Teaching about Fake News: Lesson Plans for Different Disciplines and Audiences

ACRL announces the publication of Teaching about Fake News: Lesson Plans for Different Disciplines and Audiences, edited by Candice Benjes-Small, Carol Wittig, and Mary K. Oberlies.

Learn more about Teaching about Fake News in this excerpt from the Introduction by the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC.

About the Title

When hearing the title of our book, some librarian colleagues have asked, “Are you sure you want to use the phrase ‘fake news’?” We understand. Fake news is a problematic phrase. Does it simply mean stories that are truly fake? Does it include a story whose facts are basically true but then uses manipulative language and fallacious reasoning to twist the truth? Where do memes and fabricated images fall in this definition? How is fake news different from propaganda? Is it really a new phenomenon?

And yet, “fake news” is the phrase that captures non-librarians’ attention. When one of us planned to teach a public workshop titled “Media, Misinformation, and Trust,” the organizer asked her to add “Fake News” to the title. We have witnessed faculty who refused to bring their students to workshops about “evaluating websites” but clamor to have a session on “fake news.” For better or worse, “fake news” is a hot topic.

While librarians have justified concerns that “fake news” does not fully (or even accurately) capture the nuances of our problematic information ecosystem, it’s a phrase that resonates with and is used by others. Hopefully, when someone asks you to teach a fake news class, the request will trigger you to reach for our book. The chapters are intended to help you identify an appropriate perspective on this thorny problem, based on the audience with whom you’ll be working.


Journalists have been trying to categorize fake news since the phrase first became popular during the 2016 presidential election. In the broadest strokes, demonstrably inaccurate news stories are usually grouped into two camps: disinformation (intentionally putting forth a lie) or misinformation (believing the lie and spreading it). While the intent differs, the impact—giving life to incorrect stories—is the same.

In another effort to define fake news, First Draft News Director Claire Wardle identified seven types in 2017:[i]

  • satire or parody
  • misleading content
  • imposter content
  • fabricated content
  • false connection
  • false context
  • manipulated content

These classification schemes are intended to help platforms and users identify untrustworthy content. Of course, the internet is too large for humans to moderate every story that is posted. The hope is that if commonalities are found, then algorithms can be written to flag such content. As of August 2020, when a Facebook user clicks “Share” on a story about COVID-19, a pop-up window displays basic information about the source of the post meant to help the user decide the trustworthiness. But as some of our chapter authors explain, it’s dangerous to rely on computer algorithms to save us. Computer algorithms are written by people, and their errors carry over to the algorithms.

Fake news cannot be solved easily because it has many causes. It is a symptom of the American public’s erosion of trust in public institutions, especially the media. The Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy traces this mistrust to “proliferation of news sources, media disintermediation, confusion between news and opinion, the spread of mis- and disinformation, the decline of local news reporting and politicized criticism of the media.”[ii] This mistrust allows people to dismiss any story they hear that they don’t like as “fake news.”

For some, mainstream media as a whole is now viewed as “fake news.” As a Data and Society report states, “The use of the phrase ‘fake news’ across the political spectrum to legitimize or delegitimize established news sources indicates that this struggle is about much more than content moderation. Rather, it is about who gets to decide what types of political and news media content should be amplified over online networks.”[iii]

Librarians can play an important role in unpacking the phrase “fake news” with both faculty and students. We are information experts and can bring our knowledge and skills to important conversations about the information ecosystem.

College Students and Fake News

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education released a study showing that students struggle to think critically about information on the internet.[iv] College students who were asked to evaluate the credibility of websites often based their judgments on the seeming professionalism of the layout and graphics, without questioning the quality of the content. They also had difficulty deciding which websites to trust when asked to conduct a Google search on a controversial topic.[v]

In another study, Leeder found that college students were prone to overestimating their ability to evaluate news stories.[vi] While many were confident in such abilities, only 64 percent of participants accurately identified fake news, and 60 percent correctly identified real news stories. Leeder concludes, “The current structural environment of the Internet and social media make it difficult for students to accurately evaluate the quality of online information and make it easy to spread misinformation. These challenges make it even more crucial that today’s students learn to effectively evaluate the information they find and share online, especially news stories.”[vii]

According to a Project Information Literacy study from 2018, college students consume news regularly, from a wide range of sources and platforms.[viii] Many reported being overwhelmed by the constant “fire hose” of news directed toward them, with about half reporting it is difficult to tell fake news from real news. The report also revealed that many students learn about news from their professors in a class setting; it seems logical that learning about fake news would work in a course-integrated session.

How to Approach This Book

We have arranged the book into seven themes surrounding teaching about fake news: algorithms/altmetrics, visual literacy, media literacy, memes, business, science communication, the financial/political impact of fake news, and partnerships. We start the book by looking at the role algorithms play in research practices. Bellamy and Archer explore how the bias of search engine algorithms impact the type of information generated in our search results. Thomas also discusses the bias of algorithms focusing on the impact they have on senior citizen’s interaction with social media. Finally, McDonald and Miles look at how altmetrics can be used to evaluate and differentiate between sources of information.

Next, we explore using media literacy to provide students with skills to identify conspiracy theories (Morris) and overcome biased religious news through critical reflection (Newgren). Three chapters then discuss visual literacy through the lens of photography and data visualization. Kim looks at the historic roots of photographic manipulation and how these practices are continued today. Johns and Chasmar explore how statistics can be manipulated with data visualization, while Helgrel focuses on data ethics when creating data visualizations.

Following visual literacy, three chapters explore the topic of memes. Barham draws a link between postmodern art and memes using art elements to break down memes. Taking a historical perspective, Frawley looks at the election of 1800 and the role of political cartoons in spreading misinformation. Finally, Tedford and Womack provide a history of memes and how fact-checking can be applied to evaluate them.

Fake business news and its spread on social media are the topic of the next two discipline-focused chapters. Focusing on journalism students, Downey looks at fact-checking viral trends, while Cantwell and Wells look at the business ethics of social media influences and marketing products. The last four chapters with a discipline focus cover science communication and fake science news. Bogolmetc and Eng highlight how framing is used to evaluate science information and Quinn breaks down the indicators of pseudoscience studies. Looking at the scientific method, Williford and Ford use scientific literacy to evaluate scientific studies and Carlton and Lenininger explore how the scientific method can be used to invalidate fake news.

The spread of fake news has very real financial and political impacts on society, which are covered by the next four chapters. Looking at cognitive bias and rhetoric, Philips and Burkholder look at the implications of fake news on healthcare policy. Gallaspy discusses how industry analysis can be used to combat the manipulation of information that affects businesses. Hermman turns to mediation theory to look at the motivations behind fake news, while Bush, Chang, and McManus explore the use of propaganda in US political history as a persuasion tool.

We conclude with two chapters focusing on partnering with librarians. Jacobson discusses instruction librarians collaborating with writing centers to reinforce information literacy skills during consultations, while Oehrli shares insight into how librarians can talk with faculty about the intricacies of fake news and what we can contribute to teaching students to recognize it. While some may argue that fake news is too big a problem to be tackled by library workshops, we believe that the lesson plans in our book can have powerful value for instruction. True, no one will be immune from fake news at the end of a fifty-minute session, but neither are learners completely information literate after one session. Instead, we need to view “fake news” as a complicated problem with many aspects. By taking a more nuanced approach, a librarian can more effectively tailor a session to their audience and move them toward a more critical approach to news literacy.

[i] Claire Wardle, “Fake News. It’s Complicated,” First Draft Footnotes, February 16, 2017, https://medium.com/1st-draft/fake-news-its-complicated-d0f773766c79.

[ii] “Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America, Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy,” 2019, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/crisis-in-democracy-renewing-trust-in-america/.

[iii] Robyn Caplan, Lauren Hanson, and Joan Donovan, “Data and Society Dead Reckoning,” New Data & Society Report, 4, February 21, 2018. https://datasociety.net/library/dead-reckoning/.

[iv] Sam Wineburg, Sarah McGrew, Joel Breakstone, and Teresa Ortega, “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,” Stanford Digital Repository, 2016, http://purl.stanford.edu/fv751yt5934.

[v] Wineburg, McGrew, Breakstone, and Ortega, “Evaluating Information.”

[vi] Chris Leeder, “How College Students Evaluate and Share ‘Fake News’ Stories,” Library & Information Science Research, 41, no. 3 (2019).

[vii] Leeder, “How College Students Evaluate and Share,” 9.

[viii] Alison Head, et al., How Students Engage with News. Project Information Literacy, ACRL, 2018.