Fake News

Binary Thinking—-> Problematizing and Relativising—-> Questioning—-> Subtlety in View of Truth

Heather Fester & Jarret Krone

Suggested time: 3 Weeks

Culminating Assignments: Rhetorical Analysis, Critical Analysis, Guide to Navigating Fake News, Investigative Deep Dive

“We live in a democracy and have to make informed choices based on critical analysis of the best information we can find.”

How to order –>

Available Now!

Likely most people have their own definition of fake news. After all, it’s a term that has been bandied about globally since it was declared “Word of the Year” by several agencies in 2017. But what exactly is fake news and, more importantly, how can we think more critically about it?

Heather Fester and Jarret Krone (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs) have created an approachable, easy-to-implement 2-3 week Rhetorical Analysis unit based around the history and issues in fake news. Sure, there are examples from contemporary politics, but the underpinnings of their approach are more scientific, for example focusing on the psychology of biases, and moving students carefully from binary thinking through relativism, into a more complex sense of how meaning is made.

The Fake News unit effectively blends critical thinking concepts with contemporary case studies to: 

  • investigate the cultural foundations and power structures that make fake news possible.
  • look beyond the perception of information as fake or real, harmful or natural, ethical or evil.
  • use digital notebooks paired with metacognitive moves to help students track how, why, and where their thoughts about the news and truth evolve.
  • compliment discussions of fake news by pulling in contemporary examples, and provide ample opportunities for reflection.

The contents of this unit are arranged to support instructors and students through a suggested sequence or to allow them to experiment with sequences of their own. 

Table of contents


How to Use this Unit and Learning Objectives

The Critical Thinking Scaffold

Lesson 1: What Is Fake News?

What Is Fake News, and Why Is Everyone Talking about It?

Article: Frank Newport et al., “‘Email’ Dominates What Americans Have Heard About Clinton” (Gallup, 2016)

Discussion Questions

Exercise: Framing Factors

Exercise: Ranking

The Resurgence of Fake News

Exercise: Yellow Journalism

Exercise: Real, Fake, or It’s Complicated

Exercise: Annotating Fake News

Article: Mike the Cop, “New Bill Would Require Officers to Call Supervisor Before Drawing Weapons” (Blue News Network, 2019)

Lesson 1 Readings and Media

Article: Mike Wending, “The Almost Complete History of Fake News” (BBC, 2018)

Article: Jacob Soll, “The Long and Brutal History of Fake News” (Politico Magazine, 2016)

Article: “Yellow Journalism: The ‘Fake News’ of the 19th Century” (from Public Domain Review, accessed 2019)

Lesson 2: If It’s Fake, What Makes It So?

Defining Fake News

Exercise: Arguable Thesis Activity

Exercise: Working Thesis

In-Class Discussion: Working Thesis Statements

Exercise: Identifying Salient Features of Fake News

Article: “NASA Discovers New Planet Covered with Marijuana” (Newswatch 28, 2015)

Exercise: Extrapolating What Fake News Is from Context

Exercise: Questioning the Ways We Get Our News

In-Class Activity: Fake News Consumption Log 

Rhetorical Concepts to Consider and Apply

Exercise: Associating Fake News with Contents from the Unit

Lesson 2 Readings and Media

Article: Olivia Paschel, “Trump’s Tweets and the Creation of ‘Illusory Truth’” (The Atlantic, 2018)

Video: [Kellyanne] Conway: Conway: “Press Secretary Gave ‘Alternative Facts'” (Meet the Press, NBC News, 2017) 

Article: Kris Shaffer, “Truthy Lies and Surreal Truths: A Plea for Critical Digital Literacies” (from Hybrid Pedagogy, 2016)

Video: Stephen Colbert, “THE WORD – TRUTHINESS” (The Colbert Report, 2005)

Article: Danah Boyd, “Google and Facebook Can’t Just Make Fake News Disappear” (Wired, 2017)

Lesson 3: If It’s True, What Makes It So?

What Makes Us Perceive Something as True?

Audio: hosted by Joshua Johnson, “All Talk, Political Action: How Conservative Talk Radio Shaped The GOP” (The 1A, NPR, 2019)


The Psychology of Fake News

Exercise: Psychology of the Viewer: How Our Brains Get in the Way Sometimes

In-class Activity: Twitter Feed Rhetorical Analysis

Exercise: Reflecting on and Testing Illusory Truths in Your Experience (Consumption Log)

Abstract: G Pennycook, TD Cannon, DG Rand, “Prior Exposure Increases Perceived Accuracy of Fake News” (National Institutes of Health, Pubmed.gov, 2018)

Video: Bo Bennett, “Illusory Truth Effect” (YouTube, 2017) 

Exercise: What Sources Can You Trust and How Do You Know?

Op-Ed: Alexander Astin, “The Fallacy of ‘Free College for All’” (Los Angeles Times, 2018)

In-class Activity: Investigate How You Know What You Know

Op-Ed: Shira A Sheindlin and Joel Cohen, “After #MeToo, We Can’t Ditch Due Process” (The Guardian, 2018)


Circulation and Network Theory

In-class Activity: Meme Creation and Circulation

Exercise: Analyzing Our Echo Chambers (Consumption Log)

Lesson 3 Readings and Media

Opinion: Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, “Why Do People Fall for Fake News?” (New York Times, 2019)

Comic: The Oatmeal, “You’re Not Going to Believe What I’m About to Tell You” (theoatmeal.com, 2017)

Article: Rebecca Ruiz, “Everyone Is Sharing This Comic about the ‘Backfire Effect’ … but There’s a Huge Catch” (Mashable, 2017)

Article: David Z. Hambrick and Madeline Marquardt, “Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News” (Scientific American, 2018)

Wikipedia: “List of Cognitive Biases” (wikipedia.com, accessed 2019)

Video: Marc Samet, “Network Theory” (TEDEx, YouTube, 2013)

Article: James Gleick, “What Defines a Meme?” (Smithsonian Magazine, 2011)

Article: Henry Jenkins, “A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman”(henryjenkins.org, 2014)

Reading: Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, “The Architecture of Our Discontent,” Chapter 2 from Network Propaganda, Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (pp. lvi-lxxxv, accessed from Google Books, 2018)

Audio: Hosted by Michael Krasney, “Zuckerberg Asks Government to Help Regulate Hate Speech, Political Ads” (from KQED, 2019)

Podcast: Hosted by Scott Adams, “Episode 71: How to Spot Cognitive Dissonance in the Media” (from Scott Adams Says, 2018)

Article: David Robson, “The Myth of the Online Echo Chamber” (BBC, 2018)

Lesson 4: How Does a Person Live with Multiple Truths?


Exercise: Practicing with Counterarguments: Believe and Doubting with Carl

Audio: Hosted by Rachel Martin, “Classifying Attacks: Mental Illness or Terrorism?” (Morning Edition, NPR, 2017)

Exercise: Framing Perspective and Bias: Students Confront Native American Elder at a Rally

Video: Reported by Savannah Guthrie, “Exclusive: Teen at Center of Protest: He Was Not Disrespectful to Native American” (NBC Nightly News, NBC, from YouTube, 2019)

Video: Reported by Emanuella Grinberg, “A New Video Shows a Different Side of the Encounter Between a Native American Elder and a Teens in MAGA Hats” (CNN, 2019)

In-class Activity: What Side of the Booth Are You On? Encountering Complexity and Learning to Choose

Lesson 4 Readings and Media

Video: Ash Bhat, “Why Fake News Should Bother You” (TEDEx Teen, from YouTube, 2017)

Article: The RAND Corporation, “Countering Truth Decay: A RAND Initiative to Restore the Role of Facts and Analysis in Public Life” (The RAND Corporation, accessed 2019)

Article: More in Common, “The Perception Gap: Findings” (perceptiongap.us, 2019)

Video: presented by Luke Alexander, “Using Criteria to Evaluate Arguments 2” (from Coursera, accessed 2019)

Article: Kartik Hosanagar, “Blame the Echo Chamber on Facebook. But Blame Yourself, Too” (Wired, 2016)

Article: Joseph Burgo, “The Emotional Psychology of a Two-Party System” (The Atlantic, 2013)

Lesson 5: How Do You Know When Reporting Is Objective?

Language and Bias

Exercise: Intentional Slanting

Exercise: Slanting vs. Objectivity in Op-Ed Analysis

Op-Ed: Jeff Jarvis, “Books Will Disappear. Print Is Where Words Go to Die” (The Guardian, 2006)

Exercise: Close Reading to Decipher Objective Reporting

Op-Ed: Ravi Chandra, “Is Facebook Destroying Society and Your Mental Health?” (Psychology Today, 2018)

Blog: Carla Clark, “How Taking a Facebook Break Affects Your Mental Health” (psychcentral.com, 2018)

Article: Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” (The Atlantic, 2017)

In-Class Activity: Analyzing Images in the Post-Truth Age

Lesson 5 Readings and Media

Reading: Newman P. Birk and Genevieve B. Birk, “Slanting, Selection, and Charged Language” (excerpt, 2005)

Article: Camila Domonoske, “Students Have a ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds” (NPR, 2016)

Case Studies: Can You Apply What You’ve Learned to Contemporary Examples?

Case Study 1: Bots and Conspiracies

Article: Erin Griffith, “Pro-Gun Russian Bots Flood Twitter After Parkland Shooting” (Wired, 2018)

Article: Daniel Arkin and Ben Popken, “How the Internet’s Conspiracy Theorists Turned Parkland Students into ‘Crisis Actors’” (NBC News, 2018)

Audio: Hosted by Joshua Johnson, “Two Students Drop Out of College to Take On Bots and Fake News” (The A1, NPR, 2018)

Case Study 2: Fake News Creation

Audio: Hosted by Laura Sydell, “We Tracked Down a Fake-News Creator in the Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned” (All Things Considered, NPR, 2018)

Article: “‘Nothing on This Page Is Real’: How Lies Become Truth in Online America” (The Washington Post, 2018)

Case Study 3: Manipulating with Tech

Audio: Hosted by Joshua Johnson, “The Threat Of ‘Deepfakes’” (The 1A, NPR, 2019)

Video: Reported by Mike O’Brien, “Why ‘Deepfake’ Videos Are Becoming More Difficult to Detect” (PBS Newshour, PBS, from YouTube, 2019)

Article: Kim Lacapira, “Does This Photo Show a Toddler in a Cage Detained by ICE in 2018?” (Snopes, 2018)

Article: Tim Mak, “Can You Believe Your Own Ears? With New ‘Fake News’ Tech, Not Necessarily” (NPR, 2018)

Video: by Egor Zakharov, “Few-Shot Adversarial Learning of Realistic Neural Talking Head Models” (YouTube, 2019)

Case Study 4: Parodies

Video: Bruno Lopez, “‘Last Week Tonight’ Creates Real Change” (YouTube, 2016)

Article: The Onion, “Unstable Man Plots to Bring Guns to Schools” (theonion.com, 2013) 

Article: Clickhole, “Fighting Back: Facebook Is Mailing Air Horns to All of Its Users to Blow Whenever They See Fake News” (ClickHole.com, 2016)

Case Study 5: Documenting Truth

Video: directed by Matt Ornstein, “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, and America” Trailer (accidentalcourtesy.com, accessed 2019) 

Video: directed by Ana DuVernay, “13th” Trailer (YouTube, 2016)

Case Study 6: Detecting Fake News

Article: Katherine Schutlen and Amanda Christy, “Evaluating Sources in a Post-Truth World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News” (The New York Times, 2017)

Article: Wynne Davis, “Fake or Real? How to Self-Check the News and Get the Facts” by Wynne Davis (All Tech Considered, NPR, 2016)

Article: Camila Domonoske, “Students Have a ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds” (NPR, 2016)

Case Study 7: From the Archives: Stories on Fake News after the 2016 Election

Article: Craig Timburg, “Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread ‘Fake News’ During Election, Experts Say” (The Washington Post, 2016)

Article: Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald, “Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist from a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group” (The Intercept, 2016)

Website: PropOrNot, “Is It Propaganda or Not?” (propornot.com, 2017)

Video: Stephen Colbert, “THE WORD – TRUTHINESS” (The Colbert Report, 2005)

Video: [Kellyanne]Conway: “Press Secretary Gave ‘Alternative Facts'” (Meet the Press, NBC News, 2017) 

Exercise: Critical Digital Literacy Log Examining Media Behaviors (Consumption Log) 

Culminating Assignments

A Guide to Fake News (Critical)

A Guide to Fake News (Multimodal)

An Investigative Deep Dive into Fake News

Rhetorical Analysis of Fake News

Final Reflection


Discussion Questions

Rhetorical Glossary Alternative Activities