The term ‘fake news’ has been in the media frequently in the last year, and continues to rear its ugly head, particularly on social media. With social media use growing all the time, especially with younger generations, the need to be vigilant when it comes to news stories is greater than ever. This issue is highly relevant in the constantly evolving technological era in which we now live.

The Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills, run by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Literacy, the National Literacy Trust, and partners (Facebook, First News and The Day) collected evidence over a year long period to show the impact of fake news on children, and what skills were needed to spot it.

Research carried out by the National Literacy Trust, with more than 2,000 UK children aged eight to 16 years old, showed that only 2% of children are able to spot real news from fake – this is an alarmingly statistic. Key findings from the report include:

  • Only 2% of children have the critical literacy skills they need to tell if a news story is real or fake,
  • Half of children (49.9%) are worried about not being able to spot fake news,
  • Two-thirds of children (60.6%) now trust the news less as a result of fake news,
  • Two-thirds of teachers (60.9%) believe fake news is harming children’s well-being, increasing their anxiety levels,
  • Half of teachers (53.5%) believe that the national curriculum does not equip children with the literacy skills they need to identify fake news.

Interestingly, there were similarities to the literacy gap found in Key Stage 2, with notable differences in both gender and disadvantage. In Key Stage 2, more girls than boys are able to spot the fake news stories (by seven percentage points), however by secondary school, it is the boys who have the advantage over girls with a six percent gap. There is a gap of 19 percentage points between those eligible for free school meals (FSM) and those who are not- with the children eligible for FSM at a disadvantage. However, by secondary school, this gap almost disappears.

The research tells us that many children have difficulty spotting fake news and need to develop their critical literacy skills. So, what are critical literacy skills? Critical literacy skills go beyond the initial decoding and comprehension skills children learn in their primary school career. They invite the reader to move beyond passively accepting the author’s message and to question and examine the relationship between readers and authors. These skills are about learning to critically challenge what they read and consider different perspectives, in order to make informed judgements.

These skills are not always directly addressed in the primary curriculum, but certainly the foundations for those skills are laid down. In the secondary curriculum, these skills are targeted more directly through discussion, debate, weighing evidence, asking perceptive questions, applying reasoning and forming judgements in subjects such as history, sociology and religious education.

So, what does this mean for children and young people with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN)? This is already a vulnerable group who may have difficulty processing language, interpreting complex grammar, understanding vocabulary – as well as using higher order thinking skills such as inference and reasoning. Children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), language disorder associated with another condition, learning difficulties, and individuals with social communication difficulties may all struggle with the higher order thinking skills needed to spot fake news. Children with SLCN may first need support with developing foundational comprehension skills before they develop their higher order thinking skills.

What are higher order thinking skills? These skills involve taking factual information, connecting it to other known information and applying it in different ways to achieve deeper understanding or to solve problems. Higher order thinking includes being able to visualise information, make connections between information and concepts, infer information and intentions, evaluate information and form judgements, problem-solve and generate novel ideas.

Individuals with social communication difficulties, such as those with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, may have difficulty with some or all of these skills, and in particular with understanding the motivations and intentions of others. This makes it much more challenging for them to determine whether or not a news story is real – they are more likely to take a story at face value without suspecting malign intentions. At the heart of the battle against ‘Fake news’ is the concept of bias- supporting or opposing someone or something in an unfair way. This bias may come from political or religious views, prejudice, cultural differences, ideologies or other influences.

Being able to recognise bias requires the ability to infer intentions, an area which is often impaired in our SLCN population. Individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorder may need explicit teaching of how to interpret social information, in order to develop inferential thinking around others’ intentions. If most neuro-typical children have difficulty spotting fake news then we can assume this group is finding it even harder.

While many secondary schools target critical literacy skills in subjects such as English and history, only half of the teachers surveyed by the National Literacy Trust explicitly teach these skills. The APPG has urged for greater efforts from schools in discussing stories from a range of sources in lessons, and to teach children more about how news is made. This is clearly a problem for society as a whole, however, schools are ideally placed to teach children critical literacy skills in a broader context than just key academic subjects, such as in personal, social and health education lessons. Ideally, these skills should form part of the national curriculum. Parents, too, have responsibility in teaching children to treat non-mainstream news sources with caution, and to encourage critical discussion about reported events. This gives children the opportunity to have a free discussion with family members, without the fear of judgements from influential peers.

The APPG heard evidence from teachers who expressed concerns about the impact of fake news on children’s fears and anxieties, citing experiences of children becoming frightened by stories such as ‘killer clowns’. Eventual mistrust of news stories can lead to feelings of insecurity – there was a time (before the rise of social media) when we felt more confident in our sources of news. It is important to consider the mental health impact on all children, but perhaps especially to consider children with SLCN, who are already at risk of facing challenges with emotional well-being.

In today’s world we are now digitally connected to more people than we would ever have come into contact with before. Unfortunately, this means children are potentially exposed to harmful content such as messages of hate or extreme views. It is harder to protect our children from this harmful content when it is so easily accessed, and in many cases posing as ‘news’- it’s news right? Surely that’s just reporting the truth? Sadly, that’s not the case in this technological era. It’s all too easy for children with SLCN to believe what other people are saying is right, when they lack the language skills and possibly confidence to question it. We need to identify children and young people with SLCN and explicitly teach them about the dangers of fake news. We need to prepare them to question what they see and hear online.

What can be done about the rise of fake news? The burden of this issue does not fall to one agency or group alone. It needs to be a joint effort between government, news agencies, social media, education, parents and individuals. In the meantime, we must do what we can to mitigate the impact of fake news, by getting better at spotting it, and teaching young people to think critically about what they read.

Some secondary schools and sixth forms across the UK have been taking part in schemes designed to help young people distinguish the real stories from the fake. Some universities have also produced online courses and videos to target these skills. They advise to look out for warning signs such as these:

  • Checking the source – is there more than just one source? Can you find it on other mainstream media? Have you ever heard of this organisation before?
  • What is the agenda of this news site? Do you know them to have a particular political agenda? Do they seem to be trying to persuade you to side with a strong opinion? What’s in it for them?
  • Are they criticising mainstream media? Do they tell you mainstream media is keeping this information secret?
  • Check their statistics and survey results – how did they come about these results? How many people were surveyed? Were they a cross-section of society? Whose figures are being reported?
  • Is it passing itself off as genuine, or could it be a satirical news site? Look carefully!
  • Check the context – something that looks dramatic might not actually be as alarming when put in context, e.g. interest rate rises which actually only line up with last year’s rates.

Tackling this issue at the whole school level seems prudent. Young people can be very influenced by their peers, so the more young people involved in raising awareness of fake news and how to spot it, the higher the chance there will be some critical thinking going on amongst this age group to combat problematic stories. The capricious natures of social media and technology mean we need to keep on our toes in arming our young population with the skills needed to navigate modern life. Communication and critical thinking must be at the forefront of our agenda.

Share this article