Fake News, Social Media, and You!

Recently, I had the chance to teach a digital literacy class in our new 9th grade skills course. This was the first time ever that my school was going to offer something like this, and I only had the 1 block period to do it, so I had to make it count. It turned out really well, judging by the feedback. Next year I hope to expand this into two classes so we can talk about individual responsible use of social media and more broadly about digital citizenship.

What I’m sharing here is an overview of what I put together. Feel free to borrow and tweak to your needs, I just ask that you credit me. Do not post this on other sites. 

The class was on fake news and social media. I started off with some movement activities, the reasons for which will become apparent later in the class. They are designed to model how algorithms break people into categories based on their interests and then funnel them toward more of those interest. You can pick any interests, but I had them first group by where they’re from, then by which of 3 animals they prefer, then by whether or not they posted on social media in the last 24 hours (I let them define social media however they wanted), and then by whether or not they were on social media in the last 24 hours. This can get rowdy, but I wanted them to burn off some post-lunch energy, so I let them debate with each other for a few minutes before sending them back to their seats.

Then we looked at how to evaluate and verify. Most of these kids I already had for my Amazon rainforest workshop, so they had a basic foundation on algorithms and evaluation. Instead of SIFT or other methods, I prefer going simple: the 5 Ws—who is the author, what is the site or publication, when was it posted, where did the information come from, and why is this information being offered. 

Then we talk about thinking before you repost or share something. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Before you share: stop, think, verify. We walked through Elon Musk tweeting out that disinformation article about the attack on Paul Pelosi. I intentionally did not discuss the article itself (we didn’t even open it) but kept the focus on the website that posted the article. We applied the 5 Ws to that website by looking at the About Us and other signs that it was not a reputable site. You can use any example you want, but pick something they are likely to have heard of or at least are tangentially familiar with. It’s important to give them a real world example here, because the point isn’t that Elon is bad but that we can all be snookered by fake news if we’re passively engaging with the algorithm instead of actively engaging.

Next I showed them reverse image search on google and used the polar bear on the Russian bus as the example. That also let us look at snopes.com as a generally trustworthy website (I’ve already introduced them to factcheck.org). 

Algorithms are next. Discuss what they are and show some examples of how different platforms use algorithms. We talk about rabbit holes and echo chambers. I used YouTube as an example, based off data from these 3 articles: “7 things we’ve learned about computer algorithms”, “YouTube’s recommendations drive 70% of what we watch”, and “YouTube’s algorithm seems to be funneling people to alt-right videos”. Don’t structure this as algorithms, social media, and YouTube are bad, but that it’s important to be aware of how structured their internet it. Nothing is neutral or happenstance. They can shape their experience as much as the algorithms will. I allow students to ask questions during this presentation, and this was where a lot of them had stuff to say. Much of it was comments about their experiences and opinions on algorithms, but I encouraged them to engage with each other, with me as a guide to keep it from getting personal.

We jumped to TikTok for a live demonstration of the algorithm. I asked how many use social media to get information. I also shared that I use it too. Using the account I made for the library, we looked up a topic, watched some videos, and tried to apply the evaluation skills to them. I chose a ballot initiative that was going to be on the election, but you can pick anything. You want your search results to have some verified sources and some randos fairly high up in the algorithm. We watched a rando that had an opposing view, and then I asked the kids to tell me if they trusted him. Most did. Then we looked at his profile and they immediately retracted their agreement. We looked at a news agency that offered general information, not trying to push people one way or the other and I asked the same question. (Interestingly, although they ultimately agreed it was a good site, they were turned off by the way the Millennial creators tried to mimic Gen Zers with their video.)

The last activity took about 15 minutes. I had them split into groups of 2. I sent them the links to the Academy of Pediatrics and American College of Pediatricians. They were not allowed to google them, just use the 5 Ws to go through their websites – 5min. They had to vote on the whiteboard which they thought was a legitimate site and which was the one pushing a political agenda. Do not react to how they’re voting (they’ll probably side with ACP)! Then I sent them back to google the sites and do some basic evaluation – 5min. They got to cast new votes (all of them went with AP). We discussed why they voted the way the did both times, and again I let them engage with each other. It also gave us a chance to talk about our internal biases and why we might not notice problematic language. 

And that’s it! Should take about 70 minutes. You can break this up into smaller lessons if needed. Reminder: if you use this please credit me and do not post this on other sites.

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