How to Spot Fake News (and Teach Kids to Be Media-Savvy)

Clickbait, hyper-partisan opinion, and completely false information are running wild across the internet. By Sierra Filucci
Advice | 1:09

This just in! Breaking news! You don't want to miss THIS!

If you get your news online or from social media, this type of headline sounds very familiar. What's real? What's fake? What's satire? Now that anyone with access to a phone or computer can publish information online, it's getting harder to tell. But as more people go to Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and other online sources for their news and information, it's even more crucial that all of us -- especially kids -- learn to decode what we read online. (Learn more about how kids get their news and how they feel about it in Common Sense Media's report, News and America's Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News.)

There's so much fake news online that Google and Facebook are starting to actively crack down on publishers of false or misleading news. But ad-supported networks are in somewhat of a bind, since they get money when users click on these stories -- so the crazier the headline, the more money they make. Most kids and teens get their news from their feeds, so they need to learn how to view stories critically (and they should learn that skill anyway!). Even little kids can start to think about some key media-literacy questions. And as kids get older, parents can help kids become more sophisticated critical thinkers. (If your kid's school is tackling media-literacy issues, consider sharing this with their teachers.)

Here are a few basic questions to consider whenever you and your kids encounter a piece of media:

  • Who made this?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Who paid for this? Or, who gets paid if you click on this?
  • Who might benefit or be harmed by this message?
  • What is left out of this message that might be important?
  • Is this credible (and what makes you think that)?

(Thanks to Project Look Sharp for these questions.)

Older kids especially might enjoy learning tricks to spot fake news. Here are a few things to watch for:

  • Look for unusual URLs or site names, including those that end with ".co" -- these are often trying to appear like legitimate news sites, but they aren't.
  • Look for signs of low quality, such as words in all caps, headlines with glaring grammatical errors, bold claims with no sources, and sensationalist images (women in bikinis are popular clickbait on fake news sites). These are clues that you should be skeptical of the source.
  • Check a site's "About Us" section. Find out who supports the site or who is associated with it. If this information doesn't exist -- and if the site requires that you register before you can learn anything about its backers -- you have to wonder why they aren't being transparent.
  • Check Snopes, Wikipedia, and Google before trusting or sharing news that seems too good (or bad) to be true.
  • Consider whether other credible, mainstream news outlets are reporting the same news. If they're not, it doesn't mean it's not true, but it does mean you should dig deeper.
  • Check your emotions. Clickbait and fake news strive for extreme reactions. If the news you're reading makes you really angry or super smug, it could be a sign that you're being played. Check multiple sources before trusting.

(Thanks to Professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College for some of these tips.)

About Sierra Filucci

Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women's and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.... Read more

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Comments (18)

Adult written by Deplorable Effect M.

Fake news, is primarily propaganda from entities known collectively as "Main Stream Media". These people work for the DNC and Soros. No story released by MSM should be believed and no quarter given to those who propagate the lies of Globalists.
Educator written by Linda T.

I don't trust Snopes as they have demonstrated very liberal bias and Wikipedia - anyone can contribute without checking on facts.
Adult written by Deplorable Effect M.

You are exactly right Linda. Snopes is a propaganda arm of the DNC. Wikileaks started as a crowd sourced repository but have been raked into the fold of being another political operative. Now, as full of lies as the NYT... A sad story of the abuse of power and the control of thought.
Educator written by mrbw

Disagree on both fronts. While Snopes certainly doesn't seem to pull any punches when it comes to questioning media that clearly has a conservative bias, there's no real reason to conclude that the material they publish is itself biased. Wikipedia is useful only as a starting point. A good Wikipedia entry will have hyperlinks to each of its sources that a reader can use to follow up on. Granted, there's no guarantee that anyone will follow up (and Wikipedia has its own issues when it comes to representation), but it's better than nothing.
Adult written by m s

Great piece! Very unbiased and the information you provide in regards to how finding out if a site is worthy of real/truthful information is so important for kids as well as all people. Looking at the url is a super easy way of initially screening a site. And knowing who and why an article or ad is written is also important. Thank you!
Educator and Parent written by Mrs. Brenda Alvarez

Thank you !! I'ma a technology teacher and also a mother!! and this would be tremendous class, while reasearching for science fair porject
Educator and Parent written by Peg B.

It is a real shame that an article has to be written on how to tell when an news article is fake. People have lost the ability to analyze anything they read and tell if something just does not read right to them. They c an not tell when something is missing details and how to go about finding the full facts. Because of the electronic age and instant answers people have become very lazy in the ability to do any research or put out and effort in pursuing a better explanation that makes better sense. Most problems and disagreements would never develop if people would just stop, think and research why, before reacting.
Adult written by David S.

What's real sad is that technology has made it possible to create seemingly "authentic" looking websites that are anything but. And that people would rather listen to their own confirmation biases than listen to alternative view points. What's even sadder than that, however, are people who think that ANY viewpoint is worthy of listening to. They're still holocaust deniers out there who will argue with you till they're blue in the face. They don't deserve equal time in the spotlight during a discussion about World War II. Technology has created a virtual world where not only do those people have a platform, but they can shout their messages from the rooftops right along with sensible people. And make money doing it!
Educator and Parent written by speaktruth

It is imperative we not only critically think through what is true but pass on that life skill to our kids. The part I find ironic is the call to check with snopes (which I recently found a blatant lie about something happening after the election - no surprise there since the couple who runs the site are liberals from Los Angeles), Wikipedia (which has it's own issues as the other commentator wrote) , google and the mainstream media...all left leaning, which is fine if they would report the truth in it's entirety and let the viewer decide what we want to believe.
Educator written by Linda T.

I agree! The liberal bias in media and Hollywood is not what hard-working Americans want in their news!
Educator written by Kari L.

This seems like a great article and I'd love to share it out more easily with my students' families. Is there by chance a PDF version of this that I could push it out through our school's PeachJar account?
Educator and Parent of a 10 and 12 year old written by Sierra Filucci

Hi Kari! We have something similar in PDF format. See if this link works for you: https://d1e2bohyu2u2w9.cloudfront.net/education/sites/default/files/tlr-...
Educator and Parent written by suanderson

This is a great article, except for one item, which prevents me from sharing it with my teaching staff. Ms. Filucci suggests readers check Wikipedia, "before trusting or sharing news that seems too good to be true." Wikipedia has its own issues and I teach my students not to use it as a source in itself. If they want to consult it and then follow through by examining the sources that the author of the article used, that is fine; however, there is misinformation in the main articles and it sometimes takes months for the human editors of the sites to cycle through those articles.
Adult written by Joel M.

Another teacher worrying about being put out of the job by Wikipedia, I tend to find Wikipedia is much more accurate than the average teacher.
Educator and Parent written by Jon Trew

I did some training with some young people recently and we talked about these issues. However you miss out a very important tool in the young persons armoury of spotting hoaxes. The reverse image search! Its really easy, so a hoax like the viral picture of Trump supporters with tee shirts that said 'Make America White Again' is easily exposed when you discover the earliest copies of the pictures show them wearing shirts that say 'Make America Great Again' . Interestingly two of the young people scored significantly higher in their ability to spot fakes than the adult Youth Workers.
Educator and Parent of a 10 and 12 year old written by Sierra Filucci

Great tip! We have that one and more here: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/news-and-media-literacy/whats-the-best-...

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