By Anne Wilding

10 March 2020 - 12:58

Videographer filming a person
'There are still elements that deepfake producers struggle to get right, for example the teeth.' Photo ©

Sam McGhee used under licence and adapted from the original.

English language teacher and materials writer for the British Council, Anne Wilding, tells us how fake news can provide a natural learning opportunity.

Introduce the idea 

Challenge learners to identify misused images.

Buzzfeed publish fake news quizzes. In each quiz, some questions use images that have been altered, while others use images or quotes taken out of context. 

This mix of the two give you a starting point for discussion on how image authenticity alone doesn’t guarantee truth. 

Context is crucial. For example, in the fake news quiz link above, there are two real (not doctored) photographs. But they are taken out of context.

Pause at the fourth photo (the fawn and bobcat cub) and ask learners what they see, and what it might mean. Encourage speculative language like 'they might be pets' or 'the photo could have been staged.'

When the learners have guessed whether the news is real or fake, click to reveal the photo. This photo is real, but it was taken in a rescue centre where the two baby animals were housed together due to overcrowding. 

In fact, this true version still tells a heartwarming story and raises awareness of the devastation caused by wildfires. However, someone thought the photo would have even more impact if the animals were seen to be hiding out together.

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Challenge with activities

To hone your learners’ critical thinking skills, give them ten minutes in pairs to look at photos relating to real stories in today’s news. 

Challenge them to come up with ideas of how they could misuse the real pictures to support a fictional headline of their own. 

The whole class can then vote for the most convincing (or creative) fake news story.

You can also challenge learners to guess the true story behind one another’s pictures. 

Reverse image search 

You can show learners how to use Google or TinEye to reverse search. Get them to reverse search an image to see if it has been altered or taken out of context. This doesn’t take much longer than a regular search. 

Google’s page on how to reverse image search is written in simple English. The page is simple enough for B1 learners to access independently, and for lower level learners to access with a little support.

Research shows that authentic reading comprehension activities like this increase learner motivation and result in better vocabulary retention. 

Notice deepfakes 

Deepfakes are videos of people and events that look and sound real but are in fact simulated using Artificial Intelligence (AI).

They are produced by exposing an artificial intelligence to enough photos and videos of a person that it can manipulate that person’s face to mouth words they have never said.

The person’s voice can then be synthesised or recorded by an impersonator and combined with the visuals to create a video that is fake.

Currently, there are still elements that deepfake producers struggle to get right, for example the teeth.

This makes deepfakes a great area for practising language for speculation (as needed in Cambridge First and speaking exams). You can pre-teach or review adverbs of probability, and speculative modal forms like:

  • It could be real.
  • It must be fake, because…
  • It might be fake - they could have used….

Show learners a selection of videos and ask them to speculate about which are real and which are deepfakes. Learners can do this in teams, with each team rewarded points for correct answers to add a competitive element.  

The technologies behind fake news are still emerging. That makes it a great topic for practising speculative and hedging language in an authentic context. For example, learners can talk about what technologies might emerge next, or what could happen in legislation to combat these new technologies. 

Practice real debates

New legislation is appearing all over the world in the fight against fake news.  

Governments' responsibility is an ongoing debate with the emergence of events like the European fake news conference.

In this context, it would be realistic to hold a mock parliamentary debate on a topic such as 'This house proposes (eg: a 12 month minimum custodial sentence for creating or spreading fake news)'.

If you want to do this as a British parliamentary style debate, there's a good video on how to introduce BP style to your students on YouTube.

You hold the debate over a number of lessons. Plan time for learners to prepare these steps:

  1. research your own arguments
  2. research the arguments your opponents might use, and how you will you counter-argue
  3. practice delivering your arguments and counter arguments with a partner

Before step three, pre-teach some language for presenting arguments and disagreeing. Many websites have pages with useful language for debating

There is also advice on our website on how to win an argument, improve your debating skills, or overcome your fear of public speaking

If your learners prefer a more conversational approach to discussion, they could 'think-pair-share'. Think individually, pair with a partner, then share ideas with the group on these questions up to a B2 language level:

  • How can fake news influence people? Is it dangerous, or just good fun?
  • Is fake news a modern problem or has it always existed?
  • Would you believe a story about one of your heroes as quickly as a story about someone you don't like?
  • Do we all just believe what we want to believe?
  • How much of the blame for fake news is with the people who produce it, the people who believe it, or the people who pass it on?

Or at higher levels:

  • What could be the future of deepfakes? Will people eventually stop making them as we get better at detecting them? Or will they continue to get more convincing?
  • Who has a biggest responsibility to stop the spread of fake news: governments, individuals or social media platforms?
  • Should people be punished for creating or spreading fake news? If yes, in what circumstances?
  • Do you think the future will see laws introduced 'banning' fake news? How practical is this? 

Fake news is a critical thinking opportunity

By discussing fake news in the classroom, we help learners understand that there is more to knowledge than reading and remembering. The truth of what we read now has become a more fluid concept.

Understanding how we receive news through official channels and what choices journalists make when reporting can help learners spot fake news and think about how it can be countered. 

The BBC’s help your students spot false news resource collection gives insight into the process of news reporting through along with their iReporter game

There are many other resources and lesson plans available for teaching learners how to think critically about the news:

Many of these resources are aimed at native English speakers. If you are teaching EFL at lower levels it is advisable to do the activities as a whole class, or pre-teach the key vocabulary.

Beware of fake news about fake news

There are many misunderstandings about fake news. One of the most frequent is the difference between misinformation and disinformation. 

Disinformation is untruth that is spread with intent, whereas misinformation is unintentionally mistaken. 

For example, an incorrect story published hastily, without adequate fact-checking, is misinformation. The same story circulated by someone who knows it to be untrue is disinformation. 

However, many resources incorrectly give the example that misinformation is an authentic photograph taken out of context and disinformation uses tampered photographs. 

Learners should treat any resources they access on the subject of fake news with the same healthy scepticism as these resources tell them to apply elsewhere. 

There’s no right answer

Some learners might feel that the teacher has all the answers, and that there is one definitive answer to every question. The term 'fake news' itself reinforces this idea, as it implies that we live in a binary world of 'fake and 'true' news. 

Very few sources, if any, are wholly right or wrong. For example, a liberal and conservative newspaper might report the same story differently according to their politics.

They may choose different language or even cherry pick which facts to include. But is this fake news? 

It is important to acknowledge these grey areas to help learners understand the complexity of truth as a concept.

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities, and find out how you can become a TeachingEnglish blogger.