Media Competency Tracking Down Fake News

In social community courses young people learn to recognise fake items.
In social community courses young people learn to recognise fake items. | Photo (detail): © PrivatJacob Lund - Fotolia.com

False reports on the Internet are having an ever greater effect on political attitudes and thus endangering democratic processes. In the battle against fake news it is libraries in particular that can play an important role.

In the spring of 2016 an entry on Facebook spread like wildfire. “My daughter Marie H. (6-years-old) has been missing since 27.03.2016, previous attempts to find her have remained unsuccessful,” read the post that was accompanied by a photo of a girl. And it continued, “Eyewitnesses reported to me, she was last seen with 2 refugee children.” Any information was to be sent directly to “Mother Bertha Hofmann”, who was apparently the author of the Facebook entry.

Veracity is often not called into question

It soon turned out, however, that this missing person’s notice was a fake, a deliberate hoax. Behind it was a subscription trap – those who clicked on the link, landed on pornographic websites and competition promotion pages. The fake post was particularly perfidious, because it also stirred up hatred of refugees. The Austrian portal, mimikama.at, that uncovers fake news soon exposed the lie. Many Facebook users, however, shared the entry without questioning it.

False reporting of this kind has increased considerably in recent years. More and more people are obtaining their information via social media channels, in which content can be shared at lightning speed. The veracity of the information, however, is often not called into question. Fake news is a threat to democracy if it influences the opinions and electoral behaviour of Internet users. The US presidential election campaign was dominated by fake news, as was the German refugee debate. Even in the run-up to the Bundestag elections in autumn 2017, attempts at manipulation by means of fake news reports are likely to have occurred.

Libraries against fake news

Libraries can provide important awareness training in the battle against fake news. On the one hand, by providing reliable sources, which can be used to check allegations. On the other hand, by promoting media literacy among children, adolescents and adults.

An outstanding example is the Munich Municipal Library – since 2012, it has been holding social community courses for pupils from the 5th grade upwards. The topics they focus on are privacy, data protection and copyright laws – and, since 2016, also fake news. In July 2017, the library is also offering school classes what they call an “opinion-forming course” in preparation for the German general election. Their co-operation partners are Kultur- & Spielraum e.V. – an organisation that coordinates cultural projects. In the course, young people are confronted with the subject of fake news. “Libraries are places for obtaining information and promoting democratic opinion-forming, so it was obvious we would focus on such topics,” says Astrid Meckl, who is organising the events together with her colleague, Raphaela Müller.

Learning how to research using concrete examples

Ms. Meckl stresses how practice-oriented the course has to be, “It is important that we don’t just talk about things. The library also has to offer practical workshops.” The social community courses also deal with very specific examples. “We give the kids a case to examine, for example, the missing person’s report from Bertha Hofmann.” says Ms. Meckl. “First, we discuss with them whether they consider the post to be true or false.”

Then the young people receive the requisite theoretical know-how and form working groups to analyse the veracity of the post or report, as the case may be. They log onto Facebook, for example, and check whether the person, “Bertha Hofmann”, really exists. Or they research whether there are already reports of a corresponding fake news item. Often, such posts or reports contain technical elements that reveal they are fake – for example, a missing imprint, spelling errors, links to dubious pages, or names that differ only minimally from those from respectable sources. Google's reverse search for images is also very useful, says Astrid Meckl. It can be used to check from which Internet source photos came from originally and whether they have been manipulated.

Checking the veracity in a playful way

Teenagers are often quite capable of questioning Internet content themselves, says Ms. Meckl. Usually when it comes to non-political content, for example, fun videos on Youtube or virus warnings for Whatsapp. For political issues, however, there is a “high level of obedient belief”. The kids say, “What do you mean not true? It said so on the Internet” That is why it is all the more important to discuss with the young people the possible reasons for attempts at political manipulation. And also to talk to them, for example, about “social bots” – programs that automatically announce news via the social media and thus influence political opinion.

An exciting project is also currently being developed by the Büchereizentrale Schleswig-Holstein (Central Library of Schleswig-Holstein). This is where the “Fake-Hunters” game is being developed, which will be available in Schleswig-Holstein libraries from 2018 onwards. In a playful way, young people from the 7th grade upwards learn how to examine internet sources for their reliability and to recognise fake items. They are given a role in a story – as an employee of a detective agency which receives an assignment from a newspaper publisher. The newspaper, which carefully researches everything it publishes, is being threatened in its existence by a new, sensationalist Internet portal. It is the detectives’ job to find out whether this portal is spreading fake news, so that a stop can be put to the game the portal’s operators are playing.

Dealing critically with Internet information is the goal

“We provide various tools for the students,” says Kathrin Reckling-Freitag, who heads the project. “For example, the source check and reading between the lines.” The young people are also required to carry out research in the library itself and find out under what conditions books are more reliable than internet sources. Ms. Reckling-Freitag says she could also imagine similar projects for older target groups: “There is hardly anything more important at the moment than to make young people and adults capable of dealing with Internet information critically.”

Astrid Meckl sees it in a similar way, “Adults often know even less about technology than younger people.” The Munich Municipal Library is therefore offering more and more workshops for parents. In order to sensitise even more people to spotting fake news, Ms. Meckl and Ms. Müller are currently training the employees of Munich’s district libraries. Since autumn 2017, social community workshops have also been held there.