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Lesson Plans

Did fake news influence the outcome of Election 2016?

November 18, 2016

Full Lesson


Essential question

How can you be sure that the news you consume is true?

The proliferation of fake news sources on social media has raised questions about the duty of sites like Facebook and Twitter to screen content and distinguish fact from fiction.

Throughout 2016, false stories about the election were widely circulated by a variety of websites purporting to be legitimate. An analysis by Buzzfeed News revealed that many of these stories actually received more engagement — measured by the total number of comments, reactions and shares an article receives online — than those from real news sites like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Buzzfeed reporter Craig Silverman and his colleagues compared the top 20 fake news articles from the three months leading up to the election to the top 20 from actual news sites and found that engagement was much higher for the fake sources than the real ones.

“To see that the leading fake news site getting the most engagement had only been registered months before, and its top four fake stories got more Facebook engagement than the top four election stories from The Washington Post, I mean, that was really surprising,” Silverman said.

In addition, the Buzzfeed team found more than 100 fake news sites focused on the U.S. election were being run out of a small town in the Balkan nation of Macedonia and that virtually all were publishing articles favorable for President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign.

The extent to which false news impacted the presidential election is unclear. Some people say sites like Facebook and Twitter need to do more to identify untrustworthy sources. President Barack Obama raised concern over the role of fake news while in Germany Thursday.

“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not … if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” the President said.

Key terms

propaganda –  ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, or a government

algorithm – a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or making a decision, especially by a computer

echo chamber – any forum for communication in which all members agree with everyone else

Warm up questions (before watching the video)

  1. Where do you get your news?
  2. If you say social media, can you name the specific news sources where the majority of information you read comes from?
  3. Why is there growing concern surrounding fake news sites?

Critical thinking questions (after watching the video)

  1. Do you agree with President Obama’s statement that it is problematic if people can’t distinguish between real news and propaganda? Explain.
  2. How do you think fake news could influence individuals’ beliefs or even presidential elections?
  3. Do you think tech giants like Google and Facebook deserve to be criticized over whether they used insufficient discretion in weeding out fake news?
  4. What should these companies do about fake news sites?

Extension activity:

Take a closer look with your students at the idea of the ‘echo chamber effect’ using this PBS video and lesson plan, “Decoding Media Bias.”