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Is Breaking News Broken on Social Media?

Use this lesson plan to help students think critically about social media's impact on elections and voting.

Jeff Knutson | August 12, 2020

The internet and social media give us tools to find out what's happening almost instantly -- sometimes even in real time. But how much can we trust the breaking news we see online?

Anyone -- from accredited journalists, citizen journalists, or even someone on the street with a smartphone -- can shed light on injustices or important events that larger media outlets might struggle to cover, or not cover at all. While this can help break stories, the information in these posts and reports can spread without the fact-checking, editorial lens, or journalistic ethics used in traditional news reporting. Today, even established news outlets now compete for readers' attention in social media feeds.

As a result, what's trending isn't always what's most newsworthy; often it's what's best adapted to our click-and-share culture.

Things get even more complicated once politics come into play. Social media can be rife with misinformation, and even disinformation, especially in the run-up to an election.

Use this lesson plan to help your students consider the unique challenges social media presents to finding credible, accurate information.

Recommended for: 

Grades: 8-12
Subjects: Digital citizenship, journalism, social studies, ELA

Prep for teachers

In the classroom

Hook (8-10 minutes)

Before screening the video, give your students an essential question to focus their viewing: "Is social media a good place to share and find out about breaking news?"

If you haven't already, distribute copies of the handout and ask students to use it to take notes. Explain that they can answer the questions, "What do you think you know?," "What questions or puzzles do you have?," and "What do you want to explore?" at any point during the video.

Show the video: "Social Media: Is Your Breaking News Broken?"

Social Media: Is Your Breaking News Broken?

Discussion (20 minutes)

Start off by asking students to share what they wrote down in their Think, Puzzle, Explore notes. At this point, having watched the video, what do they think they know about the topic? What puzzles them, or what questions do they still have that the video didn't answer? And what areas of this issue would they like to explore more?

Then, focus the conversation on how people find out about breaking news during an election season. It may be helpful to remind them that many people find out about breaking news in different ways -- whether on TV or the radio, by word of mouth, by using a news app on their phone, or through social media. Continue the discussion using any or all of the questions below:

  • How does social media tap into our desire to know the latest news about things happening, whether in our own social circles or in the wider world? Do you think social media platforms do a good job of highlighting what's most important for people to see?
  • What are some of the benefits -- and dangers -- of reading breaking news about an election on social media?
  • What are some ways that social media helps spread the word about important issues people might not otherwise find out about?
  • When people share false or misleading information online, it's often by accident. Why do you think this happens?
  • What do you think motivates some people to intentionally create or share false information online? Do you think social media platforms have a responsibility to stop this from happening?
  • Even when shared by accredited news outlets, breaking news stories on social media don't tend to have all the facts at first and can sometimes include inaccuracies. How can social media users deal with this problem?

Possible follow-ups:

  • Check out the article (and lesson plan) "Help Students Think Critically About October Surprises and Their Impact on Elections."
  • Teach the lesson "Challenging Confirmation Bias" from our Digital Citizenship Curriculum.
  • Teach the lesson "This Just In" from our Digital Citizenship Curriculum. (Note: This lesson can be adapted for older students.)
  • Reflection activity: Ask your students to scan their own social media feeds and observe the different types of breaking news they see. Students can record their observations and consider how they might interpret what they're seeing differently now that they've completed this lesson.