Fake news: helping children to untangle the web

London CLC director, Sarah Horrocks, examines the rise in concern around fake news and critical literacy and considers whether primary schoolchildren are equipped to spot the spoofs.

“We were thinking that everything on YouTube is true,” said a London primary school child earnestly, after completing one of our Fake News workshops. With the current spotlight on disinformation and privacy in the light of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica revelations, and the research earlier this month showing that fake news reaches users 20 times faster than factual content, it’s never been more important to help children navigate the online world with a critical eye.

It’s an area that’s been highlighted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy, which launched the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools in September last year as a result of the publication of a new report from the National Literacy Trust, Fake news and critical literacy evidence review. It found that, with one child in five believing everything they read online is true, strong critical digital literacy skills are crucial – and teachers need the proper training and support to boost them. To help primary school children learn how to spot misinformation, identify persuasion in communication and distinguish fact from opinion, a pilot scheme is underway, developed jointly by the Guardian Foundation, the National Literacy Trust and the PHSE Association.

At London CLC we’ve been developing programmes around this topic for some time now. For the last couple of years we’ve run a number of professional learning sessions for teachers and headteachers alerting them of the growing crisis around social media and political manipulation, and the duty of schools to prepare young people with the critical literacy skills required to navigate the online world.

Since Brexit and Trump, I’ve noticed that fake news has been a strong concern in a lot of the sessions I’ve led for teachers and school leaders. While online safety has long been a key topic for us, recently we’ve shifted our emphasis to incorporate a broader focus on digital citizenship and criticality of information. Our Fake News workshops with primary school children are particularly important right now.

An example from our Fake News workshop: the pictures has been photoshopped and the person who tweeted it did it as a joke and didn’t expect it to get shared – and believed – so much.


We recognise it is a complex area to cover. ‘Fake news’ encompasses everything from the circulation of deliberately false stories to different interpretations of the same facts to stories that are initially put on social media as a joke but then spiral out of control. We know that adults have trouble discerning fact from fiction – particularly in their own social media bubble – and children face additional challenges.

Gross errors or far fetched ‘facts’ such as those on the deliberately false All About Explorers website can be detected by children with encouragement and coaching, but it is unclear whether practising this sort of sceptical approach transfers to the reading of more subtle mis- or disinformation. Younger children may simply be at a stage where their conceptual development has not yet produced the fine discernment needed to identify and distinguish between pastiche, take-off, joke, hoax, fictional whimsy, propaganda, irony, mockumentary or an account which has a kernel of truth but which has been embellished, or conversely has been ‘economical with the truth’ through omission.

We have seen that some primary aged children are able to spot that a spelling mistake or poor quality graphic or image may betray an unreliable or unofficial webpage but they may not be aware of what separates a reputable (eg .ac or .gov) URL from an official-sounding .com or .co.uk one that can easily be purchased by anyone.

It’s not surprising that children often arrive at our sessions with a fairly simplistic approach to what to believe online. For example, many children echo the words of parents and TV presenters who tell them they should never trust Wikipedia because it’s ‘just written by normal people’ and is therefore not reliable.’ The problem with this advice? It suggests that other websites are written by anyone other than ‘normal people’! At least Wikipedia has the benefit of being checked and edited by millions of users. We seek to alert teachers and children that they should be treating all websites with the same level of scepticism with which they treat Wikipedia, since we have little or no awareness of how they check their facts or what their hidden biases may be.

We find that it is through discussion with children that they learn to question what they think and start to unpick the layers of truth and reliability they come across online. A key feature of our workshops is enabling children to create their own spoof news stories using HTML, demonstrating just how easy it is to publish something that can look convincing

“Even Miss thought it was real!” exclaimed a London primary school pupil during the workshop. And that’s exactly the sort of breakthrough we want to encourage. By presenting children with resources that can help them to approach the online world more critically, we hope that they will learn to spot things that their friends, family or even teachers don’t see, and share their knowledge that not everything they read online is to be trusted.

  • To find out more about London CLC’s professional learning sessions around critical literacy skills and fake news, please contact James Goddard: jgoddard@londonclc.org.uk


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