Skip to main content

Students training as teachers develop vaccine against fake news

Your sneaking suspicion was right: its complete nonsense, of course. The correct headline reads like this: Aspiring teachers at the University of Passau develop ideas of how to sensitise school children to fake news.

That, at any rate, was one of the topics covered by the new interdisciplinary teaching format Information & Media Literacy Think Tank, which was held in the teaching laboratory of the University of Passau and allows students to actively take part on equal terms with experts from various fields. Expert input at the session entitled Fake News & Alternative Facts are Everywhere - Or why ‘post truth’ became the word of the year 2016 came from American studies scholar Dr. Sarah Makeschin and media semiotician Amelie Zimmermann

In the lead up to the event, the University of Passau asked social network for ideas.

1. What is fake news?

Firstly, fake news is any disinformation presented as news. In the discussion with fellow students, a participant pointed out: This is neither positive nor negative because satire or fiction makes use of this stratagem as well. Fake news became a household term during the US election campaign in 2016 – in the sense of politically motivated attempts to fabricate news that reached millions of voters in the social network, according to Facebook.

2. What is misinformation, what is disinformation?

In English, misinformation generally means the dissemination of untruths, no matter what the intention. This may vary from rumours and unintended misrepresentations to propaganda. In English, the word disinformation is used when the intention is to deceive: facts are deliberately skewed or false information is disseminated in order to cover up the truth or influence public opinion, frequently with the claim: ‘We shine a light on the way things really are!’

3. What role does truth play in the fake news debate?

A major one. Truth and lies become political rallying cries. Pieces of information become fake news, alternative truths, alternative facts. In the US, Donald Trump presents mock awards for reputable journalism, whereas in Germany, the one-time watchword Lügenpresse (press of lies), which was used back in World War I and by the National Socialists to invalidate critical reports, is doing the rounds. That becomes a problem when all you get is a shrugging of shoulders which is tantamount to saying: Nobody knows what's true or false anymore anyway. A student contributed the following quote from Hannah Arendt at the discussion round held at the University of Passau: ‘The ideal subject of a totalitarian regime is not the inveterate Nazi or the inveterate communist, but the individual for whom the distinction between reality and fiction, between what is true and what is false, no longer exists.’

4. How do I recognise fake news?

Another university student participating in the Think Tank reported how he came across dubious messages on WhatsApp during the G20 summit in Hamburg. He decided to forward them to an acquaintance deployed as a policeman and was able to provide him with an assessment of the situation on the ground. Sometimes, it helps to verify the profile of the original sender. What other information did he or she share? Something that may also be instructive: a search to check whether other media outlets are also reporting the same. Moreover, a red flag should go up whenever you read statements like those previously mentioned about throwing the light on how things really are. Conveniently, an Austrian initiative has collected these in a fake news bingo.

5. How do I teach children and adolescents about this?

This is how a university student put it at the Think Tank session: Teach the school children how to play the shell game. Only if they master the game will they understand how manipulation works. Art teacher Dorothe Knapp cited a project where school children learned how satire works. Perhaps a similar approach could be taken with fake news.

A user provided the following Twitter comment:

First, I would talk it over with the school kids to find out what the problem with fake news is. Then a tutorial & have them spot and present fake news themselves.
— Friederike Busch (@rike_tweet)
16 January 2018

Thanks very much!

@kathaimerl @UniPassau Erst würde ich mit Schüler*innen diskutieren, was das Problem an FakeNews ist. Dann ein Tutorial u dann die Sch. selber FakeNews aufspüren u präsentieren lassen.

6. Any further advice and requests?

Don't set any goals. Someone on Facebook commented that getting them realise that not everything you find on social networks is true and accurate would already be a step forward. Another student said something similar in the discussion. Currently training to become a history teacher, she intends to discuss topics like document forgery in the Middle Ages and propaganda during the Nazi period with her pupils. ‘It would be brilliant if we succeeded in making them understand that, even today, we are struggling with exactly the same phenomenon. But in a different way.’

She went on to say that she certainly will be taking home lots of ideas, suggestions and food for thought from experts and fellow students at the Think Tank. Is there anything else you would like?

Yes, she says. More time to discuss with the school children.

Playing the video will send your IP address to an external server.

Show video