Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Spreading Misinformation: Revisiting Fake News

The other day on Twitter, this post caught my eye.

You can read the Washington Post article here.* At the beginning of second semester, I welcomed students back with an activity on fake news (I wrote this blog post about it).  One of the elements of that activity involved a story about George Washington's body being stolen from the tomb at Mount Vernon and carried through the wilds of Virginia at the start of the Civil War.

We just finished the American Revolution and will cover government, including the Washington and Adams administrations and the election of 1800, before the year's out.  The Washington Post article got me thinking about how I could bookend second semester with GW and fake news.  Bonus points if I could figure out a way to incorporate my favorite 18th century figure, Jefferson, "doing whatever the hell it is [he] does in Monticello"!  

My goal for this lesson is to allow students to build on the skills of identifying fake news learned in January, compare primary sources, and apply the methods of creating fake news to another historical figure; and what better figure to spread rumors about than Jefferson? 

I like to think of Washington as the man who embodied popular ideas of virtue and Jefferson as the man who promoted the ideas of virtue.  I love TJ and the kids know it.  They've read his words, virtually visited Monticello, sourced objects from his life, and used Monticello as a model for designing new public buildings (in History Lab!).  I figure that they've been exposed to his words and ideas enough to make some relatively believable propaganda.  Plus, I think know they'll take some weird enjoyment from crushing the reputation of one of my historical heroes.   

"And Another Thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment"** Lesson Plan
  1. Review fake news and discuss how it can be spotted.
  2. Have students read the Washington Post article, reading closely for specific items in the text, ex. what the fake news implied, what methods were used to make it believable, who was responsible, and how it affected Washington.  Students should share out their answers.
  3. Hand out an excerpt from one of the "spurious" letters (the entire book from the Evans Early American Imprint Collection) and an excerpt of one of Washington's actual letters (I like this example from the Papers of George Washington).  Do not tell students which letter is fake.
  4. Students will read the two letters, hypothesizing which letter is the fake, and why they believe that before sharing in a class discussion.
  5. Unmask the fake letter to great celebration or dismay.
  6. Introduce the letter from Washington to Mathew Carey, 27 October 1788.  Read through it with students, pausing to highlight methods making the spurious letters believable.  Ask students if they believe writing believable fake news is a simple or complicated thing and why.
  7. Hand out the "A True Relation of A Most Unfortunate Incident Involving Mr. Jefferson" template and inform students they are going to practice crafting a fake news element about Thomas Jefferson.
  8. Students will spend some time reviewing the 1800 election, events in Jefferson's life, and reading samples of his writing.  Remind them to keep those methods of making a story believable in mind as they review.
  9. Assign students the task of adopting a persona to unmask some scandalous news about Jefferson and writing a fake letter/letters as Jefferson to be included in this expose. Use the "A True Relation..." template as a guide.
  10. We will probably do a gallery walk and post our fake news somewhere with real letters from Jefferson mixed in.  We can even ask other students to guess which letters from Jefferson are real and which are fake.
I'll introduce this lesson after students have explored the election of 1800 and the campaign tactics utilized throughout.  I have a few weeks before I try this out and, as a work in progress, I would love to hear your ideas for improvements and extensions.


*The Post article deals with the publication of seven spurious letters assembled together and released in a book in London in 1777.  These seven letters, purportedly written by GW to Lund Washington back at Mount Vernon, cast doubt on the General's faith in the American cause and their ability to defeat the British.

**Shout out to "Cabinet Battle #1" from Hamilton.

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