As the run-up to the March 20 primary election nears, Forest Park Middle School students have been using a program created by the FBI to help them distinguish between real and fake internet news. Richard Hearn, library media specialist, said sixth, seventh and eighth grade students are very tech savvy, but they often don’t get the distinction between credible news sources and news that is biased or made up.  

“They can play with their gadgets, but when they go online they are not as smart discerning the information as they are with the technology,” he said.  

To help make the distinction between real and fake news, Hearn uses a program called Safe Online Surfing, which uses games to teach students how to be internet savvy. Topics covered include online safety, personal information sharing, digital citizenship, how to prevent installing malware and vocabulary. Hearn said he also stresses the three A’s: Authoritative, which questions whether the information comes from a trustworthy source; Accurate, which stresses the timeliness, bias and subject availability of the information; and Appropriateness, or vocabulary used. 

A lesson on safe internet surfing features a Panda on a surfboard with an introduction that reads, “Help Daphne the Panda ride the waves and stay on her surfboard. If you get enough correct responses, Daphne will reach the beach. If you get too many answers wrong, the surfboard will break.” 

Another program pictures the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and asks students to categorize real and fake images. One picture features a flooded subway tunnel with a shark swimming next to a train. Hearn said that some students react to the picture by saying, “That’s so cool;” others say it’s not real; and “When I tell some that the picture is not true, they respond with ‘Really?” he said. 

Another website Hearn uses is called Tree Octopus, which claims that the “Tree Octopus” is an endangered species, encourages viewers to donate to an organization called “Green Peas” and sign an online petition to boycott companies that use tree octopus wood. Hearn shows eighth graders the website and asks them, “Is it credible information or something else?” 

Students look for red flags—simple things like, ‘Is the website written in all capital letters?; Does it look real compared to other trustworthy websites?; and, What is the quality of the website?—to equip them to identify fake news and websites like Tree Octopus.

While President Donald Trump has criticized the FBI for being biased, Hearn said he uses the FBI program because it’s a fun site for his students to go and added with a slight smile, “I thought, ‘Hey, it’s got to be a credible source, right?'”