Bethesda resident Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, created the News Literacy Project to help students separate fact from fiction in the news they consume. Photo by Skip Brown
As teachers gathered in Washington, D.C., last December, just over three weeks after Donald Trump won the presidential election, “fake news” was on their minds. A month earlier, BuzzFeed had broken a story that teens in Macedonia were earning thousands of dollars a month in ad revenue by filling the internet with false pro-Trump stories that spread like an oil spill across social media.
As companies like Facebook and Google grappled with how to respond, the viral lies kept coming. On Sunday, Dec. 4, the closing day for these educators at the National Council for the Social Studies annual convention, fake news made real news again. Five miles from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, a North Carolina man fired a gun inside Comet Ping Pong in Upper Northwest D.C., claiming he was “self-investigating” a rumor that the pizzeria was at the center of a bizarre child sex trafficking ring tied to Democratic Party leaders.
At the conference, Bethesda resident Alan Miller could tell that educators were focused on fake news like never before. In 2008, he established the News Literacy Project (NLP), a nonprofit dedicated to teaching middle and high school students to separate truth from fiction in what they saw and read. “Fake news” hadn’t entered the American lexicon. For the past few years, the organization had set up a booth at the conference, and while Miller had seen interest grow, he’d never seen this kind of enthusiasm.
“We had a lot of educators coming up to us and saying, ‘This is the most important thing we could be teaching right now,’ ” Miller recalls. By the end of the conference, NLP staffers had collected 108 business cards from teachers wanting to be on the mailing list—far more than
they’d ever collected in previous years.
“We’ve gone from being a voice in the wilderness to an answer to a prayer for many educators,” Miller says. “We were the antidote to fake news long before anybody coined that term. I do wish this problem was a little less urgent and that I looked a little less prescient, but we are where we are.”