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Opinion: Asking the right questions helps students steer clear of fake news

Joe Servis (top), an advanced placement U.S. history teacher at Appomattox High School, lectures his students at the school in Appomattox, Virginia, April 1, 2015. AP Photo/Steve Helber

People don't usually ask strangers for information on the news. The Internet is different. There, people read stories written by people they do not know all the time.

In 2016, Americans chose the next leader of the United States. People used news on the Internet to help them decide which person to vote for. However, many people who voted could not tell whether the news they used to make their decision was true or not. When websites have incorrect news, it is called "fake news."

Fake News Looks Like Real News

Fake news makes money. News websites get paid when they have more visits to the stories, and more people visit the stories when they are interesting. Sometimes, people write stories that are fake just because people will read them. The more visits, the more money the website makes.

Fake news stories look just like real news stories. This means readers can't always tell the difference between the two. Sometimes, people believe stories that are fake to be real.

Edward Owens Isn't Real

For history teachers, this problem is nothing new. The Internet gives students and teachers the ability to read more information about the past. However, it is important for readers to be able to tell if the information is true. Librarians used to make sure the books students used for class were true. Now, with the Internet, librarians can't police students on what is fact and what is not, called fiction. 

In 2008, a teacher named T. Mills Kelly had a class called "Lying About the Past." Kelly wanted to teach students not to trust all information they read online. Students in the class created fake websites about Edward Owens. Owens was a made-up fisherman who attacked ships in the northeast in the 1870s. The exercise helped students see how easy it is to believe fake news.

Anyone Can Write An Article

Today, the general public can put anything online, whether it is true or not. Problems can start if the public is unable to determine what stories are real and which are fake. 

“Our Virginia: Past and Present" is a fourth-grade textbook. In the chapter on the Civil War, a line reads, "thousands of Southerner blacks fought in the Confederate," or Southern army. Black soldiers fighting in the Southern army is a myth, though. Not one historian agreed with this information printed in the textbook. Even though this is proven to be untrue, many websites still say black soldiers existed in the Southern army.

Everyone Is A Historian

The history classroom is a good place to teach students how to search online information. In history class, reading and analyzing are already required. There are helpful questions to consider when assessing whether something is true or not. For example, does the article come from a museum or school? Who wrote the article? Where do they work? This will help readers decide if the material is trustworthy.

The Internet has made it possible for everyone to be his or her own historian. We need to teach our students to see the difference between fact and fiction online. This will help them stay away from fake history and fake news. Everyone should be able to be responsible and informed when it comes to the truth. In teaching this, we strengthen the United States and our freedom.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the author of "Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder" (2012) and is currently at work on "Searching For Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth" for the University of North Carolina Press. You can find him online at Civil War Memory and Twitter @kevinlevin.

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Anchor 4: Word Meaning & Choice

Read the sentence from the section "Anyone Can Write An Article."

Black soldiers fighting in the Southern army is a myth, though.

Which phrase from the section helps you understand the meaning of "myth"?


a fourth-grade textbook


Not one historian agreed


proven to be untrue


websites still say

Anchor 4: Word Meaning & Choice

Read the selection from the section "Everyone Is A Historian."

There are helpful questions to consider when assessing whether something is true or not.

What does the author mean by "assessing"?


taking a measurement


answering a question


solving a problem


making a decision

Anchor 6: Point of View/Purpose

What is the author's opinion about T. Mills Kelly's lesson to his students?


The author believes that it is useful because students are being taught how to recognize fake news.


The author believes that Kelly's lesson is not useful because students are not writing about history.


The author believes that it is useful because students are earning money by creating fake news.


The author believes that Kelly's lesson is not useful because students are not writing real news.

Anchor 6: Point of View/Purpose

Which section of the article BEST shows the author's point of view about recognizing fake news?


"Fake News Looks Like Real News"


"Edward Owens Isn't Real"


"Anyone Can Write An Article"


"Everyone Is A Historian"


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