Fake news

Fake news

The internet offers unrivalled opportunities to explore, learn and acquire knowledge. However, alongside the accurate information and content that is produced by organisations and individuals alike, there is content that seeks to deceive or manipulate – disinformation. Fake news is one form of disinformation.

In this deep dive, we will look into the nature of fake news online and the impact it can have, particularly on children and young people. We’ll also explore ways that you can empower your learners to spot fake news headlines and fact-check, as well as signpost to useful resources that you can use in the classroom with your learners.

What is fake news?

Meme featuring Will Ferrel gesturing air quotes and the text Do you mean? "Fake news"

Source: imgflip

…news that conveys or incorporates false, fabricated, or deliberately misleading information, or that is characterized as or accused of doing so.

Oxford English Dictionary

Fake news is a form of disinformation – when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm. The term has been around since the end of the 19th century, but rose sharply in popularity from 2016 onwards when used by former US president Donald Trump to attack mainstream journalism that was critical of him or his policies.

Did you know?

'Fake news' was named Collins Dictionary's official Word of the Year 2017 - newspaper headline

Fake news was named Collins Dictionary’s official Word of the Year for 2017; an impressive feat for a phrase containing two words! It beat other shortlisted words such as “fidget spinner”, “unicorn”, “gig economy” and “echo chamber” to take the top spot.

Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018 was “misinformation”, continuing a trend of popular words related to information disorder at that time.

Why isn’t all disinformation called “fake news”?

People often refer to disinformation as being fake news. However, this term is too vague when trying to distinguish between different types of information that is factually incorrect versus that which is published to cause harm or confusion.

The term “fake news” can also be used as a purposefully confusing term and as a means to discredit information that someone disagrees with. Alternatively, it can be used to undermine the validity of an accurate source. When used dismissively, it also discourages any critical evaluation of the content or source, which can lead to a lack of critical reasoning skills needed to understand the messages being conveyed.

Information shapes our beliefs and actions both online and offline, with the sources of information we draw upon having become more varied as the result of the internet and social media. Instead of regularly reading printed newspapers and sitting together in front of the TV to watch the morning news, people have more choice in their news consumption. The media landscape has changed, with young people far more likely to receive their news from social media first, and mainstream media second.


Think you can spot a fake news headline? Have a go at one of the monthly BBC Bitesize Fake News quizzes, where each month you must decide which of ten headlines are fake news.

What are the motives for sharing fake news?

Aside from using the term incorrectly as a weapon to attack the free press, there are a number of motives behind the creation and spread of fake news stories:

  • Political agendas – individuals, groups or organisations may use misleading or false information to damage the reputation of a political opponent, or to enhance the reputation of an individual or political party to which they are aligned.
  • Reputational damage or gain – more widely, fake news can be used to damage or enhance the reputation of other public figures such as celebrities and influencers.
  • Financial gain – fake news headlines may be used to drive engagement on websites and platforms. Use of ‘clickbait’, misleading headlines that are emotive or designed to grab a reader’s attention, are commonly used to generate page views and opportunities to display advertising to users.
  • Manipulating public opinion – mis- and disinformation can be used to erode the public’s trust in governments, NGOs and other organisations. It can threaten the democratic process, financial markets and the effectiveness and safety of public services such as healthcare and law enforcement.
  • Profit-driven production services – where there is demand, there is supply! There are individuals and groups who will create false content to order for interested parties. These services are driven by profit and ignore the ethical and moral implications of the content they create.
  • Parody/satire – some online content (websites like The Onion, social media accounts and video content) is created with the sole purpose of providing comedy or commentary around world events. While the creators of this content are not attempting to mislead or deceive, the authentic look of the content they produce can often be mistaken for genuine news!

 What is the role of AI in fake news?

74 per cent (on average across 29 countries) think artificial intelligence is making it easier to generate very realistic fake news stories and images. Source: Ipsos Global Advisor. 21,816 people across 29 countries polled between April 21-May 5, 2023.

Source: Ipsos

With the rise in the availability and sophistication of generative AI tools, it has become easier than ever for individuals and groups to produce fake content that appears realistic enough to fool many online users. This can include AI-generated images, videos and audio. To learn more about generative AI, why not explore the Generative AI deep-dive module?

What are the possible risks around fake news?

  • Financial loss – fake news stories that encourage individuals to invest or spend money in particular ways could lead to financial loss if it results in purchase of fake (or even non-existent) products, or leads to changes in the stock markets.
  • Changes to belief/behaviour – false information that encourages individuals to engage in, or make changes to, their behaviour can lead to issues. Fake news that reinforces negative stereotypes can also alter people’s beliefs or reinforce prejudiced views.
  • Threats to society and democracy – fake news stories about politicians and world leaders could threaten the democratic process, by damaging reputations and eroding trust.
  • Risks to health and safety – Misleading or false information can affect the mental and physical health of individuals, particularly if it encourages them to engage in actions or choices that might result in negative outcomes. Some fake news stories might encourage or nudge people towards behaviours that are potentially harmful to themselves and/or others.

How can you spot fake news?

As with other forms of disinformation, the following are important to consider when evaluating a news headline online:

  • Check the source – does the information come from a site/platform with a trustworthy reputation or track record for providing accurate information?
  • Check the author – does the author have a reputation for being trustworthy? How much experience do they have in the area on which they are reporting?
  • Check other sources – can the same news story be found on other websites/platforms? If a news story is first reported on social media, looking for the same story on a reputable news website is a good way to check its authenticity.
  • Examine the language – what words/phrases are used in the headlines/story? Are they designed to produce strong emotions? What are the possible motives behind this?
  • Comments, shares and likes – what are others saying about this news story? How are they reacting to it? Is the accuracy being challenged, and is that challenge credible?
  • Consider biases – are you seeing this information because you exist in a filter bubble and it reinforces your existing views? Exploring (with care) the opposing views around a news story can help you make a more informed decision.
  • Look for clues – this is becoming harder with AI-generated content, but other fake content online may show clues of being editing or manipulated to change the message behind it.

What can I do to support my learners? 

The deep-dive module on mis- and disinformation provides some useful advice on how to approach teaching about information disorders such as fake news.

The following tips are also useful for supporting learners to spot fake news online:

  • Teach critical thinking – providing opportunities for your learners to explore and learn critical thinking skills is crucial to empower them to become media literate. Regularly discussing news headlines (real and fake) can be a good way to help them consider how to decide what can/can’t be trusted online.
  • Prebunking – it can be difficult to challenge the issues presented in some fake news stories, particularly if these stories reinforce your learners’ views and beliefs. Sometimes, a better way to approach the issue is ‘prebunking’; teaching your learners about the strategies that are used to mislead people online can be more effective than trying to prove a particular fake news story is false.
  • Media creation – similar to the previous tip, giving your learners the opportunity to create their own fake/misleading content can help them understand the features required to create false yet convincing images, videos and other content. Care should always be taken in this approach and you should make your learners aware of the risks and impact if they choose to create and share false content online. 

Further information and resources

Want to learn more about fake news and teaching media literacy skills? These resources may be useful:

  • Better Internet for Kids resources – Educational resources from across the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres. You can search for ‘fake news’, for resources in your language and for resources for different age groups.
  • CO:RE Evidence Base – A database of publications and research on youth online experiences. Searching the database with ‘fake news’, allows you to browse and read relevant research related to this issue.
  • Understanding mis- and disinformation – A deep dive module in the BIK Teacher Corner that explores the nature of information disorders.
  • Fact4All: Schools tackling disinformation MOOC – As part of the Facts4All project, EUN and project partners created a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for teachers on how to tackle disinformation in school communities. All the MOOC content is available as an archived course. For more information on the project, please visit this page.
  • School of Social Networks – This resource for primary-aged children, teachers and parents/carers provides information and advice on a range of online issues, including around evaluating what can or can’t be trusted online, such as fake news. There are accompanying activities that teachers can use in the classroom and parents can use at home.
  • European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) - EDMO is an independent observatory bringing together fact-checkers and academic researchers with expertise in the field of online disinformation, social media platforms, journalist driven media and media literacy practitioners. The site contains many useful articles that can help educators stay up to date with current disinformation trends and issues across Europe.