Spotting a Fake Post: Teaching About Media Literacy on Social Platforms

This blog post is part of a series focusing on media literacy.

If you have been on social media, you may have seen this or something similar posted:


This version was posted on Facebook by a friend of mine—a bright person with advanced degrees, a wonderful teacher, and, sadly, a duped person. We have all heard about fake content on social media, but even the best of us seem to fall for some of it. How does this happen? Why do we suspend disbelief? Why aren’t we more thoughtful and careful?

[READ: Is It Time for Schools to Teach Social Media and Tech Safety?]

As teachers, we have a responsibility to help students become media literate. If we study the anatomy of this Facebook post, we can gather ideas about how to teach students to avoid being duped by similar posts. Let’s look at all the features of this post that made it popular—and what students can learn from it.

The post is about a hot topic: Privacy? Personal photos? Let’s put aside for a moment that Facebook pictures have already been shared and are therefore not private or personal. Good fake posts find an irresistible, hot-button issue to hook us. Teach students to get their guard up immediately upon seeing posts designed to rile us up. 

The post is poorly written: Punctuation errors, capitalization errors, run-ons and fragments, missing parentheses, and disorganized thoughts are obvious. Poor writing should be a clue to help students realize that we aren’t dealing with a top-notch source. 

The post lacks specificity: There are two parts to this, with the first issue being that the post has no definite timestamp. The use of tomorrow is very clever in a couple of ways. It creates an “OMG, I have to do something now” type of urgency that overrides our better thinking. The fear response overpowers the calm thinking response. Additionally, no definite timestamp creates something that can live forever. Like the sign I saw in a bar recently—Free Beer Tomorrow!—this post never expires. Indeed, versions of this post go back to 2012. Let students know that all true legal announcements have specific dates. “Effective November 1, 2019, Facebook will change its privacy rules” would at least be somewhat more likely, but suspicion is still warranted. 

The second issue is that it has no definite source. It talks about a nonspecific Channel 13. Do you have a Channel 13 in your town? Do you think it is the same as the Channel 13 in my town? No matter. Most of us have a Channel 13, so it is probably talking about my Channel 13! But what’s missing? Specificity. “According to WNYT on Channel 13 in Albany, New York, Facebook is changing its privacy policy” would at least be more likely. Notice also that there is no air date given. When was this story aired? May 2 on the 5 p.m. news? June 4 at 10 p.m.? Let students know that vagueness is always a cautionary sign.

The post has bogus legalese: You want specifics? Here’s the exact statute number! I guess that looks like a number a law might have, right? And the Rome Statute? I mean, it came from Rome, so it must be real! But why not check it out? Encourage students to do a web search. In this case, a search reveals that the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court, which handles crimes such as genocide. Tell students that they always need to double check and verify.

The post offers a simplistic and silly solution: Anytime a post says to copy, paste, or forward, STOP. Don’t do it. Ever. Ask students if it is likely that pasting something on your timeline will override privacy policies in social media agreements. Facebook has staff searching through billions of posts to see who has pasted this and these staff will then change the settings of those accounts? Think about that for a minute. Point out that sites have settings. We can go into the settings and change who sees our posts, what ads we want to see, what notifications we get, and so on. Perhaps something such as “Go to Settings. Click on Privacy. Uncheck ‘Allow All’” would be reasonable, but “Copy, Paste, and Breathe”? Help students understand that privacy issues are real in the world of social media, but let them know there is no simple way to solve those issues.

As my friend made clear, intelligent people can be sucked into internet lies. But all fakes have clues that tip us off. Teach students what to look for. If the elements above are in a post, red lights should flash in their brains. If they think critically, they won’t fall for this or similar fakes. After all, according to News@4, sharing bogus posts will cause Von Willebrand Disease, so care full is needed.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer will also be a guest on HMH's new podcast series, Shaping the Future, in November 2019.

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