We taught more than 5,500 teenagers fact-checking skills this week. Here’s what we learned.

June 6, 2019 and
Category: Fact-Checking

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and accountability journalism, from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here.

Future fact-checkers of America

Hey y’all, it’s Daniel. In this newsletter, we spend a lot of time reporting on and analyzing some of the internet’s biggest problems — and how fact-checkers do (or don’t) help solve them.

But this week, I have some good news for you: The kids are alright.

On Monday, I traveled to Detroit to teach middle and high school students how to fact-check misinformation online. The trip was part of MediaWise, a relatively new media literacy initiative hosted by Poynter. It launched last spring with support from Google’s philanthropic arm and aims to teach 1 million teenagers fact-checking skills by 2020.

This week, MediaWise multimedia reporter Hiwot Hailu and I taught more than 2,000 students across metropolitan Detroit. Several hundred miles away in Boston, editor Katy Byron and Poynter marketing writer Mel Grau taught several thousand more.

In total, we reached at least 5,600 students at 13 events over four days in two states. Among the lessons: how misinformation is created and spread, what impact it has on society and how anyone can use tools like lateral reading and reverse image searches to debunk hoaxes.

That’s a lot of kids trying to learn tools that professional fact-checkers use worldwide. And the problem of misinformation is huge.

What we learned about media literacy by teaching high school students fact-checking

Just this week, the Pew Research Center published a survey that found about 70% of Americans think false information online negatively affects their confidence in the government. Approximately half said that misinformation is among the biggest problems for the U.S. — more than terrorism and illegal immigration.

Also in Pew’s study: Most Americans (56%) think that misinformation will only get worse over the next five years. And on a normal day, I’d be apt to agree with them.

But interacting with teenagers this week (hello again, high school anxiety!) made me optimistic. A significant portion of the students we taught already knew how to spot and debunk hoaxes; almost no one was fooled by this admittedly easy-to-spot fake article, for example. And, when presented with more samples of hoaxes, they already knew to pull out their phones and Google what they were seeing.

Pew’s survey found that about 53% of Americans think the onus is on news organizations to reduce the amount of misinformation online. And while obviously I agree that journalists play a crucial role in fact-checking bogus content, I also think that we can’t solve this problem at scale without having a more educated electorate. There just aren’t enough fact-checkers to go around.

The next generation of news consumers will be the ones to determine the quality of our online news ecosystem. If we want a healthier internet, we have to recognize the agency that Generation Z has to fix it. We have to meet them on their level and give them the tools they need to fight misinformation.

Again: It’s a huge task. But based on what I saw this week, there may be some hope just yet.

. . . technology

  • Twitter acquired a London-based startup that’s trying to develop technology that automatically detects misinformation. Until it went after anti-vaccine conspiracies last month, the platform hadn’t done anything to combat the spread of misinformation.

  • A lot has happened since we wrote last week about the video slowed down to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem impaired. The biggest development was The Daily Beast’s report that it found the originator of the video — and named him. The story generated an avalanche of criticism that it had doxed the poster, and that some leaker at Facebook had violated the user’s privacy. Mathew Ingram, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, asked a lot of the right questionsDaniel found that fact checks didn’t get as much engagement as the original video — but Lead Stories found that the video’s engagement was drastically reduced after fact checks appeared alongside it.

  • Tom Van de Weghe, a Dutch journalist and Knight fellow, shared on Medium what he has learned about deepfakes while studying them in his fellowship at Stanford.

. . . politics

  • Marking the 30-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, Ryan Krull writes in The Atlantic that “Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge the events of June 4, 1989, has created a vacuum into which misinformation, ignorance, and revisionism have been allowed to flow.”

  • President Donald Trump’s interview with The Sun, in which he expressed surprise that  Princess Meghan Markle was “nasty” about him, then denied saying she was nasty, prompted a number of takes about whether he is gaslighting or merely Orwellian. Writing in The InterceptMehdi Hasan noted that some have questioned whether fact-checking is merely a distraction when it comes to Trump, then said “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

  • BuzzFeed News wrote about how anti-dog signs aimed at generating anti-Muslim sentiment in the Vancouver area are resurfacing nearly two years after the mainstream media first covered them. That’s part of a larger pattern of misinformers taking real news content and posting it with new, hateful context. (Our fact check of the week is about a similar Islamophobic conspiracy.)

. . . the future of news

It may not always be news when a politician tells the truth, but a fact check highlighting a true statement can be a service to readers if done well, especially when the claim seems like exaggeration in the first place.

During his State of the State address, California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, said: “Just this morning, more than a million Californians woke up without clean water to bathe in or drink.”

That sounds like a lot, but PolitiFact California found it’s actually true. The number may even be understated, experts told Capital Public Radio reporter Chris Nichols.

What we Liked: Californians might have dismissed Newsom’s big number as just more hyperbole from a politician. Nichols’ fact check told them why they shouldn’t. Such fact checks give politicians credit when they do their homework, while also making clear that fact-checkers are not just playing “gotcha” to politicians’ false claims.

  1. The IFCN has a new summer intern! Meet Daniela Flamini, a recent graduate of Duke University — and a Reporters’ Lab and Chequeado alumna.

  2. The Indian state of Kerala is fighting misinformation about the Nipah virus as well as the virus itself, which has been confirmed in the region. Officials have flagged an increase in alarmist propaganda about the illness, the Hindu reported.

  3. PolitiFact turned a fact check correction into a story about why it’s still hard to verify visuals online.

  4. Politico’s Tim Starks wrote that a report from cybersecurity firm Symantec concluded that Russia’s 2016 manipulation efforts were “larger, more coordinated and more effective than previously known.”

  5. The Toronto Star’s star fact-checker, Daniel Dale, is going to CNN.

  6. Peter Cunliffe-Jones wrote a parting note when he stepped down as executive director of Africa Check this week. And the project is hiringa new deputy director.

  7. The Trust Project, which works with dozens of newsrooms on “trust indicators,” raised an additional $2.25 million from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Facebook and the Democracy Fund, Axios reported.

  8. The House Intelligence Committee plans to delve into fake videos next week, chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told Politico.

  9. Autistic people say anti-vaccination misinformation is adding to stigmas they already face every day, BuzzFeed wrote.

  10. Ending on a fun note: It seemed like “Jeopardy!” contestant James Holzhauer was good enough to keep winning forever. So his loss in an episode that aired this week resulted in a number of conspiracy theories, which he promptly shot down.

That’s it for this week. Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factchecknet@poynter.org.

Daniel and Susan