Fake news – hitting all schools, pupils and parents near you

2017 is going to be the year of Fake News clearly, because of course Mr Trump, Mr Putin and Mr Assad would have it so.  Everywhere the news is reported, someone seems to claim that the facts not true, or visa versa, or both.

Fake News

From the internet IT magazine ‘The Register’


The reality is much more nuanced that this, with most of the practical news being precisely that we would expect, accurately and honestly reported. The trouble is that good, old honest ‘News’ as such does not sell papers. Sensation, involving either royalty or celebrity causes so many more ‘clicks’ on the internet, which in turn attract the advertisers who fund the sites in the first place.

We do need to be concerned though. Try this headline from many of this week’s papers:

Blue whale

Most schools received this message from safeguarding agencies keen to alert their communities to an apparent surge of suicides caused by an App or on-line challenge.  We picked up the warnings, but something didn’t quite feel right; we emailed our local  police liaison who also agreed, and after some further research, it emerged that the story is an Urban Myth that originally surfaced in 2015 and has come back to challenge us. What is always true is that:

There are so many other ghastly media transmissions out there of concern. For example, Netflix currently have a TV drama 13 Reasons Why series currently available, heavily criticised for glamorising teenage suicide.  Even the innocent social medias and ‘chat rooms’ rapidly attract addictive traits amongst adolescent users.  In short, the best advice schools can give, repeatedly until the Internet closes is:

‘Parents should take a close interest in their children’s use of technology, social media and ‘screen time’, and encourage all such activity takes place in family supervised space.’

The trouble is that we can ‘trivialise’ concerns such as the Blue Whale challenge around young people, because risk-taking behaviours are hard-wired into adolescents and young adults, and the prevalence of suicide in this cohort is a serious concern.  It is after all the most likely reason for men aged 20 to 35 to die.  Fortunately, though every death in the school age cohort is a tragedy, it’s at much lower levels, and at the same time, the peer group are very aware of the risks and ‘alerts’ to us adults in school are much quicker to surface.

Fake News education

It’s interesting to note just how many ‘new’ responsibilities are coming to schools these days, as the above direction from the OECD indicates. Personally, I don’t think studying ‘Fake News’ in school is the best place, in part because really good ‘Fake News’ is so difficult to spot!  The RED top newspapers have been carrying such stories every since their introduction.  Back in 1986, I had the unenvious privilege of supporting a child at school whose father was accused (falsely as the Leveson enquiry in 2012 discovered) of eating a pet-


What on earth can you say when such papers choose to publish stories that are just so sensational?  The damage to the family, the awful impact at school on friendships and inevitable isolation that followed were really distressing. Max Clifford told the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics that The Sun ran the now infamous headline ‘Freddie Star Ate my Hamster’ on its front page on March 13, 1986 with his permission, despite the story being untrue.

What was so sad is that Mr Clifford allowed the story to go ahead in order to drum up publicity for the comedian ahead of a tour.

My biggest caution to schools, pupils and parents is that all this ‘stuff’ is really not ‘normal’.  The more we give the oxygen of publicity to false stories and fake headlines, the more likely the easily-impressed will be.  Obviously we need to talk around the value of finding out the truth and acting for the best, but a rich, deep and broad curriculum has this content anyway.  I have just finished teaching the Black Death to Year 7, and the havoc that major plague brought to Europe makes for gruesome learning.  The UK did not recover its population numbers for over 400 years!  History classes are always full of discussion and analysis of what’s truth and what’s not, with the study of ‘propoganda’ high on the 20th century hit list.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder – 1562 – 200+ years after the Black Death plague

And it’s not just History studying ‘truth’. Whether it be in English from the study of any Shakespeare or Dickens’ works, Art, Sciences, Humanities and such like, all human life is there, in full glory, technicolour and gore. The best defence for all of our children in schools is to provide them with an education that challenges and inspires, and permits them to explore anger, sorrow, lies and deceit and all those other human emotions and frailties, recovery from which bStarry starry nightuilds the resilience they need to survive in the much harsher world of adulthood that lies ahead.

If there’s one anecdote I can recall from my own school experience that assisted me in understanding what was ‘real’ about suicide, it was learning  the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and death, who to this day inspires many of our artists in school.  As I was leaving sixth form back in 1971, in exploring the lyrics of Don Mclean’s Vincent with my friends, I came to terms that mental illness existed and was tragic, but something I did not need to own myself.  Listening to the song, whilst studying his paintings, I recall a coming of age. And that’s not ‘Fake news’.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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