Fighting Fake News
How a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is helping students separate truth from fiction in Montgomery County and beyond.
In 2012, NLP started a digital platform in Chicago, and then expanded it to New York and the D.C. region. In May 2016, NLP quietly released checkology, a broader digital program that teachers anywhere could use. This virtual classroom platform was in place by the time of the 2016 election, and Miller’s work caught the attention of NPR, which aired a story in December on an Arlington school that was using checkology called “The Classroom Where Fake News Fails.” It went viral—at least among some educators. Teachers started signing on to use checkology in China, Turkey, Mexico, Ukraine and across the United States. An educator in Macedonia is signed up to use the platform, Miller says.
The attention brought unsolicited donations from all corners of the U.S. In the past, most donations came from people NLP staffers had courted. Suddenly, small donations—$20, $50—were pouring in from people NLP never contacted, from areas where it had never been active. One donor contributed $10,000. “Between the election and the end of the year we received over 200 of these donations,” Miller says. “That essentially more than doubled the number of annual donations.”
NLP reached 25,000 students in the program’s first eight years, Miller says. He’d hoped checkology would reach 100,000 students and every U.S. state in its first year. Because checkology is a free program, NLP measures checkology’s potential reach by the number of students that teachers who register for it say they teach. Today that number is about 950,000, including 3,400 in Montgomery County public schools, private schools, a church and other settings.
In the 2016-17 school year, 10 live classroom and after-school programs were in place, in schools including Montgomery Blair and others in D.C., Virginia and New York. As checkology expands, most of these programs are being phased out.
Vickie Adamson, who heads the English department at Montgomery Blair, has incorporated elements of NLP in the curriculum of her journalism classes for several years, used the checkology platform and had working journalists—including Miller—speak to her students.
“When students say, ‘Hey, I can see myself doing that,’ I think that is where they connect,” Adamson says. “These top prizewinning, recognized journalists stand out in their field, and the students can see that right away when they come in. The students are just filled with so much awe and admiration.”
NLP’s core elements haven’t changed much since its early days, Miller says. Instead of live speakers, a dozen working journalists and experts—from BuzzFeed and Bloomberg to The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal—teach the lessons virtually with videos and readings. They lead online lessons about topics such as fact-checking and algorithm-induced “filter bubbles,” and avoid using the phrase “fake news.”
Teachers can lead students through the exercises from start to finish or incorporate pieces of them into lesson plans. Modules cover topics such as filtering news and information, exercising civic freedoms and navigating today’s information landscape. Students take quizzes, share their thoughts and earn badges as they progress.
NLP is about to extend its reach beyond kids. In January, Facebook announced a collaboration with the organization on a public service announcement (PSA) campaign that’s expected to appear this year in the news feeds of 8 million users. Using Facebook’s sophisticated algorithms, the campaign is targeting a very specific audience: adults over 40 who regularly use Facebook to consume and share dubious content. The PSAs will offer tips on distinguishing between fake stories and real journalism, and a quiz to test news literacy skills. In April, NLP joined the News Integrity Initiative, a global consortium spearheaded by Facebook to improve trust in journalism.
“We’re trying to give [news consumers] resources to help them distinguish quality journalism from the spin, speculation and falsehood that are in today’s media ecosystem,” says Elis Estrada, who was the Washington program manager for NLP before leaving in April to work with a PBS NewsHour education program.
When people post to social media, they become creators, Estrada says, and that comes with responsibilities. “Everybody can be their own publisher these days, whether it’s Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook, and students have to be really careful about the information they’re sharing,” she says. “That’s how virtual rumors spread really quickly.”
David Frey lives in Gaithersburg and has written for Sunset magazine and other publications.