School Climate & Safety Opinion

3 Reasons Fake News Is Important

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 15, 2016 5 min read
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Over the past twenty years, as school districts have developed web pages, school leaders learned to seize the advantage of setting the record straight. Many asked for employees to listen for wrong information being shared throughout the district and community. Then the website was used by establishing a column with the ‘real news’. This was both a recognition that wrong information was ‘out there’ and that the school leaders were listening and were concerned enough to educate the public. The desire for transparency took commitment, a lot of thought and a few key strokes.

Now, we could call this ‘old school’ fake news. Even though it may have been found on Facebook or in group emails or in weekly paper sound off letters, it was local and seemed containable. Recently, however, we searched and couldn’t find an example to cite here of one of those column still existing. Perhaps they pop up during budget cycles or contentious decision moments. Or, perhaps, they have been replaced with FAQ pages. But, the times have changed and now people are getting their news from nontraditional sources. Whether it is TV news or online, most are getting news from a screen and the younger the population the more the source is online. This past summer the Pew Foundation reported that four-in-ten Americans often get news online. We think ‘Setting the Record Straight’ sections on the school district homepage is a practice whose time has come again.

We now have a broader challenge. The ‘fake news’ phenomenon has become an international one. There are a few reasons fake news stories take have taken off. One is those writing them can make quite a lot of money. There is little concern for the affect, on the reader(s) or the one(s) being written about. It is the worst instance of the use of ‘click bait’. Here is a revealing interview with one such author:

Some may wonder what all this means to a school/district leader. We think three very important ‘things’.

1. As leaders of learning organizations, understanding and tearing through ‘fake news’ to get to the truth is an essential skill. Headlines that frighten now abound. The news, fake and real, for example about the possible intentions of Betsy DeVos, nominated for Education Secretary can set off a firestorm. We have already seen headlines that read “Bill, Hillary, And Chelsea Have Been Indicted” “World Health Organization Report: Trannies 49X Higher HIV Rate” or “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women In Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews” and with their proliferation there is always a possibility that we become numb. But as leaders of learning organizations whose focus is on our children, we must become savvy in this arena. Before we can educate the children, we need to learn our way to navigate the territory. We have much to learn. This goes much further than the call to have students ‘take a position’ and ‘support with evidence’.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) offers a set of teacher standards that have unfortunately been languishing in the background as optional. The call for teachers to be prepared to help students communicate and create using digital tools and the Internet with respect and responsibility are embedded in those standards. It is not articulated as such but now teachers, more than ever, must be adept at discerning whether information on the Internet is real. Alan November started teaching valuable lessons about understanding URL’s and how to identify real sites from bogus ones years ago. Yet, we still have teacher and leader preparation programs lacking this type of teaching.

This fake news issue is a huge problem for our society as it leads to danger. The NY Times reported:

Days before the presidential election, James Alefantis, owner of a local pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong, noticed an unusual spike in the number of his Instagram followers...Within hours, menacing messages like “we’re on to you” began appearing in his Instagram feed. In the ensuing days, hundreds of death threats -- one read “I will kill you personally” -- started arriving via texts, Facebook and Twitter. All of them alleged something that made Mr. Alefantis’s jaw drop: that Comet Ping Pong was the home base of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John D. Podesta.

In the days after the election, there was a shooting at the pizzeria and it has been learned the source or the perpetrator of the story is the son of an incoming Trump appointee.

2. Another reason for this to be of concern to school leaders is there seems to be quite an appetite for these stories. Reality TV and supermarket tabloids, neither of which have any strong basis in reality, have found this hunger and capitalized on it. If one wants to give a story a life of its own, one only needs to make it exaggerated and send it out to these welcoming sites. Followers await who will pass it along with enthusiasm. There are many school leaders with horror stories to tell about how difficult it is to get ahead of a story that already has momentum. Catching these things early will make our lives easier.

3. And, a third reason is that honesty and integrity have become loosely valued attributes. We talk about their importance but we do not act accordingly. American adults seem to take statements of fact with a grain of salt...a colossal grain of salt. Who sends the message is often more important than whether it is factually supported. The more outlandish the story the more interest it creates. In the case of the pizza caper, the shooter had received information that the story was untrue, but he went, armed, to find out for himself.

School leaders have to identify their own capacity to separate true news from fake news and then ascertain what skill levels exist among the adults in the school system and in the community. That will help guide how to proceed. Here are two suggestions:

  1. Assess the knowledge base of the adults working in the school. Find and collect all the information the skilled ones have to share. Create time and space for learning about fake news to level the playing field and gain a well-informed faculty.
  2. Take the opportunity to educate the community. Uncover fake news both within the community and on the national level and create a ‘setting the record straight’ section of the webpage, linking to your Facebook posts and Tweets. Identify, where possible, how you know something is fake news so folks can learn along the way.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.