Help Students Tell Real from Fake When They Research

Steering Students to Research for Quality and Accurate Information Online

Fake news and clickbait are attention getting and therefore a problem for students when they research a topic on the Internet. sorbetto/GETTY images

Having trouble identifying which of the above sensational headlines above is a"real" headline and from a reputable news source? 

Turns out that you may not be not alone.

Clickbait and fake news headlines, like three of the four examples above, fool American adults about 75% of the time, according to a large-scale new survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, a global market research and a consulting firm.

As the traditional news outlets move from print mediums to digital forms of journalism, the function of news headlines to gain attention as links to websites has gained a renewed importance. Now that there are numerous platforms that are available to readers, and a growing number of news choices, the “clickbait” headline or fake news attempts to entice and engage news audiences.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines clickbait as: “content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page." Wikipedia considers the term clickbait pejorative,  describing it as web content without quality or accuracy that is aimed at generating click-throughs only for online advertising revenue. 

Unfortunately, the number of students who are fooled by clickbait headlines and fake news is even higher then adults.

A recent study on how well students can research was conducted by the  Stanford Historian Education Group (SHEG) titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning and released in November 2016. The study of 7,804 student responses was conducted between January 2015 and June 2016, middle school through college, across 12 states. In summary, SHEG described students' research ability as "bleak" based on the following:

  • More than 80% of middle school students believed that  an advertisement, clearly identified by the words “sponsored content,” was a real news story. 
  • Less than 20% of high school students used key details to notice that an unreliable source for a photograph was presented as evidence that nuclear radiation caused unusual growth.
  • Less than 1/3 of college students could fully explain how the political agendas of on the political left or the Center for American Progress on the political right might influence a content of a tweet.

At this time, when fake news is a concern for student research, educators need to be aware of how easily students can be deceived into getting information from less than legitimate sources. Such concerns about how well students can navigate the information offered on so many platforms means that educators should teach students to avoid using any information that comes from clickbait headlines.

Helping students identify the common formulas used in clickbait phrases in headlines is one way. Students should avoid those tempting headlines, "just wait until you read this" as these phrases in headlines are designed to pique curiosity, for example:

  • you won't believe what happens next;
  • does not want you to know;
  • will make you cry;
  • see before you die

One way educators can illustrate the clickbait attention-getting formula is to demonstrate how easy the fake headlines can be to create by demonstrating a "clickbait generator". For example, the Linkbait Generator allows a user to enter any topic to generate headlines. Enter the word "cats" and the results include: 8 reasons cats will change the way you think about everything OR the most boring article about cats you'll ever read OR cats die/s every minute you don't read this article.

Similarly, the clickbait generator,, urges users to share or copy and paste the results anywhere, and specifically describes how the fake headline: "[will]look like a real article.... Muahahaha."

Finally, the use of unnecessary exclamations (such as the ones in this article's title) or hyperbole could be a clue

Educators can use these sites to show students the potential damage these headlines can cause if people believe them. For example, the site allows the user to take any thumbnail image and create any headline. When the link is shared, there is no tag/attribute. Checking for authenticity, a busy person may not scroll through a news feed to check to see if the posted image/headline is fake news.

As a general rule, students should be prepared to question a story on a website if it appears to be too funny, too positive, too terrifying or too exploitive.  In addition, they also should be wary of headlines that seem ridiculous or to fly in the face of science ("Aliens Endorse Trump").

21st Century students need to be ready for the real world, to be college and career ready. If educators are preparing students to independently tell the difference between a reputable website or one that is has been created to promote fake news with clickbait, then educators need to provide instruction and model on how a student should look at a website's for quality and accuracy.

A first step is to have the students checkout the website's "About" page,  where students should go to find out about the website  to inform them why they are on the site or why they should be on the site.

Students should always click on the About page of a website to see:

  • Who created and administrates the site?
  • What do the administrators do? Are they experts in this topic?
  • When was the site created? Is the date on the website current?
  • Where are the administrators located?
  • What is the purpose of the website? To persuade, inform, or entertain? Does the site achieve its purpose?

The next step to prepare students to evaluate a website is through reviewing the layout or how the information is organized on the website.

Educators might provide students with a quick checklist to use when they are looking over a website:

  • The information is well-organized with text features such as a table of contents or an index, a menu for navigation;
  • The search bar can helps locate information on the website and the information is easy to access;
  • The information (fonts, headings) is presented in a way that is easy to use;
  • The information on the site is relevant to the topic;
  • The graphics and images on the site enhance the information;
  • The information on the site is well written and there are no misspellings or grammatical errors;
  • The references on the site have a works cited page or bibliography;
  • The links on the website work.

Educators should have students hunt for clues such as ads on a website. When there are a multitude of ads on a  page, students should know that ads create revenue for the website when people click on the ads. Too many ads and too little text can be an indication that the website exists only to make money. In addition, webpages that are full of click bait headlines have links which click to other ads with repetitive content. Much of the material may have been written for another click bait site or the information may even have  been plagiarized from an existing reputable source.

If educators want to have students complete or imitate an online form, there is also a digital checklist created by the University of Maryland they suggest to evaluate a website.

With training and practice , students in grades 7-12 will be able to tell the difference between the headlines that direct them to a legitimate and reputable website and the headlines that have been created to for revenue or for some more nefarious purposes.

As for those headlines at the beginning of this article? Only the headline about the abuse to Ted Williams is the real headline. From CBS News on October 8, 2009, an employee alleged that the former baseball player's head had been placed in a malfunctioning cryogenic tank and employees had to add liquid nitrogen using a tuna fish can. Oddly enough, this was not fake news.