Fake News Has Rocked America. So How Do We Fix The Problem?

One professor thinks she may have found the answer.

The pope endorsed Donald Trump. Barack Obama is banning the pledge of allegiance. Hillary Clinton has died of a heart attack.

Each of these hoax stories went viral during the 2016 election as Americans were inundated with what has been aptly described as "fake news." But while most Americans have no trouble pointing to the problem, quite a number of Americans are having trouble figuring out how to fix it.

Except for Vivian Vasquez.

Vasquez, a professor in the School of Education at American University, worked in education for 14 years teaching children between the ages of three and eight years old. Now she is an academic and researcher, and she's been studying the antidote to fake news: critical reading skills. Through her research, Vasquez has discovered that children as young as three years old are capable of reading critically and identifying why and how stories are being delivered to them.

Vasquez began researching how children took in everything from what they read on food packages to the news around them. Time and again, she discovered that children were not just capable of critical reading skills — they were actively engaged in critical reading practices. While Vasquez says it is impossible to know how well the average child might identify or recognize fake news — "the notion of an average child is really an arbitrary designation" — she sees direct results in how teaching critical reading skills change the way children approach text.

"I do know that those who have learned to engage with texts from a critical literacy perspective readily employ strategies for understanding what texts are trying to convince them of doing, saying and believing," Vasquez told A Plus in an email. "These children understand that no text is ever neutral and that all texts are constructed from particular perspectives."

Vasquez (front left) with a group of children and adults at a critical literacy symposium that she helped organize at American University
Vasquez (front left) with a group of children and adults at a critical literacy symposium that she helped organize at American University Vivian Vasquez

If you are going to combat "fake news," the first thing you need to do is accurately define what that means. Vasquez says the term has become a "catch-all phrase" for any news we don't agree with or don't like. In particular, it's used that way by people in positions of power to deride the mainstream media.

But according to Vasquez, this isn't what actually constitutes fake news.

"I would define fake news as a broadcast or published report that is both intentionally and verifiably fabricated or fake with the intent of misleading readers, listeners or viewers for a particular reason," Vasquez said. "These reasons include the entertainment of others, to convince someone to buy into a certain way of thinking or perspective, to cause outrage as a way to gain support for a particular perspective, and to encourage mistrust or doubt."

Perhaps the most prominent example of fake news in the United States, she said, was birtherism; the story that former President Barack Obama was not born in America. Fake news has become so pervasive — not just as a term, but actual fake news in our lives — that Vasquez began considering how it was affecting children, many of whom spend significant time on the Internet.

John Gress Media Inc / Shutterstock.comSMLXLSize Guide
John Gress Media Inc / Shutterstock.comSMLXLSize Guide

In November of 2016, a Pew Research poll found that 86 percent of Americans use the Internet, where some of the most popular fake news lives. 68 percent use Facebook and 21 percent use Twitter, where fake news is most popular and most often circulated. 

"Given that fake news stories circulate most widely via Facebook and Twitter it would follow that many more children than we likely imagine have been and continue to be exposed to fake news stories either directly as social media participants or indirectly through their families, acquaintances and friends," Vasquez said.

To help frame children's thoughts, Vasquez will have them ask questions that can help them identify fake news. Questions like "What is this story trying to do to me?" or "What sources are cited?" are questions children under the age of eight can address and flesh out. 

"Children spend a great deal of time online and need to realize that some of the material they find online are generated for the primary purpose of getting as many hits, clicks, likes as possible," Vasquez said. "As they engage with multimodal texts one of the things I encourage is listening differently, listening critically, listening with a healthy skepticism where you are not being quick to accept what is held out as truth."

Teaching students these critical reading skills is most successful in classrooms where teachers respect student resistance and address the diverse needs and literacies of the students involved, Vasquez explained. Ultimately, though, her work has shown her that our children are perfectly capable of learning how to identify and parse complex news stories that may indeed be fake. And with Internet access and fake news both at an all-time high here in the United States, those critical reading skills will be incredibly important for the next generation to participate in democracy with real facts readily at hand.

"The work the children do is both powerful and pleasurable and often it has real-world effects that result in change," Vasquez said. "Knowing this gives me hope for the future."

Cover image via Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com

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