Snopes.com has become an indispensable and entertaining site for assessing the status of the urban legends and fake news stories that fascinate us. Any teacher or parent of high school students in the early fall of 2016 had to cope with a short but intense spike in anxiety about scary murderous clowns marauding through North American neighborhoods. The craze about clowns raged for a week or so and passed quickly. Snopes was on top of the clown craze, dismissing most of the flurry of reports as hoaxes or fake news. Here is their assessment of a report from Canada from the Global Sun.
Interestingly, the clown craze anticipated the fake news mania that would strike the US a few weeks later as the 2016 Presidential election gained steam in late October early November.
This lesson revolves around reading and discussing Carl Sagan’s “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” and then sending students to Snopes.com to explore the large archive of hoaxes, crazes and fake news stories there for a three fold purpose: 1) To examine and chart the features of fake news stories themselves; 2) To assess how Snopes itself assesses fake news through the lens of the principals of Sagan’s article; 3) To ourselves assess those stories using the skeptical tools and strategies that Sagan offers.
Here is Sagan’s article.
You might assign the following work a few days ahead of time. As long as student have access to a computer, they should be able to do it.
- Read “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” carefully.
- Spend twenty minutes exploring Snopes.com and select two fake news stories of your choice. Snopes.com catalogues these stories, and prominently displays trending stories. Select two stories that appeal to you. Please read both stories and compare them side by side. Analyze what common elements you see in these two fake news stories. You should use Snopes.com’s own analyses to help you; pay attention to what Snopes.com says. Take notes about your findings.
- Please come prepared to class with the notes.
Class#1 (50- 60 minutes).
- Open up a discussion of Sagan’s article. Ask students to:
- Get to the heart of what Sagan is arguing.
- Discuss some of the examples that Sagan adduces.
- Pair up students and discuss the tools in the kit for “skeptical thinking” (in the second half of Sagan’s essay), and rank the top three most useful of those tools. They should discuss this ranking in pairs and write down their responses.
- Have pairs share their findings. Discuss as a class.
- Finish up your first class by sending students back to work in pairs. Have them prepare a short report on: a) what kinds of fake news stories they found; b) how Snopes.com analyzed those fake stories and how these analyses accord with Carl Sagan’s ideas; c) how they utilized Sagan’s ideas to analyze the fake news stories.
Class #2 (50-60 minutes)
- Ask students to reconvene as pairs to prepare a short informal presentation on what they found.
- Pairs should present their findings
- You might compile your findings on the board or in a shared document.
- Discuss and connect. Steer the discussion toward the larger philosophical implications of living in a world of saturated by information and endless news stories, “fake” and “real.”