helped develop critical capacity to discern fact from fiction

Do you all know the story of the Three Little Pigs? No, I mean the real story?

Not that fairytale we’ve all been conned into believing, but the true version – of how that poor wolf was framed by the fake news agenda.

Those clever pigs and their PR team.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, is a fantastic book that lets children learn about perspective, bias and verification. The wolf, who is now behind bars in prison, offers a different side to one of the world's best known stories. He feels the news media weren't excited by the innocent truth at all, and so they made him out to be a monster, something children have great fun in debating when presented with all the facts.


He explains that all he wanted was a cup of sugar from his neighbours, the pigs, to bake Granny Wolf a birthday cake.

But what about all his huffing and puffing?

It was sneezing; he had a cold after all. Of course, those pigs really should have built better houses anyway.

It’s a simple question through a story lesson, and one that adults can think about too – how do we know what we know?

Where did the information come from, and does this even matter?

So did everyone fall for the pigs’ fake news agenda?

Children need media literacy skills

Children consume news everyday, from learning at school to hearing the latest in music, film, gaming and sport.

And they are creators of news too. Anyone who has a social media profile can create news.

With this in mind, it is important children can navigate around the internet safely. Not to be scaremongering, but if a tweet can go viral around the globe in under one minute, it’s time we equip children on understanding the where, what and why of information more seriously.

Developing media literacy skills is necessary if children are to better understand the media around them. It is important children build up their own sense of asking questions that empowers them to make good decisions on information.

So how best do we do teach this?

And at this rate, would you even believe me if I told you?

The internet has changed the playing field

Ricardo Castellini da Silva is a PhD candidate and researcher at FuJo, the Institute for Future Media and Journalism. His work investigates the many ways in which new digital media technologies can be used to promote media literacy for schoolchildren.

While there has always been disinformation in the world, technology has certainly changed the playing field, Castellini feels. “The difference now is that the advent of the internet created a completely different situation in terms of how information and news are produced and consumed in our societies.”

"Whereas before the production and distribution of news were in the hands of just a few powerful people, nowadays virtually anyone can create and spread fake stories on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, or multiplatform messaging services, such as WhatsApp."

News production has become more sophisticated and as a consequence, disinformation can be more difficult to detect, which Castellini says “poses a serious threat to people’s capacity to make sense of the reality around them”.

Can this affect children?

“A recent study by the Stanford History Education Group showed that students – middle school, high school and college – were very bad at distinguishing between fake and true information online,” Castellini says. “In relation to children this is even more problematic because they are in different developmental stages compared to older students, and thus it is more difficult for them – or even impossible, depending on the age group – to acquire the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate the information they consume. Another challenge is that the people responsible for preparing the children to fight disinformation – mainly parents and teachers – don’t know exactly how to do that.”

Castellini says that even within academia, screen time, monitoring the use of the internet and the best tools to use in avoiding disinformation, are still subject to debate. “New media is a recent field of studies and for this reason it is understandable that academics and researchers are still working on the answers.”

He says there is a general feeling the problem is “completely out of control, and for this reason we need to work hard and fast in order to find solutions for it”.

So what can parents and teachers do?

“The first thing is that parents and teachers should start speaking openly with children about fake news,” Castellini says. “The idea that there are people creating fake stories out there and that this can cause serious harm to anyone should be openly discussed.

“Children are not allowed to be on Facebook until they are 13, and the vast majority of them have no interest in Twitter whatsoever.

Of course we know that some children end up having a Facebook account before they turn 13, sometimes tightly controlled by their parents, sometimes not.

But in theory they tend to be less exposed to social media's fake news. However, children use Google, and the search platform can also be a big source of fake news.

“Parents and teachers can learn how to use the many searching tools available on Google – such as filters, search operators etc – and pass this information on to children, so that their research skills can be improved, which is a good first step towards fighting disinformation when they get older.”

What is fake about fake news? Disinformation!

Dr Eileen Culloty is a post doctoral researcher at FuJo, who along with Dr Jane Suiter, is working on a Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commission on tracking online disinformation. "Disinformation refers to false information that is deliberately pushed into the public arena," Culloty explains. "It often mimics journalism formats, which is confusing for citizens and undermines journalistic media.

"Fake news is not a helpful term because it tends to be used to discredit a source someone doesn't like. For example, Donald Trump calls CNN fake news because he doesn't like the way it reports his presidency.

“Also, much of the misleading content we find online isn’t entirely fake; it’s original content that is distorted or manipulated slightly so disinformation is a more accurate term.”

Why are we hearing so much about it?

“Although there has always been disinformation and propaganda, many countries are experiencing increased levels of disinformation, which is often linked to the rise of populist and radical right-wing movements,” Culloty says. “The targets which have received the most attention are political actors, but minority groups such as immigrants and refugees are also major targets. Globally, this disinformation presents a major threat to the stability of political and social institutions.”