Teaching High Schoolers to Spot Fake News

February 2, 2018  • Sean McGovern

At Palo Alto High School in California, students in Esther Wojcicki’s media studies program, Moonshots Edu, have total control of both the school’s newspaper and magazine. In other words, students have the freedom to publish stories on any topic without the principal’s approval. The idea behind Wojcicki’s initiative is simple: to teach students media literacy and fact-checking.

Wojcicki was just one of several individuals to provide input on the topic of “Democracy, Citizenship and Literacy” during the January 16th meeting of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. As an initiative led by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this was the second in a series of commission meetings to be held across the nation. Along with Wojcicki, experts from the fields of education, journalism, tech and law, discussed ways to rebuild American trust in democracy and journalism through improved media literacy. Retooling American civics education to help students cultivate such skills is fundamental to improving this literacy.

It’s not that American schools do not already have civics education programs in place. Rather, many of these programs include largely outdated and theoretical courses that don’t prepare students for the independent fact-checking and online reading they need today. Wojcicki’s students, who work independently and are graded on accuracy, learn how to evaluate political bias and check multiple sources.

Jennifer 8. Lee, Co-Founder of Misinfocon and a former New York Times reporter, agrees that practicality is key. The more people fact-check, the more their own judgement improves when evaluating what’s fake. Sally Lehrman, Founder and Director of the Trust Project, agreed that it’s important to “give the public the tools for evaluation.” (Both Misinfocon and the Trust Project provide technical infrastructure and solutions to media literacy problems.)

This discussion is more relevant than ever, as the internet profoundly affects the way we evaluate trustworthiness. “A core element of First Amendment law in the United States has been that the marketplace of ideas is the best test for truth,” said Nathaniel Persily, Professor of Law at Stanford. “It’s not clear that that’s ever been the case, but it’s certainly not the case in the new world of the Internet.” Expanded access to information and the increased speed at which it travels makes it harder to identify accurate and credible sources.

Persily emphasized the accessibility of online echo chambers. The web provides easy avenues (through online forums like subreddits and Facebook groups) for individuals to self-segregate based on political views and other beliefs. To make matters worse, online information is often decontextualized. “Communication is ripped from its source,” Persily said, “so that you do not have the same offline cues to evaluate credibility and information.”

Changes to legislation or private-sector solutions might fix some of these issues, but policymakers have their work cut out for them. Meanwhile, improved education — like the kind Wojcicki advocates — provide a tangible way forward.

Regular updates from the Knight Commission can be found at the site “Trust, Media & Democracy” on We invite you to engage with us on this topic there. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter using #knightcomm.