A Real Take on Fake News

Spring 2020

By Meredith Baldi Alford and Prescott Seraydarian

So much about both politics and film comes down to one basic principle: storytelling. Film is a vehicle through which to tell stories, and politics, affirmed by scholars like Hannah Arendt, can be understood as the construction of narratives that enable us to order and understand human life, relationships, decision-making, and institutions. Storytelling today comes through all forms of media, which is the primary mode through which our students communicate with one another and connect with the greater world. Research indicates that our teenagers engage with media for an average of nine hours every day—a significant portion of their waking hours.1 With this massive influx of information taken in through media, how can teachers help students understand and make sense of it? How can we channel our students’ engagement with this communication tool productively? If media is the 21st century language, then media literacy is the new fluency. As teachers, we have responded to this reality and to these questions through an interdisciplinary approach to teaching storytelling to our students, specifically using media production as an opportunity to understand and order information, as well as to communicate constructive messages to a public audience.

Exploring storytelling through politics allows us to understand the power implicit in constructing stories, while film helps students learn techniques used to tell impactful stories. Taught together through this interdisciplinary perspective, students can explore the wide spectrum of historical and cultural contexts from which stories derive meaning, as well as the responsibility people have when hearing and interpreting stories. But to teach storytelling effectively in a digital age, we have to teach media literacy.

In our Global Politics class and film classes, we are increasingly seeing the importance of media literacy as an essential competency for students. Both disciplines require students to be active and critical consumers of media who are practiced in asking media literacy’s key questions: Who made this and why? What does the creator want me to feel and do? What techniques are used to accomplish this purpose?2 But while we feel a particular pull toward this competency in our specific disciplines, we also recognize the growing body of research that argues that media literacy is a skill essential for any global citizen, not just politics and film students.3 We want all of our students to participate in civic life by bringing knowledge, perspective, and critical analysis to their public discourse.

As a Quaker school where we have a mission-driven intention to cultivate compassion and empathy in our students as part of the peace and equality testimonies, we are focused specifically on how teaching media literacy can help students acquire these character traits and demeanors. Media literacy, we are finding, helps students develop habits of inquiry and reflection that lead to broader understanding about who is making media and why, as well as how media can be used as a relational tool—one that can promote discord and divide us but also one that can bring us together and facilitate community.

Motivated to bring awareness about this competency and its importance to our school community, we decided to participate in Media Literacy Week in October 2019. Media Literacy Week is a national (and global) initiative sponsored by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), among others, to “highlight the power of media literacy education and its essential role in education all across the country."4 We planned a whole-school assembly that included two parts: a talk from filmmaker Jody Lambert about his film Brave New Jersey (a story about historical fake news and its ramifications on human life and relationships based on Orson Welles’ famous “fake” radio broadcast of War of the Worlds), as well as student-made films to explore these themes in relation to our specific school community. We used these to introduce media literacy as a concept and to demonstrate its importance as a life skill.

We embarked on this interdisciplinary project with the goal of educating our community about how to consume media, how easy it is for us to be manipulated, and how we might become more conscious and critical consumers of media. To do this, Global Politics students gathered research to generate a baseline about our community’s media habits—what kinds of media faculty, staff, and students most use, in what capacities they interact with media, how frequently they use social media, and how they fact-check their sources. They also researched the historical context and uses of propaganda and “fake news.” This research informed four student-produced films, which were used to demonstrate the power of media, the effects it can have on human behavior, and how community members might begin to develop strategies to be more conscious and responsible consumers of media.

Our most challenging but illuminating project was the seeding of a “fake news” story within our community. Our intent was to show the ease with which disinformation could spread. Our initial excitement for the project was tempered by caution about creating an assignment that deliberately encouraged our students to deceive their peers. We grappled with this for a few weeks: Is this an ethical assignment? Can we control information once we spread it? Do the intended values outweigh any unintended consequences? Then we asked what kind of story would be catchy enough to spread in order to effectively demonstrate our point, without being harmful to anyone in our community? While there were reasons to proceed carefully, we felt that the rapid dissemination of disinformation is having such real and detrimental impacts on our students and society that the learning potential outweighed the risks. An MIT study indicates that “fake news” spreads at six times the rate of accurate information.5 If we want our students to participate responsibly in civic society in the digital age, they need to have a keen awareness of how to assess information and how and why information spreads. We felt the greatest learning would happen if our students were to experience the transmission of disinformation directly in order to better understand the processes by which we tend to produce, consume, and reproduce information as a society.

We began by talking with our students about what kind of story would work and what would not. Our students were quick to identify that it should not be personal—we didn’t want to spread a lie about a community member, with easy recognition that this could cause personal harm to someone we care about. But the students wanted something that would get people’s attention, so they struggled to agree on a story that would be (1) believable, (2) captivating, and (3) not harmful. For example, students often joke on campus about the boldness of the squirrels who snatch snacks from students sitting on benches. They came up with the idea of a story that claimed that George School’s squirrels are rabid, which they thought their peers would believe and would share widely.

As teachers, we recognized that, on one hand, this might be just a silly story but, on the other hand, it had the potential to backfire. Current parents who saw a video about rabid squirrels on our campus would be justifiably concerned about the safety of their children. Potential parents might be discouraged from applying. We had to help the students understand this. Their story pitch about rabid squirrels also required the students to ask people on campus—like the director of our Student Health and Wellness Center—to lie on camera for a fake interview. Even apart from the rabid squirrel issue, we didn’t want the fake news story to be so direct. Having someone offer a scripted lie on camera was beside the point. We wanted our students to consider more complex techniques for disseminating disinformation: how to frame a story carefully and let people draw their own conclusions. A lot of the “fake news” that is spread isn’t simply a direct lie but information that is subtly tweaked and manipulated to point consumers in a direction where they draw their own (inaccurate) conclusions.

We settled on a story that George School was going paperless as an institution. This wasn’t a stretch. Our Quaker mission affirms our commitment to “faithful stewardship of the earth,” and more and more teachers are organizing handouts and sharing all course information online. While it wasn’t the most exciting of stories, we knew people in our community would have varied opinions on it. The next big task, however, was to figure out how to spread the story. While word-of-mouth is one way, we wanted our students to spread this through media and, specifically, to consider key media literacy questions as part of media production. Students had to draw on their storytelling skills to consider what information they should include and what information they should leave out, how and where to share the media, and what techniques would be most effective at presenting believable information that would catch students’ attention.

Students collaboratively agreed that they would disseminate the paperless story on both YOLO and Snapchat—platforms that our earlier research indicated were widely used among our student body. This would not be the primary story presented but a secondary story in the background of the media feature. For example, we selected one film student, who is known by our student body to post regularly on social media, to take a video of herself waiting after class to consult a teacher. In the background, students could see and hear that teacher complaining about the new paperless initiative. This, our students realized, would help make the information believable. Not only was it being discussed by an authority figure, but it was presented as “normal life occurring in the background” instead of a specific announcement or direct communication. This made it feel more authentic to the students.

As weeks passed, the rumor trickled through the student body. That the information spread slowly was not a huge surprise to us, as we knew moving to a paperless school model was perhaps less notable to students than rabid squirrels. A few days before the assembly, we felt the need to get this story more widely into the public mind. After looking at some of the research in the field and taking lessons from our current political culture, we turned to memes. Reflecting on Claire Wardle’s fascinating article “Misinformation Has Created a New World Disorder,"6 we knew that memes spread more quickly than other forms of media. Their concise and often humorous visuals offer a quick encapsulation of information that requires minimal engagement or follow-through. People are more prone to quickly intake and disseminate information shared through this particular form of media.7 Students generated multiple memes—both in favor of going paperless and against it—and disseminated them through a student-made Instagram account, as well as posting some analog methods of pamphlet-like memes on doors to buildings. This had an immediate impact. Students began discussing the issue openly, asking peers and teachers about the initiative, and forming opinions about the news.

Finally, the day of the assembly arrived, and our students asked the audience, without any lead-in, “Who has heard that George School is going paperless?” To the surprise of many adults in the assembly, about three-quarters of the student body raised their hands. Only about a third of the faculty had heard the same rumor. Several teachers asked us later how so many students knew about this paperless rumor. We have been aware for a while that students have entirely independent digital lives that we often know little about, but this was a reminder of how information can spread among one group while remaining relatively unknown to another. The assembly presenters then proceeded to screen a behind-the-scenes film, showing the storytelling process and the deliberate choices students made to effectively disseminate this false story.

This “reveal” had many reactions from students: Some were surprised, some annoyed at the ruse, others confused about why we would intentionally circulate false information, and some very quickly responded, “I knew it was a hoax.” But ultimately the assignment achieved what we wanted: It forced our students to understand and apply key questions in media literacy as both consumers and producers of media. It garnered some attention in our community and helped demonstrate how easily disinformation spreads, and it didn’t seem to cause any negative or long-lasting ramifications on trust or relationships. Our students had fun engaging in a little deceit of their peers, and they appreciated our empowering them with the creativity and freedom to explore and tell a story and to intentionally create a specific impact.

What we truly want to develop in our classes and our school is a broader awareness of how media literacy and storytelling can be used, not just to push us apart from one another through polarization and disinformation but to bring communities together. Especially in the wake of another presidential election, which surely will heighten partisan tensions and call into question the legitimacy of institutions, information, and opinions, we feel called as educators to demonstrate to our students not simply how disinformation spreads but what students can do to participate productively in a media culture. How can we move students beyond just critically assessing media to producing their own media in ways that educate and support others, promote responsible dialogue, and help produce empathy with those in our global community?

Looking to Douglas Rushkoff’s moving assessment in Team Human, we are encouraged to help our students understand that
if we can summon enough of our own humanity to really listen, we’ll find that most of our counterparts are not truly violent or irredeemably mean-spirited. Understanding their fears and then working together toward our common goals is far more constructive than pretending that entire populations have no humanity at all. This means venturing as far back into their emotional logic as it takes to find something we can identify with—the valid feelings they hold, before they transformed into their more destructive expressions.8
It is our job as teachers to help students sort through all the massive quantities of information out there in order to find and understand those shared beliefs and fears. Then we need to help them  use those points of commonality to develop greater empathy and compassion.

Media as a tool so often distances us from one another, both physically and ideologically, but we can teach our students to use media to come together. As a Quaker school that is committed to educating “citizen scholars cheerfully committed to openness in the pursuit of truth, to service and peace,” we are finding that media literacy is an essential competency that strives toward this end. If stories are the vehicles through which we connect public and private lives and our individual selves to our institutions, we need to equip our students with the skills to understand the stories of others and to tell their own effectively. To help them become responsible and engaged political citizens, we need to deliberately lay the core principles and questions of media literacy at the root of our subjects, so that we can more consistently teach our students to use story and media to foster connection and understanding, instead of distance and disagreement.


Meredith Baldi Alford

Meredith Baldi Alford (malford@georgeschool.org) is the director of professional development & evaluation and a history teacher at George School, in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Together, Meredith and Prescott are developing a new course at George School called Producing Peace: Civic Media Literacy & Production.

Prescott Seraydarian

Prescott Seraydarian (sseraydarian@georgeschool.org) is a film teacher at George School, owner of Lunch Productions, and co-author of the newly published graphic novel series The Pathfinders Society (Viking Press).