Cybersecurity and Economics: Evaluating Websites

In this lesson, students access a website to research the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, which is a hoax. The initial (false) premise of the lesson is that students are learning to use online research to gather evidence, formulate an opinion, and take steps to contact elected officials. After students have gathered information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, the teacher will direct students to visit several fact-checking sites to “confirm” the information, and students will learn about the hoax. The remainder of the lesson will address how internet users can discern facts from falsehoods online and why it is critical to question and verify sources of information before reacting.

Introduction

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How are environmental changes impacting endangered species? (This is the trick question to ask students to get them involved in the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website.)

At the end of the lesson, students are asked to formulate the essential question for the real objective of the lesson.

TIME REQUIRED: 60-90 minutes

In this day and age of stories on the internet and the “like and share” options on social media, many stories are perpetuated without verification by the sharer. In fact, people intentionally promote hoaxes by targeting specific demographic groups, including those with a lower level of education. False fear, hope and anger breed quickly in the social media spectrum due to users who don’t take time to research and validate information before passing it on. This is compounded by marketers and influencers using social media demographics to target specific audiences with fake news stories they might be more inclined to believe.  It is important for students to understand that not everything seen on the internet is true.

In this lesson, students will initially be tricked by an online hoax, then learn the importance of verifying online information in order to make effective decisions, both personally and as a participant in civic and economic processes.

The initial (false) premise of the lesson is that students are learning to use online research to gather evidence, formulate an opinion, and take steps to contact elected officials. It is important that the teacher try to maintain the hoax for the first 10-15 minutes of class, in order to engage students in the true content of the lesson, which is about how internet users can determine what is real and what is fake online. It is recommended that the teacher access the site and preview the videos, so they are easy to access during class.

After students have gathered information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, the teacher will direct students to visit several fact-checking sites to “confirm” the information, and students will learn about the hoax. The remainder of the lesson will address how internet users can discern facts from falsehoods online and why it is critical to question and verify sources of information before reacting.

ADDITIONAL CYBERSECURITY CONCEPTS: Consumer protection, facts, sources

Learning Objectives

  • Access news websites.
  • Access verification websites.
  • Identify key points in a website or news story.
  • Identify falsehoods in a website or news story.
  • Explain the importance of verifying information before taking action.
  • Think critically about the information presented on websites.

Resource List

Process

1. Write the essential question on the board: “How are environmental changes impacting endangered species?” Give students time to write down and consider initial answers to the essential question independently and then share as a large group. [Answers may include: melting polar ice caps are impacting polar bears and other species, rising water temperatures are endangering fish and whales, deforestation threatens monkeys.]

2. Show students the website about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and share the video of the tree octopus climbing the tree. You may wish to show both “Tree Octopus Found on Tape” and the mockumentary “The Tree Octopus—A Journey.” Explain to students that these “animals” are endangered. Ask students to list other species that are endangered. [Answers may include bald eagles, wolves, lions, elephants, whales and other species.]

3. Hand out a copy of Activity 3.1. Give students 5-10 minutes to look at the site with a partner and answer the questions. Once students have had time to do research, ask students to share facts they learned on the site (Question 1). Then review the following questions:

  • Question #2. What led to the Pacific Tree Octopus becoming endangered? [Possible answers include deforesting, human interference, and loss of habitat.]
  • Question #3.What can we do to protect them? [Possible answers include protect the trees, plant new ones, have a zoo program, write letters to Congress, donate money to preservation groups.]
  • Question # 4.Have you ever heard of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus? [Students will either answer yes or no.]
  • Question #5. What else should you do before taking action to help this endangered species? [Answers may include researching to find out more information, talking with parents, teachers or friends, finding out about other endangered species.]

4. On the board or using a projector, keep a list of student responses to Question 5: What else should you do before taking action? Ask students to put their internet devices in courtesy (sleep) mode. Explain to students that it’s always a good idea to gather as much information as possible on a topic before reacting or taking action. For example, a friend might tell you that your homework isn’t due the next day, but before choosing not to do it, you should check the teacher’s website or a class calendar or ask another friend in order to confirm the information. Ask students: Where can you find more information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus? [Answers may include: use Google, visit environmental or wildlife protection website.  Students may suggest Wikipedia – if so, remind them that it is openly sourced, so information there may not be reliable.]

7. Hand out Activity 3.2 (one copy per student) and ask students to research additional information about the tree octopus on www.snopes.com. [On this site, they will find out the tree octopus is a hoax. Once a few students realize this, word will spread quickly, and you can allow them to pause the activity.]

8. Ask students to share their responses to Questions 2 and 3 orally. Why is it important to research for more information before taking action? [Possible answers: it could be a scam, if you shared the story you would look stupid, you might waste your money donating to a “fake” cause.] How do you feel about helping the tree octopus now? [Answer: There is no tree octopus! Make sure all students understand that this is a hoax.]

9. Ask students if they have ever encountered any other “news” stories or stories on social media that turned out to be false. [Answers will vary.]  Explain that these days, when anyone with a computer can post information on the internet, it’s very easy to start rumors and spread false information. Explain that sometimes people do this in order to hurt other groups of people, scare people, and promote particular viewpoints or to get money, like a scam. Explain that consumer protection advocates want to help prevent people from getting sucked in by scams.

Show students the statement: “Effective decision making requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits.” Ask students: How will false information impact people’s decisions? [Possible answer: People with bad information will make bad decisions.]  Explain that people might take a position on an issue like taxes or trade or health care without really understanding the issue, and that can harm society as well as individuals.

10. Ask students to return to Activity 3.2 and look at Question 4. Working with a partner, they should go to one of these sites – www.factcheck.org , www.politifact.com  , www.opensecrets.org,   www.truthorfiction.com  — and find an additional example of misinformation. This question was left intentionally vague, so as not to give away the hoax. Students should record the website and the false information as their response to question 4. Ask a few pairs of students to share the additional falsehoods they found.

11. Ask students to brainstorm a list of key signals that a website, story, or other piece of information is fake. [Answers may include unnamed sources, lack of detail, clip art pictures, links that seem to circle back to the same site.] Direct students to the article, How to Spot Fake News , which has a nice graphic summary of these tipoffs.

11. To conclude the lesson, remind the students that they started with a fake essential question to get them to discover hoaxes on their own: How are environmental changes impacting endangered species? Ask them: What essential question do you think would be appropriate for what you learned? [Answers may include: How to discover fake news? How to detect false websites? How to check sources on the internet?]

12. After completing the lesson, the teacher may wish to send the Parent Letter home to share the concepts with parents/guardians. 

Conclusion

After falling for the hoax of the "endangered tree octopus," students learn the importance of verifying information they read online and how to determine whether a source is credible.

Extension Activity

Ask students to write a paragraph explaining their response to the activity. The paragraph should address these questions:

  • Did you fall for the hoax?
  • How did you feel when you realized it wasn’t true?
  • What can you learn from this experience?
  • How can you find out, in the future, whether stories you hear are real?

Assessment

Use Activity 3.2 as a formative assessment.

50 minutes additional class or homework time required

Explain to students that they now have an important responsibility to raise their peers’ awareness about fake news and the risks of spreading rumors through social media. Explain that two ways to inform their peers are through Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and posters.

Assign students to groups of 2-3, and allow each group to choose whether to produce a PSA or a poster. (Students can use free online software like Animoto or Magisto to make a PSA. They can also use free online software like Canva or Adobe Spark to make posters, or make them using paper and markers).  If possible, arrange to display posters in the school halls or broadcast PSAs through school district channels.

  • The group product should include the following:
  • An attention-grabber
  • Facts about the impact of fake news
  • Information about what steps to take if you read/hear about a troubling event in social media or on the news
  • An appealing visual design