False and weaponized news is, arguably, the thing we’ll remember about politics in the early 21st century, not Donald Trump or populism or Hillary Clinton or the failure of neoliberalism. After you strip away the names and faces and surprise electoral events, we may see that it was the erosion of the media’s credibility and of truth itself that set the stage for the political decisions we made.
The News Literacy Project, an education program aimed at helping young people distinguish real news from fake news in the age of weaponized social media, attacks the fake news problem at the consumer level. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit says that since the 2016 elections, it’s been fielding a surge in demand from teachers across the world. Recently, it received a $1 million grant from Facebook to help expand its curricula. By helping kids hone their own bullshit detectors, the NLP, and projects like it, may offer our best hope against fake news.
Understanding the stakes
Many of us, on the left and the right, have for many months been tuned in to the day-to-day of the Mueller investigation. Some want to know if somebody as bad as Trump could really have been elected fairly and whether he can be impeached. Others want it shown that Trump is the legitimate choice of the American people.
Millions voted for him–and not just the rural, white, and uneducated, as many thought. A Pew Research report says only a third of Trump voters were white males without college degrees, and that many college-educated women from the suburbs voted for Trump. Trump won among white college graduates by four percentage points. Many Trump voters picked him despite reservations about his character and lack of experience. Millions of evangelicals voted for him simply because he promised to attack Roe v. Wade. And more centrist voters of both political parties voted for Trump because they had negative feelings about Hillary Clinton’s credibility.
Hillary Clinton was the victim of one of the biggest long-term political smear campaigns in history, dating back to the early 1990s. Negative and baseless stories about her, her husband, and the Clinton Foundation flowed from Fox News and right-wing radio for months and years before the 2016 election. And the Trump camp effectively amplified negative stories about Clinton throughout the 2016 campaign, especially at Trump’s raucous campaign rallies. The same stories spread like wildfire on Facebook, with help, of course, from Russian trolls.
In an election where a large part of the electorate saw both candidates as unappealing, fake news stories about Clinton played a decisive role. The cultivation and repetition of disinformation has always been a big part of Trump’s divisive political strategy. He rode into the presidential race on a disproven conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
Our main counterforce to such disinformation is the professional news media. That’s why Trump has sought to discredit as “fake news” respectable news organizations like the Washington Post, CNN, and the New York Times that live and die by journalistic principles: Our first line of defense against actual falsities is an objective, fair, and relentlessly fact-based professional news media.
But as with any harmful vice, fake news will be defeated only by addressing the demand for it. Becoming a smart and savvy news consumer is just as important as being a wise consumer of health insurance or financial services or houses or cars or food or anything else. And just like a public health crisis, fake news, in all of its slippery forms, requires education. How do we Americans put a stigma on fake news in the same way we’ve put a stigma on cigarette smoking?
Teaching kids to think like good reporters
The News Literacy Project was founded in 2008 by Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter Alan Miller as a middle and high school classroom project in Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Chicago. Its lessons and materials are apolitical, created with input from real journalists. It teaches students how to recognize the earmarks of quality journalism and credible information, and how to know if articles are accurate and appropriately sourced. It teaches kids to categorize information, make and critique news judgments, detect and dissect viral rumors, interpret and apply the First Amendment, and recognize confirmation bias.
In one exercise, students are placed into the shoes of a young news reporter covering a breaking story. They’re asked to interview experts and eyewitnesses and review other material, then build a story piece-by-piece through multiple choice questions. They’re asked, in a sense, to think like a good journalist.
More recently, NLP’s leadership realized that the “in classroom” approach was not scalable enough, according to the organization’s COO, Chuck Salter, who is a former school superintendent. (No relation to Fast Company‘s Chuck Salter.) So in May of 2016, in the heat of presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, NLP launched its own e-learning platform, the Checkology virtual classroom. By adopting its curricula to the web, any classroom with an internet connection could access courses taught by distinguished journalists from places such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Buzzfeed News.
With disinformation and fake news spreading like a firestorm on Facebook and elsewhere, concerned teachers across the country have been increasingly demanding resources to help teach students how to intelligently sift through the deluge. Today thousands of teachers in all 50 states use the NLP’s program. The program’s 13 lessons can be integrated into government, civics, history, social studies, English, and journalism classes.
Those teachers are right to be concerned. Helping students detect fake news is an investment in a society’s long-term media literacy, but it can also have more immediate effects. A 2016 study by Stanford University found that young people are easy prey for traffickers in fake news. “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend,” the report stated. “But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.” Even more alarming is the idea that fake news producers may have specifically targeted people who lacked the desire or skills to look critically at news they encounter on social media. Research has shown that Trump got the votes of a disproportionate number of these “low-information voters” in 2016.
The NLP is guided by board members from across the media landscape, including Walt Mossberg, the influential former Wall Street Journal tech reporter, who says he now spends up to half of his time working with the organization on his own dime. Philanthropic contributions contribute almost all of the organization’s funding: Its donors include Jeff Bezos, Mike and Marci McClure, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Fox Foundation. Facebook’s Journalism Project, the social media giant’s partnership with media companies and journalists, gave NLP a $1 million grant this year. NLP is using the money to create new learning tools and update older ones, as well as to refresh the user interface of Checkology. It’ll also create a “global playbook” of news literacy resources and guidance for international organizations.
“People need more tools and education on what information they can trust,”Campbell Brown, Facebook’s global head of news partnerships, said in a blog post. “This partnership is part of our ongoing commitment to invest in organizations and programs that strengthen an informed community. Over the past 10 years, the News Literacy Project has done groundbreaking work in teaching news literacy in classrooms, and we’re honored to play a small part in expanding this incredibly important program.”
Facebook isn’t the only big player investing in the battle against fake news. Google gave $3 million this year to the Poynter Institute to build a digital media literacy project, called MediaWise, in cooperation with the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Local Media Association. That project, like NLP, is focused on providing the learning tools needed to teach teenagers fact-checking and fake news-spotting in the classroom. Other veteran efforts to improve news literacy and BS meters include the National Association for Media Literacy Education and the Center for Media Literacy.
The NLP’s Checkology platform has been free since its launch in May 2016. But for the next school year access to it will come in two forms–“basic” and “premium.” The Basic tier will remain free and offer limited lessons and functionality. The Premium tier offers the full set of content and costs $3 to $5 per student license, depending on the volume student licenses. NLP says the income will be used to defray the costs of continually updating the curriculum and materials, and for creating new lessons. Fake news, in all its forms, is a quickly evolving beast.
As educators have realized the damage already done by fake news, NLP’s reach has grown significantly. Checkology was used by 1,712 teachers and 28,168 students in the 2016-2017 school year; in the following school year the program reached 3,032 teachers and 78,040 students, an NLP spokeswoman says. The organization’s revenue grew from $1.4 million in 2016 to $2.8 million (unofficial, pending an internal audit) in 2017. Most of that revenue growth came from the $1 million grant from Facebook, NLP says.
The News Literacy Project has emerged as one of the most important educational tools for our time. During the last five years, fake or false news has polluted our social media, and people of all ages are having difficulty discriminating between false news and real news.
The courses created by the News Literacy Project should become a fundamental building block of our students’ education. Without these tools and others like them, the next generations may be doomed to repeat the same misinformed choices of the present one.