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Lesson Plans

Fake news websites lead to real life dangers such as 'Pizzagate'

December 12, 2016

Full Lesson

Essential question

Why is media literacy an important skill?

Concern over the spread of fake news has grown since the election, when a number of false reports — often containing negative stories about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and positive ones about her opponent Donald Trump — were circulated widely through social media.

A popular Washington, D.C. pizza place became a recent target for online conspiracy theorists. Comet Ping Pong’s owner was accused of harboring victims of child abuse in collaboration with Clinton and members of her campaign staff. A man claiming he wanted to “self-investigate” the conspiracy known as “Pizzagate” showed up at the restaurant with an assault rifle last week before surrendering to police.

Both Facebook and Google say they are working to stem the spread of fake news on their respective internet platforms, but the sheer scale of the problem makes it difficult.

Distrust of government and mainstream media are part of what drives conspiracies like these, says Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher.

Some of the websites that produce fake news are created by entrepreneurs in countries such as Macedonia, where many of the writers are teenagers hoping to make money off of advertising revenue on the websites.

“There is a profit that can be made by taking something, however fantastic or incredible, and putting it out there in such a way that it goes viral, and then all of that web traffic, all of those clicks … translate into dollars,” Fisher said.

Key terms

media literacy – the ability to evaluate different types of communication, including Internet websites, radio, television, newspapers and magazines

bot – computer software that executes commands and replies to messages on a routine basis with minimal human intervention

mainstream media — a term and abbreviation used to refer collectively to the various large mass news media that influence a large number of people, and both reflect and shape prevailing currents of thought

Warm up questions (before watching the video)
  1. What is fake news?
  2. What is news literacy?
  3. What are some good “fake news” tips to look out for when evaluating a website or news story?
Critical thinking questions (after watching the video)
  1. Why would some individuals want to create a fake news story or website?
  2. Why might someone unintentionally believe a fake news story?
  3. In addition to the incident at Comet Ping Pong Pizza, what are some real world consequences of fake news?
  4. Do you think there is a difference between “fake news” and lying? Explain your answer.