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Fake News: How to Protect Young Minds From Lies

With the rise of the internet, everything seems so much more accessible than before. Anyone can write what they want. Anyone can make their own site or blog. Plus, as we’ve seen before, anyone can become rich or famous for any reason. Usually that’s a good thing. It gives us the opportunity to connect, share our talents and hear the voices of the unheard. However, it also means that there has been a rise in fake news.

There’s just no way that the fact checkers can be there soon enough. There’s no way that they can cover all the sites and blogs and videos out there. According to YouTube’s press site, there are “500+ hours of content uploaded every minute” on that one platform alone! Could you imagine trying to look through every single video to find out if it has fake news or not?

Sure, you can use computer technology to fact check the big sites like Twitter and Facebook. Sure, some sites just aren’t doing enough. You can definitely take some steps to hold the biggest creators and influencers out there to a higher standard. However, things will always slip through the fact-checking net. People will learn how to game the system. They will learn how to use euphemisms and other clever tactics to say what they want.

So, it’s down to us to protect ourselves and our young people from all of the fake news out there. Here are some ways that you can help your young people to identify and avoid false information.

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Talk About Fake News

If you are serious about protecting your young person from fake news, you must make sure that you have open, honest communication with them.

Let’s be honest. When someone bans you from doing something without an explanation, it makes you want to do it more. This applies even more for teens. Parents or guardians who say “don’t talk about that” or “you can’t go on that site” aren’t protecting their child. If they’re curious, they’re going to look it up. Then you have no say in what they learn or how they find out about things.

On the other hand, open communication helps in a few ways:

  1. You can beat the fake news outlets to it, speaking to your young person about the lies before they get exposed to them in unsavoury ways.
  2. You set a precedent that lets your child know that they can come to you if they are unsure about something they have learnt.
  3. If a young person is on the path to indoctrination, open communication will help you to spot the signs and turn it around before it’s too late.
  4. It builds a better bond with your young person. Who doesn’t want that?

It doesn’t matter what the topic is. It is always better to chat to the young person, rather than setting out restrictions without giving a reason. If you have to set up boundaries or restrictions, or outright ban certain sites, talk to them about why you’ve come to that decision and give them a chance to voice their concerns. Don’t ignore them or make them feel as though their opinions are insignificant.

Here are some things to talk to your young person about. They should help to protect your young person from fake news.

Discuss the Impact of Fake News

A lot of young people don’t know how dangerous fake news can be. In fact, a lot of adults have no clue, either! So, one of the most important things that you need to do is to make your young person see how bad it really is. That way, they know that they need to be on their guard, rather than rolling their eyes and thinking that you’re just being paronoid.

So, take some time to discuss how fake news can have an impact on how people think. It’s not just about obscure conspiracy theories that no one buys into. Some misinformation out there has a real impact on how people treat each other, or even the way we approach public health and safety.

Let’s have a look at the fake news surrounding the most recent pandemic, as an example. A lot of false stories went around about COVID being some sort of biological weapon sent by the Chinese government. I’m not going to link any claims, because I don’t want to be part of the spread of that fake news. However, some people used these lies to justify attacking Asian people in their own country, whether they’re Chinese or not!

This shows how much fake news can hurt people. It also shows how many people either fall for it or use it to get away with bad things. If your young person thinks that they’re immune to fake news, make sure that you tell them about how dangerous the harder-to-spot lies are.

Discuss Trustworthy Sites

There are some sites out there that can never be trusted, such as a site dedicated to spreading propaganda for a cult or extremist movement. Then there are most of the sites on the internet. With most sites, how trustworthy they are depends on who’s posting and why. This is mainly true of social media, where you can have a legitimate news outlet and a fake news pundit right next to each other on your timeline.

However, there are sites out there that can be trusted more. Sure, no site is 100% accurate with all of their information all of the time. You should be looking for sites that make an effort to be as truthful as possible, though. Look for a site that fact checks itself. For example, the Guardian’s Editorial Complaints and Corrections section. This lets readers know that they are actively changing articles when they find out new information, or discover their mistakes.

Plus, look for sites that are trusted by other trustworthy places. Now that I know that the Guardian is trying its best to make sure that its articles are accurate, I know that I can probably trust the places that they get their information from. This is especially true if their sources are used by lots of other trustworthy sites.

Of course, none of this stops sites from having their own biases. The Guardian is a centre-left publication, and it will show that in the way it reports facts. However, communicate to your young person that they should stick to getting their facts from sites that update and change as they learn more, not sites that post claims without backing them up.

Talk About Common Lies

The more that you hear a lie, the more likely are to believe that it’s true. That’s why Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, is said to have spoken a lot about repeating a “Big Lie” over and over until people start to believe it.

So, to protect your young people from the worst of lies and fake news, make sure that you let them know about it as soon as you can. Talk about the most common misconceptions. If there’s a particular big lie that you know gets spread a lot in your community or around the world, it’s good to make sure that you preempt it. Then, you can talk to your young person about it before they start to believe a lie.

So talk to them. Let them know about the most common lies that they might face. Tell them why they’re wrong, and what the truth is. That way, you can be sure that they’re better equipped not to fall for that “Big Lie”.

Also, remember that the best lies hide behind a nugget of truth. For a lot of fake news out there, they’ll take true facts, figures and statements and twist them to make them seem like they support the lie. So, it’s good to clear that up. Be clear if there is some truth to the facts, tell them what the truth is and explain how the lie manipulates the facts.

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Clear Up Uncertainty Together

Young people are inquisitive. That curiosity is one of the best things about being young, in my opinion! But it also means that they may have questions about the fake news that might make you feel uncomfortable. Don’t let these questions become a taboo. All that does it make them think that you’re hiding the truth from them. Instead, make an effort to clear up any uncertainties together.

Some topics might be hard to talk about. However, you will build respect and trust between you and your young person if you talk to them and help them to find the answers that they want. Encourage them to find out if there is any truth to the fake news.

You don’t need to have all of the answers there and then. However, take their questions and worries seriously. Find ways that you can look up the facts together. If the internet isn’t helping (as good as it may be, sometimes there’s so much information that it can get confusing), try a book or a journal article. If you can, ask an expert.

Make sure that you involve your young person in this process, though. Show them how you search for answers in a book or find reliable sources. Clear up the confusion together so that they have the skills to look up the information that they need. Then, they’ll be more confident in doing it themselves for later on.

Own Up When You’re Wrong

Though the 2019 HBO drama Chernobyl is fantastic, it might be a bit mature for most young people out there. However, it has a great quote in it that sums up this situation perfectly.

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories?

Valery Legasov in ‘Chernobyl‘ by HBO

If our young people are constantly faced with lies, they run the risk of not recognising the truth at all. Then, they won’t have a reason to question falsities. Someone who doesn’t question lies is more susceptible to fake news.

This starts at home. Parents and guardians tend to define what young people see as normal. They look up to the people who raise them. They learn the things that they need to know about real life from home.

You are one of the people that your young person trusts the most. If they can’t trust you to tell the truth, who can they trust? If no one is trustworthy, there’s no point in looking for the truth, is there?

So, it is important that you show your young person the truth as much as you can. Be honest with them. Own up when you make mistakes. As hard as it can be to admit to your child that you were wrong, being mature and level-headed when you fact check yourself with show them that you value the truth. Then, they’ll see that they should value it, too.

Reward Honesty

When a child owns up to doing something wrong, it can be very easy to focus on the bad and accidentally punish them for telling the truth. After all, they did something wrong! They should face consequences, right?

Well, yes and no. Punishment for a child should be about justice, establishing boundaries and encouraging positive social behaviours. So, when a child does something wrong, you should put in measures to show them that what they did was bad and encourage them to do differently next time. Otherwise, you might end up with children who boldly exclaim that they did the bad thing with no remorse.

On the other hand, though, if the punishment is too severe, the child may feel like it would be better for them to lie to you. Overly strict parents prompt their children to lie, sneak around and keep secrets. It is all about fair consequences and praising honesty.

What does this have to do with fake news? Well, if the actions of a parent teach the young person that lying is the best answer, then the truth loses its purpose. The parent has devalued the truth in the eyes of their child. It can come to mean nothing to them.

Then, when they are faced with fake news in the media, they’re less likely to care about what’s true. Instead, they may be more concerned with what feels good to them, what paints them in the best light or what (false) fact is most convenient.

Avoid this. Show your child that the truth has a value. Show them that it matters. Make them see that it’s more important than convenience. That way, they’ll be more likely to choose the truth, no matter how tempting the lie is.

Encourage Skepticism

As frustrating as extremely skeptical young people can be from time to time, skepticism is a great trait to have. It means that they are going to be less likely to fall for fake news when they see it, because they’re wired to question things before they believe them.

If a young person questions the info that they receive, they will be better equipped to poke holes in lies and find the truth for themselves. Skeptics tend to want proof. While fake news might seem like it has the proof for you, often all it takes is a quick fact search to see through the lies. If anyone is going to point out those lies, it’s a skeptical person.

If your young person isn’t naturally skeptical, don’t despair! No one is, really. It’s a skill that you learn over time. Sure, it’s easier to practice skepticism if you were taught from a young age. However, anyone can change their habits and their mindset to make themselves more critical.

If you would like to protect your child from fake news the best you can, you need to give them the tools to fight it off. One of these tools is skepticism. So, make sure you foster it whenever you can.

Ask your young person questions that encourages them to think critically like “how do you know that”, “what makes you believe that” and “how can you be sure”. Take the time to hear their theories and information sources, then encourage them to think deeper. Show them that you can be critical, too. It will help to see you practising skepticism.

Oh, and never punish or show frustration towards a child for questioning you. Always give them a good reason why they should believe you. Not just “because I said so”.

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Encourage Study of English Language

As a school subject in English-speaking countries, English Language is the study of manipulation. That’s something that I tell all of my GCSE and A-Level students. What do I mean by it, though?

Well, when we read a text in Lang, we need to identify how the writer uses words, sentences, punctuation, structure and other things to have an effect on their audience. How do they persuade or inform? What do they do to get you to buy into what they have to say?

The same can be said about a few other subjects, too. For example, in media studies, the concept is the same. However, you also need to look into things like editing, camera angles, shot composition, the colours used, mise en scène, etc. That’s why the two subjects go together so well!

Part of the reason that fake news can be so convincing is that it often plays on our emotions. People who spread misinformation tend to use emotive language. Then, they pair their lies with images or videos designed to get a reaction from you. They are trying to get past the rational part of your brain so that you react the way they want, even if what they say makes no sense.

If young people have the tools to find the manipulation in the media they consume, they’ll be able to stick to the facts better. So, make sure they have a good base in English Language. Shani’s Tutoring can help you with this.

Use the Right Resources to Tackle Fake News

There’s only really one resource that I would recommend to anyone to help tackle fake news. That’s the free Nebula card pack from Sefirot. Make sure you print them out and cut them out! They’ll help you so much.

Each card asks you some questions that are supposed to question if you’re dealing with fake news or a legitimate article. They ask you to look at the source, purpose and content of the article in question, along with other things. Then, they use this information to help you paint a picture of how reliable the news story is.

This is a fun game to do with your young person. Give them articles from a range of places: legitimate news as well as funny satirical news publications that are supposed to be fake like The Onion or NewsThump. Allow them to read the article for content and purpose. Then, use post-it notes to fill in the questions on your fake news cards

Once you’ve done this once or twice with things that you know are fake news, branch out to stories that you’re not quite sure about. Eventually, you can get rid of the cards altogether, because the young person would have internalised the questions on them.

This is a great exercise to do while you are homeschooling, so you can add it to the other resources I listed in a previous blog post. If you want to add more of an English spin to it, try to make them pick out the words that could be used to manipulate the reader’s emotions.

Be Realistic and Fair

We can all fall for a lie every now and then. While all of the facts above can help your young person to avoid most of the fake news out there, this isn’t an invincibility shield. No one can avoid being affected by all of the lies and fake news out there. Even if you think you’re the most rational person out there, there is a huge chance that constant exposure will have an effect on you.

So, be realistic with your young person. Let them know that it’s ok to fall for a lie from time to time. Don’t let them beat themselves up if they realise that they fell for fake news. Just let them know that they should learn and grow from their mistake. If you can, tell them about a time when you fell for a lie! There’s that honesty thing again.

Never make fun of your child for believing a lie. Never make them feel humiliated or laugh at them in front of others. All that will do is make them shut down. It will make them feel as though they aren’t safe to make mistakes with you, which will break down that all-important communication.

Fake news has only survived for this long because it’s convincing. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have to write a whole blog post on how to avoid it. So, show them that it’s hard to spot sometimes. Show them that it can often come from people you’re supposed to trust, like a (now former) president of a whole country. That way, they’ll see how high the stakes are, so they know that they have to be on their guard.

Good luck!

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