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Opinion: Spot fake news by learning how to search online information

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

Few people would ask a stranger on the street for information about current news, and yet that is just what many do on the Internet. 

After the 2016 presidential election, data from news outlets like Buzzfeed showed the American voter is unable to judge whether a news website is real or fake. For example, fake news websites had headlines that said Pope Francis endorsed President-elect Trump, candidate Hillary Clinton used a body double throughout the campaign, and Clinton sold weapons to ISIS. None of these headlines were factual, but people believed them to be true. 

In It For The Money

There is a financial motivation to publishing fake news. The way many news websites make money is by maximizing visits to the articles they publish. Authors who create fake news play to readers’ worst fears in hopes that more people will click on the stories and read them, and they will, in turn, make more money. Because the fake news appears to be so similar to true, factual news, unsuspecting visitors can't tell the difference between the two, and the trick works. 

"It is not intended to pose an alternative truth," writes author Neal Gabler, "as if there could be such a thing, but to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world where there is no defense against lies."

Harder To Tell What Information Is Reliable

For history teachers, this problem is nothing new. The rise of the Internet has given both students and teachers access to a vast amount of information about the past at their fingertips. However, few know how to tell what information is reliable and what is not.

In 2001, one of my students submitted a research paper on the early history of the Ku Klux Klan. The article minimized the level of racial violence during Reconstruction and characterized the Klan's relationship with black Southerners as positive. The student came to false conclusions because the sources came from websites published by biased, individual Klan chapters, not legitimate historical accounts. 

Even as late as 2001, students used printed materials for research and librarians controlled what books were stocked and that all were legitimately sourced. The rise of the Internet brought benefits and challenges. Teachers could now introduce their students to more primary sources and historical figures that never made it into textbooks. However, the technology outpaced educators’ ability to police or guide students as to how to tell fact from fiction online.

It Is Easy To Create Fake News

In 2008, George Mason University Professor T. Mills Kelly created a course called "Lying About the Past." Students created untrue websites about Edward Owens, a fake Virginia oyster fisherman who took up piracy in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1870s. The false narrative the class used even had fake primary sources, including Owens's “legal will.” Kelly hoped his students "would become much more doubtful consumers of online information." It's difficult to imagine a more effective method of helping students see how easy it is to believe fake news.

In the years since Kelly first taught the class, opportunities to publish and share information online have expanded through Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter and blogging platforms such as WordPress and Medium. Publishing can be an empowering experience. But if the public is left unprepared and without the skills needed to determine what is real and what is fake news, there can be real consequences. 

Consider the publication “Our Virginia: Past and Present,” a fourth-grade textbook written by Joy Masoff. In the chapter on the Civil War, a line reads, "Thousands of Southerner blacks fought in Confederate ranks, including two battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." Confederate black soldiers in the army is a well-known myth, traced back to the late 1970s. Not one academic historian agreed with the textbook's claim. In fact, it was proven that Masoff discovered the information on a biased and illegitimate website published by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The scary truth is there are thousands of websites published by individuals and organizations who believe black Confederate soldiers existed when there is no factual basis for that claim.

How To Assess A News Site

The history classroom is an ideal place to teach students how to search information online because careful reading and analysis of historical documents is already required. There are a few important things to do when assessing whether an online site is real or fake. For example, research the site's association with well-known establishments like museums or universities. See who is responsible for the site and research their background. This will help you approach the material with the same level of trust that you would a scholarly journal.

The Internet has made it possible for everyone to be his or her own historian. Teaching our students to see the difference between fact and fiction online will not only help them steer clear of fake history and fake news, but reinforce the importance of a responsible and informed citizenry. In doing so, we strengthen the very pillars of democracy.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. 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 "Harder To Tell What Information Is Reliable."

The student came to false conclusions because his sources came from websites published by biased, individual Klan chapters, not legitimate historical accounts.

Which phrase from the section helps explain what "biased" means?


research paper


racial violence


false conclusions


not legitimate

Anchor 4: Word Meaning & Choice

Read the selection from the section "It Is Easy To Create Fake News."

In the years since Kelly first taught the class, opportunities to publish and share information online have expanded through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and blogging platforms such as WordPress and Medium. Publishing can be an empowering experience.

Adding which of these sentences to the text would help explain the meaning of the word "empowering" in the context of the article?


Writers are able to express themselves freely and feel as though they have been heard by an audience.


Many people feel that their opinions are more important than the information that they find on news websites.


Several famous writers started out as bloggers on the Internet who wanted to share their views with the world.


Sharing their opinions with the world can make writers feel more vulnerable and exposed to others' criticisms.

Anchor 6: Point of View/Purpose

Which statement BEST reflects one of the author's beliefs?


Students must take it upon themselves to learn how to distinguish real news from fake news.


Journalists should not be required to use credible sources of information in published work.


Teachers must help students learn to decipher real news from fake in order to become responsible citizens.


Fake news stories are intended for entertainment and should only be used as such.

Anchor 6: Point of View/Purpose

The author appeals to the reader's sense of patriotism by:


explaining the effect of fake news on the 2016 election


explaining the importance of knowing about the Reconstruction Era in American history


describing the effects of misinformation in a grade school history textbook


describing the importance of responsible news consumption as an aspect of democracy


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