Can you spot a hoax in the flood of news? Can your children?


Gone are the days of chain letters! Back then, all victims of fabricated falsehoods had to lose was time and possibly a few bucks for stamps. Compared to these old-school hoaxes, there’s much more at stake with their modern cousins – often designed well enough to manipulate their audience into doing something without even realizing it.

It happens to all of us: you’re scrolling through some news, when one pops up on your computer monitor and leaves you shaking your head in disbelief. ‘REALLY?’ resonates in your head. In most cases, that scandalous piece of news was a hoax. Some hoaxes are innocent and the only goal of their creators is to simply shock people. However, most hoaxes are much more sophisticated and designed for a specific purpose.

The outcome can be devastating: it’s someone else’s choice what goods you buy, which candidate you vote for, or – simply – in which direction your preferences lean. With kids, it’s the forming of opinions and beliefs that can get caught up in the dirty business of hoax marketing. While adults may have the background information necessary to spot a hoax, kids are more prone to believing what they read and adjusting their understanding of the world accordingly. On top of being less experienced, most kids and teens get their news from their social network feeds, which makes them largely exposed to unverified news.

The problem of hoaxes and fake news flooding the internet is growing so much that Google and Facebook have started to actively crack down on the publishers of misleading news. Unfortunately, even if these efforts prove helpful, the effect will be only partial and not immediate.

So what can you do to avoid falling for hoaxes and protect your children against them?

The very concept of spreading hoaxes depends on their audience’s lack of critical thinking. First and foremost, talk to your kids about the importance of “stopping and thinking” before accepting anything they read or hear as the truth, or even further spreading it. Let your children know you’re always there for them to discuss news that has left them confused or shocked.

To become better at detecting misinformation, try to discover the purpose of every unbelievable news story you face – you can even make it into a game with your children. Just follow the old Roman principle “Cui bono“ – translated from Latin “for whose benefit”. In most cases you’re likely to come across a brand that is trying to ride the wave of your emotions: be extremely suspicious if the exciting news leads you to buy some goods or services. Or – aren’t elections nearing? In such a case, that unbelievable news might well be designed to lead you towards making the right vote…

You can also get to the bottom of hoaxes and fake news by asking some de-cloaking questions, such as:

  • Does the piece of news have an author? Can the person or media be trusted?
  • Are other sources reporting this news as well?
  • Is the news plausible? Isn’t it beyond the scope of likelihood?
  • Who paid for this news? Who gets paid if you click on it?
  • Who might benefit from or be harmed by this news?
  • Is the news complete? What is left out of the message that might be important?

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