Digital Literacy - Fake Websites
by Susan Stephenson, www.thebookchook.com
Lots of us, kids included, tend to take websites on face value. If Google brings it to us, it must be true. Well, no. Googling is great for initial research, for assembling resources that can lead to deeper exploration. It can help with tips, ideas, images etc, but we can't rely on results found like this.
One way to demonstrate this to children is to share fake or hoax websites with them. Some are just for fun; others are incredibly realistic. Here are several to explore with your kids. By "kids", I would suggest 11+ years. As always, adult supervision is necessary. Kids learn so much by asking questions and discussing with us, another great reason to make hoax websites a shared experience.
* All About Explorers This website was built by teachers specifically for the purpose of educating kids.
* Aluminium Foil Detector Beanie I love the humour and detail in this website but it is probably best used with high-school aged kids.
* Help Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus Same creative genius behind AFDB above. I mentioned it previously in my post, Fake Science.
* Victorian Era Robots 11 and 12 year-olds will enjoy the illustrations here.
* Moonbeam Enterprises Great text to analyse. What is it really saying? What do they want you to do?
* The Museum of Hoaxes This is the repository of all sorts of hoaxes that travel the internet. Not a hoax website per se, but nonetheless entertaining reading with potential for educational use.
* Snopes.com Snopes isn't a fake website either. But it's useful. When I receive emails forwarded to me from acquaintances warning me that cut flowers will suck the oxygen out of my air, or recommending I wear foil headgear to deflect mind control devices, I find the link to that urban myth on Snopes. I then reply to the email with that link and a polite request to be removed from whatever email folder I was in! Snopes is a great one to share with your kids, especially if they ever receive those sorts of emails.
When you do look at a hoax website, see what clues kids can pick up that suggest the site is not legitimate. At www.allaboutexplorers.com for instance, can students find any inaccuracies in the explorers' biographies? Was Columbus really born in Sydney, Australia? How can we check? What does our common sense tell us? What would have prevented the King and Queen of Spain ringing Columbus' toll-free number? Can kids find who wrote articles, or mention of legitimate organisations? Some websites look very professional and use official sounding terminology, a lot like the cleverer spam emails.
A great project for kids would be to create a hoax website themselves. This would make a fun classroom activity, with kids practising creative and critical thinking, persuasive writing, and having the chance to develop all sorts of visual and digital literacy skills. Children will enjoy playing the game of presenting non-facts in a realistic way. They can create their own images to add authenticity to the site, the way I did with my incredibly authentic giant caterpillar, above. I don't believe this will lead to a lifetime of deviant behaviour for them. Rather, just as I said in How Do Kids Not Write a Book Review, "Sometimes, by working out what NOT to do, we can shape our learning towards a more successful technique. Besides, let's have fun with a subject that can strike fear into our very souls!"
Not accepting things at face value is a useful attitude for kids to adopt. How do we know that fact is true? Can we find other sources to corroborate it? Are there primary or secondary or other reliable sources we can consult? Let's collaborate with our friends and discuss what we see, searching for truth where we can find it.
(If your kids need help in discriminating between fact and opinion, share Binky's Facts and Opinions with them.)
Thanks to TL, David Strempel, for reminding me that Alexa helps us discover background information on a site. One you put a url in, it will bring you a screen with a yellow button "Get Details". Check out some of the tabs there like Contact Info, Reviews etc. Look for red flags that make you suspect the site could be bogus. Gleanwhois.org teaches a framework to help investigate website authorship.
By making sure our children have some understanding of how to identify a fake website, and outdated, biased or fake information, we contribute to their digital literacy. Kids need to be digitally literate. It helps them stay safe online, find accurate information, analyse and evaluate what they see and read, and create their own media with digital tools. Just some of the skills that will equip them well for the future.
Image credits: (top) By Durova (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
(lower) Actual photo of the elusive Caterpillia giganticus, taken in bushland on NSW east coast. (If you believe that, would you be interested in buying some dehydrated water?)