Don’t be fooled! Recognize and combat fake news | Teachers College Press


By: Wayne Journell, author, Unpacking fake news and editor, Post-pandemic social studies

Wayne Journel is a professor and coordinator of the Secondary Teacher Education Program and the Secondary Social Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is also editor of Theory and research in social education and has received two National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) Exemplary Research in Social Studies Awards. He is the editor of Social Studies Research and Practice Series.

World Media Literacy Week is a reminder of the need to always be aware of the dangers of fake news. Here in the United States, the occasion coincides with the end of a midterm election season that has seen both parties spend millions of dollars on ads in an effort to gain control of both houses of Congress, as well as high-level racing at the state level. , in 2023. Many of these ads, which are found on TV, radio and all types of social media, are filled with biased claims and misinformation, and in some cases the ads make claims that are blatantly false.

In order to maintain a healthy democracy, it is essential that consumers of political information can discern fact from fiction; however, this is increasingly difficult to do as advances in technology have made disinformation more realistic and easier to produce and disseminate. Additionally, social media and other sources of political information (e.g., cable news) increasingly allow consumers to lock themselves into echo chambers in which they are only exposed to information that correspond to their preconceived worldviews.

Research suggests that students struggle to determine if information found online is accurate (McGrew et al., 2019). Therefore, helping students navigate this media environment is an important part of quality civics education, and strategies to improve students’ media literacy have been around for decades. However, many of the proven approaches to media literacy commonly used in K-12 education have become outdated. Strategies such as the Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose (CRAAP) test may be adequate for print media that clearly show authorship and can be attributed to specific publishers, but today’s students are more likely to encounter memes, tweets, and deepfakes via social media that can rarely be assessed by traditional rubrics to determine accuracy.

So what should teachers do? Here are some strategies teachers can use to help students not only recognize misinformation online, but also better understand why fake news works and how people succumb to it so easily.

Understand confirmation bias and motivated reasoning

Too often, educators label being a victim of fake news as either someone’s lack of knowledge or an inability to properly investigate the allegations. While that can certainly be the case in some cases, it’s often not so much that people can’t find the truth; is that they don’t want to know the truth. Fake news peddlers do not necessarily rely on stupidity or recklessness; instead, they bank on human nature. People generally want to know that what they believe is correct; therefore, when people encounter new information, their natural reaction is to adapt it to their pre-existing worldviews. In other words, they are more likely to trust information that matches what they already believe and view information that contradicts their existing worldviews with skepticism (Garrett, 2019).

Political psychologists have used the terms confirmation bias and motivated reasoning to describe this natural human tendency, neither of which can be assessed using an approach like the CRAAP test. Educators therefore need to teach students how confirmation bias and reasoned reasoning work so they can take a critical look at their own social media habits. In other words, effective media literacy in the age of social media should focus as much, if not more, on individuals’ dispositions toward the media as it does on concrete strategies for determining the accuracy of sources.

Recognize ideological echo chambers

In theory, we should be the most informed society in history. There are more media available to citizens than ever before, and it is easy to find sources of information and opinions representing a range of viewpoints. Yet most Americans don’t take advantage of the diversity of media available to them. Instead, they gravitate towards specific news outlets which, again, reinforce their pre-existing worldviews. As a result, many people have locked themselves into ideological echo chambers in which they are constantly bombarded with information and opinions they already agree with, and they are able to avoid information or opinions opposites that can add necessary complexity to these views.

These echo chambers are problematic for several reasons. First, political science research has found that when people engage with differing opinions, tolerance grows. On the contrary, when people surround themselves with similar opinions, intolerance and propensity to action increase (Mutz, 2006). This phenomenon explains why politicians organize rallies; when they gather their supporters and are excited, they are more likely to vote. Unfortunately, this phenomenon, when combined with online ideological echo chambers, also explains the rise of extreme opinions, both in the United States and around the world, and the resulting social ills, such as the rise of nationalism. white that we have seen in recent years. Another problematic aspect of echo chambers is that they are a breeding ground for misinformation and fake news. Research has shown that fake news actually spreads faster and farther than legitimate news on social media (Lazer et al., 2018), and the reason for this is that echo chambers allow fraudulent information to “bounce back” on social media without being questioned or demystified.

Often, we do not know that we are in an ideological echo chamber. Some people, of course, actively choose to create echo chambers for themselves, but others may do so unintentionally by blocking or de-asbestosing certain people on social media platforms. Therefore, it is important for teachers to help their students identify echo chambers online. They can have students experiment with their own social media accounts, noting how many different viewpoints they are exposed to at any given time. They could also have students create memes or other types of political messages and test them by seeing if certain types of information (e.g., factual, misleading, mean-spirited) are shared more often than others (Journell & Clark, 2019).

Awareness of social media algorithms

Students should be aware that social media is not neutral in terms of disseminating information. Often social media platforms want to people to be in echo chambers. These companies access our search histories and other demographic information, then tailor our online experiences based on what they think we want to see. Similar to echo chambers, teachers can ask students to track the kinds of ads and suggested content they see on their social media accounts and determine if they are being “forced” into ideological silos.

In conclusion, we need to move students away from simply evaluating individual pieces of information and instead ask them to critically examine their online habits. Such a change requires less attention to simplistic heuristics like the CRAAP test and more attention to psychosocial concepts, such as confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. K-12 education is a potential remedy for the decline in civic literacy we see around the world, but only if we start to address the root causes.


Garrett, HJ (2019). Why does fake news work? On the psychosocial dynamics of learning, belief and citizenship. In W. Journell (ed.), Unpacking Fake News: A Teacher’s Guide to Navigating the Media with Students (pp. 15-29). Teachers College Press.

Journell, W., & Clark, CH (2019). Political memes and the limits of media literacy. In W. Journell (Eds.), Unpacking Fake News: A Teacher’s Guide to Navigating the Media with Students (pp. 109-125). Teachers College Press.

Lazer, DMJ, Baum, MA, Benkler, Y., Berinsky, AJ, Greenhill, KM, Menczer, F., Metzger, MJ, Nyhan, B., Pennycook, G., Rothschild, D., Schudson, M., Sloman, SA, Sunstein, CR, Thorson, EA, Watts, DJ and Zittrain, JL (2018). The science of fake news. Science, 359(6380), 1094-1096.

McGrew, S., Breakstone, J., Ortega, T., Smith, M. & Wineburg, S. (2019). How students evaluate digital information sources. In W. Journell (ed.), Unpacking Fake News: A Teacher’s Guide to Navigating the Media with Students (pp. 60-73). Teachers College Press.

Mutz, D. (2006). Hearing the other side: deliberative democracy versus participatory democracy. Cambridge University Press.

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