West Philly class teaches students to recognize and reject fake news

Facing students with noses buried in smartphone video games and eyes glued to YouTube videos, Christina Rissell is always trying to redirect their focus to the day’s lesson. Fortunately, today’s topic is an attention-grabber: fake news.

Her group of young teens at Mighty Writers West is tech-savvy, but they struggle in separating fact from fiction, especially in the news media — just like adults.

That’s why the nonprofit after-school program offers Fake News Finders, a weekly class that teaches the 10- to 14-year-olds the difference between real news, propaganda, entertainment, advertising and publicity — and the dangers of confusing them.

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“I realized that they had no idea about where to get sources, and why it’s important,” said Rissell, who has been working with Mighty Writers since 2015.

Rissell said her students, who are gearing up to write research papers both in school and at the after-school program in the coming years, are accustomed to citing Wikipedia and YouTube, which can be unreliable sources.

Students are learning that buying into fake news has consequences.

“Say if a person heard that there’s gonna be a riot right hereand they wanted to participate in it, but everything is normal,” said James Cook, a 13-year-old student at Mastery Charter Schools. “So then, they’ll probably get arrested or something.”

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That example came up in curriculum. Tweets appeared after Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore thatpurported to show widespread rioting and looting. But the person who posted the tweetused photos from prior years and taken in foreign countries. While groups of residents were working to protect their community, these tweets prompted calls to law enforcement.

Fake news hit a fever pitch during the 2016 election season. Many pundits agreed that the spread of misinformation changed the outcome of the presidential race.

Although Rissell’s curriculum focuses on current events, it’sdecidedly nonpolitical. But her students, who often watch the nightly news with their parents, are paying attention to the world around them.

Nasir Newman, 12, said he sees a lot of fake news spread right now and hears plenty of talk about it from adults.

“If the president is spreading fake news, he might start a war,” said Newman, a student at the Greene Street Friends School. “That would be very bad, because when he lies, we die.”

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