Fake News: What You Need to Know About Disinformation

COVID-19 restrictions have pushed children to spend an increasing amount of time online. During the first national lockdown, time away from school, friends and family meant their only means of keeping in touch was through the internet. As we head straight into a second national lockdown, their screen time is only likely to rise once again.

Increased time online, unfortunately, means increased exposure to its risks, such as fake news. In light of this, safeguarding expert, Lorna Ponambalum, has compiled a piece outlining what fake new is and how to combat it. 

Over recent years, the rapid growth of social media has enabled people to communicate with each other more easily. However, much of the recent information appearing on social media threads is questionable and, in some cases, intended to mislead. Such disinformation is often referred to as fake news. 

What is fake news? 

Fake news is false information that is broadcast or published online mainly for fraudulent or politically motivated reasons. Its aim is to spread confusion and hide the truth with lies, hoaxes, and conspiracies.   

Where is fake news posted and how can it spread?

Fake news is often posted on legitimate-looking websites or social media pages. The stories are intended to be controversial or sensational so that people are more likely to share them, especially if they correspond with their existing beliefs. Sometimes fake news can be intertwined into real news stories.  

The spreading of fake news can be increased by bots (computer programs that work automatically and are designed to seem like real people). There are millions of bots commenting on and resharing stories to make it look like the story is going viral. Organisations or celebrities will then share them which gives the fake news creditability.  

What are social networks doing about fake news? 

Social networks are attempting to limit the spread of fake news. Facebook initially did this by placing a red warning triangle next to fake news stories, but this was counterproductive as it just meant that people would be even more determined to read the story. Social media sites now attempt to tackle fake news by using third-party fact-checkers to try to make the stories less prominent in our news feeds.  

However, fake news can still be seen by millions over a short period of time before it is corrected and so it can make it difficult for us to actually decipher the truth.  

Only recently, a 17-year-old sixth form student tricked many mainstream news outlets into running a story claiming the once notable high street store, Woolworths, was reopening. This was based on nothing more than a Twitter account riddled with spelling mistakes and fewer than 1,000 followers. However, it was quickly picked up and amplified by the mainstream media outlets and took Twitter over 12 hours to shut down the account.  

What are the types of fake news? 

There are two kinds of fake news:  

  • Deliberately published false stories which are distributed, in order to make people believe something untrue or to encourage lots of people to visit a website. The person writing and posting the stories online knows that they are made up.
  • Stories where there may have some truth to them, but they're not entirely accurate. This is because the person writing them, which could be a journalist or blogger, doesn’t check all of the facts before publishing the story, or they might exaggerate some of it. 

This is happening more and more at the moment, with many people publishing these stories in order to get as many shares as possible. 

What is the government’s response to fake news? 

In July 2019, the then Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced that children in primary school and secondary school would learn about fake news from 2020.  

The non-statutory Online Safety guidance for schools was also at this time published by The Department for Education (DfE) and included teaching children how to identify online risks and how and when to seek support. The guidance also gives guidelines on how to recognise and respond to fake news more effectively and to tell the difference between misinformation and disinformation. 

Furthermore, the guidance also advises schools to teach students about how URLs are made and what an IP address is, as well as how companies make targeted adverts through tracking behaviour and how someone can create a fake profile.

The teaching of fake news is part of the new Relationships and Sex education (RSE) and Health education curriculum, which is mandatory in all primary schools and secondary schools from September 2020. However, schools can delay teaching until the start of the summer term 2021 if they are not ready, or are unable to meet the requirements 

Why should your students report fake news on social media? 

Whatever you are a reading you deserve the truth and to have the real facts in front of you.  

Insulting: You may feel insulted when reading fake news as it is as if the writer is trying to hoodwink you.  

Damage credibility: Fake news can also destroy your credibility. If you are voicing your opinions and it is based on poor or inaccurate information, then it is going to be more difficult for people to believe you in the future.  

Potential hurt: Fake news can also hurt both you and other people. For example, those who spread false or misleading news when it comes to medical advice can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Prominent sources of misleading medical advice are and who help perpetuate myths like HIV and AIDS aren't related, or that vaccines cause autism.   

In 2019, the UK Government was particularly concerned about how social media could be impacting on public concern about potential side effects of vaccination and was worried that this fear could restrict uptake. During a social media and online harms summit, Damian Hinds, the then Education Secretary said that while the internet puts a vast amount of information at our fingertips, it also makes it “much easier to spread falsehoods – inadvertently or by design”. 

This also led to the Government announcing that children would be taught the facts and science relating to allergies, immunisation, and vaccination through the introduction of health education as part of the new mandatory Relationships and Sex education (RSE) and Health education curriculum.  

How do I teach my students how to recognise fake news? 

There are a few things that young people can look out for to avoid getting caught out by fake news. 

It is important to get them to critically think about the information that they are reading online. They should be asking themselves the following questions to spot if what they are reading is real or fake:

  • Has the story been reported anywhere else? 
  • Is it on the radio, TV or in the newspapers? 
  • Have you heard of the organisation that published the story?
  • Does the website where you found the story look genuine? (meaning it doesn't look like a copycat website that's designed to look like another genuine website)
  • Does the website address at the very top of the page look real? Is the end of the website something normal like, ‘' or '.com', and not something unusual, like ''?
  • Does the photo or video look normal?
  • Does the story sound believable? 

If the answer to any of these questions is 'no', advise your students that they might want to check the information a bit more before sharing it. 

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