Teaching Students When to Believe What They Read on the Internet

Click here for a no-prep source reliability webquest!

Today’s students have all of the knowledge in the world in the palm of their hands. Everything they need to know to be well-informed is a simple Google search away. The problem is you never know what kind of pizzagate, flat Earth, Hitler’s alive, Paul McCartney’s dead “truth” these Google searches will reveal.

In a world where social media platforms are eager to serve their users the latest conspiracy theories and clickbait baloney, the single most important skill we can equip students with is the ability to think critically about source reliability– to help them avoid the rabbit holes of misinformation the internet begs them to not only fall down but also share with their friends.

But the dishonesty isn’t always as obviously erroneous as the Avril Lavigne replacement conspiracy theory. Sometimes the most dangerous lies are really the truth twisted just enough to be misleading and manipulative, so how do we prepare our students to spot fake news and bias, and ultimately untangle the truth?

I personally always start with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

I have had countless students share that their childhoods were ruined when they learned that Bill Nye was arrested for manufacturing and selling meth.

There are actually a wealth of sources on the internet that make this the perfect topic to explore with your students when discussing the concept of truth.

I start out by encouraging my students to simply Google whether this rumor is true or false. Then, we analyze their findings as a class.

Their immediate reactions always make me cringe. They type in the question, click enter, and see the screen populate with headlines highlighting their keywords. “It’s true!” they declare. “There’s dozens of articles about it!” Nevermind what those articles might say, there instinct is to look no further. When prompted to look around more, some cite fact checking sources like the one below as proof that the claim is real because they either don’t know what “satire” means or they don’t scroll down far enough on the page to see more than the claim itself.

One thing that will inevitably come up in these searches is the article that originally started this rumor, published by Huzzlers.com. Students often read this article and determine that the story is real, despite the site’s “About” section labelling itself satire. Students are often unfamiliar with this term, so it presents a good learning opportunity. We take a second at this point to explore The Onion and other satirical publications and have a good laugh.

Another source that frequently comes up in students’ searches is the one on the left. Students see the article title, “Bill Nye Arrested” and immediately conclude that the rumors are true! However, the date at the top of the article (not to mention the content itself) reveals that this “gentleman who does not lay claim to literary distinction” is not the William Nye we know and love.

After sharing this experience, I present to students a list of criteria they should check for when determining whether sources are reliable not– things like taking a look at the author, publisher, and date. Because so many of these things were relevant in our own searches, students are able to contribute to this list and to better able to understand the importance of each factor.

Of course, you don’t have to use Bill Nye’s meth lab accusations as your research topic if you’re interested in recreating this experience in your classroom. In fact, it doesn’t matter what you encourage your students to research, it’s just important that you do. Giving them an authentic opportunity to search for the truth is the most relevant way to teach them the important of research skills. If they want to be an educated, informed citizen, they need to understand when information is intentionally or unintentionally misleading.

It’s also important to remember that teaching research skills doesn’t have to end with a massive, time-consuming research essay. After all, most of our students’ authentic research experiences outside of the classroom won’t. Therefore, teaching critical thinking can be as simple as working together to debunk an internet hoax, and fortunately, there are no shortage of them for you and your students to explore.

You’ve probably already heard of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website created by satirist Lyle Zapato. If you haven’t, you should definitely check it out! It’s great for teaching students how to identify satire and determine a source’s credibility.

And there are a lot of great websites like it!

After my students and I research Bill Nye’s questionable past, I always send them on a source reliability WebQuest.

For this activity, students work in groups to explore five different websites. Some are hoaxes that have gone to great lengths to appear real. Others contain real information that is so weird, wacky, or unexpected that they’re hard to believe.

The truth can only be revealed when students have carefully recorded and analyzed each indicator of source reliability: the date, the author, the publisher, the domain name, the bias, the page design and the sources the page cites.

I love walking around as students discuss what steps they should take next to figure out the truth. They ask great questions, challenge each other’s thinking, and practice true critical thinking skills. As they move on to do further research in my class, they can easily identify when a source is less than credible and should not be used. They’re also more skeptical and hesitant to write down any piece of information without validating it first.

I would highly recommend creating something like this for your classroom or taking a look at my no-prep, editable Source Reliability WebQuest!

Please let me know how this works in your classroom. I’m sure there are a million fun directions this could go, and I’d love to hear all about it! Just leave a comment below or connect with me on Instagram: @that_literacy_girl or Facebook: That Literacy GirlHappy teaching!

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