For social studies educators, a presidential election year is a big deal. It’s a nationwide teachable moment in which the entire country is constantly discussing a hearty list of key standards that is supposed to inform our instruction. I’ve always relished these times because they’re part of what makes social studies special. Our English teacher colleagues, for example, can’t rely on moments when everyone’s talking about diagramming sentences, or Beowulf, or the past perfect continuous tense with the same consistency as they might discuss, say, the Olympics.
But this big deal comes with big problems for educators, who must also help their students navigate the daily deluge of political media—especially in recent elections.
But this big deal comes with big problems for educators, who must also help their students navigate the daily deluge of political media—especially in recent elections. Social studies teachers must support their students as they encounter:
- Major attacks on journalism
- Evolving forms of media delivery
- Sophisticated manipulation tactics
- Shifting popularity of social media platforms
- All that talk of fake news
“Fake news” is probably their biggest challenge. Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults have admitted sharing fake news, according to the Pew Research Center. And while kids may be more fluent in social media than their parents or teachers, they still struggle to decipher between what’s real and fake, according to Stanford University. Young people can be easily duped by sponsored content, and don’t always recognize political bias.
That means that teachers’ attention is split. When they should be focusing on the content of the news and how it helps us understand our political system, including elections, they are instead forced to help students understand what exactly it means for something to actually be news—and if it’s worthy of sharing.
So what are enthusiastic social studies teachers to do during a presidential election year? How are they to take complex topics that they absolutely must teach and make them relevant and engaging for students? At iCivics, we ask ourselves these same questions in order to determine which topics to tackle.
So we set out to design a game that makes news literacy skills relevant to today’s students, crafts a narrative that promotes ownership of gameplay, and stays true to our secret sauce in order to ensure student engagement. We call it NewsFeed Defenders.
How are they to take complex topics that they absolutely must teach and make them relevant and engaging for students?
The online game engages players with the standards of journalism as they manage a fictional social media site focused on news and information. Players rise through the ranks at the news site—from guest user to site admin—by spotting dubious posts that try to sneak into the site’s newsfeed through hidden ads, viral deception, and false reporting. In addition to maintaining a high-quality site, players are charged with growing visitor traffic. They do this by maintaining the veracity of the site—implementing the rules of verification, transparency, accountability, and independence in news stories—while keeping their posts on topic and compelling for readers.
Feedback on the game has been enthusiastic. “Teenagers are skeptical by nature, but they’re also share-happy,” says Kymberli Wregglesworth, a social studies teacher at Michigan’s Onaway High School. She adds that playing the game helps her students identify real news stories and “understand the rules that can help them weed out misinformation on their own social media feed.”
In addition to learning the rules and standards of journalism, students playing the game learn to define and identify problematic news items and other news-related types of misinformation; explain a variety of strategies to verify images and information; evaluate text for bias based on word choices and framing methods; and use third-party information to judge the credibility of a source.
But the most critical outcome of playing NewsFeed Defenders—or engaging in any other news literacy instructional activities—is this: Students become more inclined to question what they see, hear, and read. Wregglesworth has seen this developing awareness in her students. One student, who she describes as “sort of big on Instagram,” was receiving solicitations to follow certain accounts in exchange for large caches of followers. “It happened right after we had talked in class about fake accounts, bots and such,” she explains. “He realized it was probably some kind of phishing scheme, and he didn’t fall for it.”
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To further this learning, iCivics has created a game extension pack—a slide deck of supplemental activities. Beth Doughty, an educator at Washington state’s Chief Umtuch Middle School, uses these activities to teach her students about bots and site mirroring. She then sets them loose to look for and evaluate these deceptive strategies on their own.“Students are able to see for themselves that bots can make some people seem more influential than they truly are, and that site mirroring can make bogus websites look reliable and authentic,” she says. Doughty hopes her students continue to use the strategies they learn in class. “Doing simple things like looking at the URL is a good practice to adopt when using the internet.”
There are other “simple things” that teachers can do to help their students navigate the complex world of media, especially in the politically charged atmosphere of a presidential election year:
• Assume students are NOT media literate. Students may be digital natives, but that doesn’t make them any more skillful at sifting through news and viral deception than older cohorts. Leverage their naturally skeptical disposition (and even their egos) to teach them how to tell the real from the fake—and to make them want to be able to tell the difference. No one wants to be a sucker, especially a teenager.
• Teach students what news is, and what it isn’t. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the pull-no-punches Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, declares: “If news is fake, it’s not news.” Students need to know that there is such a thing as news—real news—and that many journalists work hard every day to provide it to the American public, mostly by following the rules.
• Focus on the rules, and provide strategies for investigating each one. Journalism has rules. Teach the rules, and then show students how they can tell if the rules are being followed.
Students may be digital natives, but that doesn’t make them any more skillful at sifting through news and viral deception than older cohorts.
Accuracy: Check to see if sources are credited and cited. Be on the lookout for facts you can't verify with a quick internet search.
Trustworthiness: Triangulate data from at least three sources to ensure that the piece, the author, and/or the site is the real deal and not some imposter.
Impartiality: Ask if what you’re reading is supposed to be a news article or an opinion piece. If it’s presenting as the former, check for subjective statements, exaggerations, and leading questions.
Transparency: Don't be fooled by sneaky ads, quizzes that just mine for your personal information, or opinion pieces pretending to be balanced reporting. Content must clearly communicate its purpose, especially when it’s not a news article.
While we may pine for the simpler times of political media, the messiness and complexity of our current situation keeps things interesting and keeps us on our toes. As teachers, it makes our jobs more difficult—but it also makes for more engaging, student-centered learning. No more passive consumption of “the news” from just the nightly networks and the local paper. We are all being bombarded on multiple fronts. Give your students time, space and strategies to dig in, get their hands dirty and be on the hunt for the news.