Lesson Plan: Fake News

Weekly World News covers featuring a bat child and Hillary Clinton with an alien baby

Featured image via Vox

Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote in On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense that truth is “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.” He likens truths to coins that have lost their embellishment. Given the complicated, contemporary industry of “fake news” (defined as news media with misleading, inaccurate, or false claims and support), students and teachers might wonder how to respond to how truths rapidly accumulate and lose purchase. This assignment asks students to critically assess the digital reproduction of truth and lies by collectively tracking its “metaphoricity,” meaning the collective signs, relationships, and visual traces that make up truth’s meaning. Rather than merely “fact-check,” this lesson plan asks students to generate a swarm of thematic tags about what constitutes true and false news in our contemporary moment.

Through this lesson plan, students practice collective digital writing using hypothes.is, a browser extension that enables collective annotation of web resources, including websites and PDFs. A sharable link to a website or PDF means students can annotate in class or each student can annotate remotely from home.

There are numerous creative uses for hypothes.is: class and group discussion sections, multimedia writing, glossaries, brainstorming, close reading, rhetorical analysis, tagging a piece for themes, gathering citations, fact-checking, peer review, and self-assessment. In addition to hosting a workshop about using hypothes.is, the DWRL has used hypothes.is to generate “annotation swarms,” annotate primary and secondary sources through JSTOR, and go beyond verbal student participation. In this lesson plan, students will create another kind of swarm: tags.

Learning Objectives

The purpose of this lesson plan is to generate media literacy in a contemporary US culture marked by claims of “fake news.” A pedagogy of media literacy involves teaching critical consumption of news. Instead of rehearsing students’ unconscious assessments about what constitutes truth and falsity through mere “fact-checking,” this lesson plan asks students to consider the rhetoric construction of truth and lies, especially as concerns rhetorical claims to credibility and authority.

By the end of the lesson, students should be able to do the following:

  • Create a metaphor swarm of tags that speak to the collective signs, relationships, and visual traces that make up truth’s meaning in digital settings
  • Practice collective digital annotation of news media using hypothes.is
  • Discuss the nature of rhetorical responsibility given current trends

Assignment Length

20-25 minutes

Required Materials

Personal laptop or DWRL computer console, with access to a web browser (preferably Google Chrome)

Skills Necessary

Download a browser extension and use it to annotate online

Access and Adaptability

If access to digital media is prohibitive, this lesson plan can be adapted for a non-digital classroom. Instructors can print out the news articles for students, and students can write tags in the physical margins of the articles on sticky notes. The students then can post the swarm of notes together on a white board to visualize the collective troping of truth.

Assignment Description

In this lesson plan, students will analyze the rhetorical construction of truths in digital media by creating a proliferation of unique annotations and responses. These annotations will categorize the metaphors we use to decide what is credible and authoritative with a “tag” feature in hypothes.is.

The tags will then be made visible to the entire class to discuss cross-overs, connections to other news articles, and rhetorical authority, knowledge, and responsibility.

Instructor Preparation

Download the hypothes.is web browser extension
Watch the “How to Annotate the Web with hypothes.is” tutorial video below

Student Preparation

Watch the “How to Annotate the Web with hypothes.is” tutorial video below

Bring laptop to class, if they have one and feel comfortable doing so (DWRL consoles may also be used)

In-Class or Assignment Instructions

The lesson plan has two phases: group work and class discussion.

Group Work*

*To save time in-class, students can do the group work remotely

  1. Divide the class into groups of 4-5 students
  2. Assign each group a website with proven disreputable claims. Melissa Zimdars, a professor of Communication and Media at Merrimack College, created a handy guide that lists some of these sites and identifies some traces that indicate falsehoods. If these websites are no longer available, you can access them through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
  3. Instruct each group to create an annotation group using hypothes.is
  4. Have each member of the group do the following individually:
    • Create four to five (4-5) annotations that isolate what signs, relationships, and visual traces constitute a sense of truthfulness or falsehood regarding the assigned website.
      • For instance, if an article has been shared on a social media site like Twitter numerous times, perhaps current readers are more likely to believe its claims. In that sense, sheer circulation would become proof of credibility. The student would then highlight the Twitter shares and make a note about why this indicates truthfulness, tagging the annotation with themes like “social media circulation,” “shares,” and “virality.” These tags are the signs that stand in for truth, and so students are encouraged to list as many as they deem necessary.
      • The annotation can also include the student’s own thoughts, an image, a gif, a link to other relevant resources (especially other news articles) that testify to how truthfulness becomes constructed in that specific way. The most important components are the tags.
    • Respond to two (2) of their peers’ annotations with additional tags about the particular sign of truthfulness they have identified.

Class Discussion

  1. Have each group email you a shareable link of their annotations
  2. Bring the class together and pull up each group’s annotations as a class
  3. Then, as a class, write out a collective list of all tags for everyone to see
  4. Because these are the metaphors that we have forgotten carry weight in digital settings, the class can then discuss (in-person or through a collective class annotation page of the compiled tags):
    • Should we trust these as markers of what is true and false? What other factors should be included in the list?
    • What should we value in a news article, concerning both its form and content?
    • What similar news articles did these tags make you think of?
    • Because the construction of truthfulness seems to dim our capacities to discern how it becomes “poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished,” according to Nietzsche, how can we be responsible consumers of news in digital settings?
    • How does the circulation of “fake news” implicate rhetorical responsibility? Who are the responsible authors of news?

Skills Workshop

The specific skill taught by this lesson plan is how to annotate a website using hypothes.is. Students will learn how to create original annotations, respond to peers, create groups, and categorize searchable annotations with tags. In other words, students will learn how to generate a mutual language and community of ideas online. Ideally, the metaphor swarm acts as a new way students make sense out of the news they consume, generating new pathways for incorporating and assessing digital media.

To learn how to annotate the web, students and instructors should watch the following tutorial video:

Assessment Suggestions

The following are Portfolio-Style and Traditional Assessment suggestions. In both, students are assessed based on the extent to which they generate a portfolio or discussion that questions what we collectively value in news.

This assignment can be developed into a student portfolio project in two ways. First, students can annotate multiple news articles and collect the tags across news sites. All of their tags online are collected on their personal hypothes.is page. With these compiled tags, students can compile an online “tropography” of news sites. Second, student groups or individual students can track and discuss one overarching metaphor they see moving across news sites. Students can link to their annotated news articles with a personal blog.

Instructors should engage these sites with ample feedback about how students can improve the project prior to its due date, either in-person or through hypothes.is itself. After the assignment is due, students can meet with instructors to reflect on their annotation portfolios.

The annotation and discussion can be incorporated into an overall participation grade.

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