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How A Teacher In France Is Trying To Help His Students Spot Fake News


OK. Now to our series Take A Number, which uses a numerical figure to explore problems around the world and the people trying to solve them. Today's number is 81. That is how many schools a French journalist visited to teach kids about fake news and disinformation on the Internet. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went with him to a school in the seaside town of Le Touquet in northern France, and she sent this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: As the bell rings, students file into class at Maxence Van der Meersch middle school. This morning, the kids have a visitor - investigative journalist Thomas Huchon.

THOMAS HUCHON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Without telling them the topic, Huchon says he's going to show them a mini documentary.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The video claims the CIA spread the AIDS virus in Cuba and says that was the real reason behind the decades-long U.S. embargo. It was only lifted, the narrator says, so American and French pharmaceutical companies could cash in on an AIDS vaccine developed by Cuban doctors. The students don't yet know it, but Huchon and his colleagues created the video as an experiment after the French terrorist attacks in 2015 because they noticed how conspiracy theories about the attacks were spreading on the Internet.

HUCHON: So we created a fake story. We put it on the web. And what we expected to happen happened. Lots of websites, conspiracy theories websites, picked up on this information and spread it without any kind of verification.

BEARDSLEY: Huchon says their video had ten thousand hits on YouTube and thousands of shares on Facebook before they withdrew it.

HUCHON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He asks how many of the children believed the documentary.


BEARDSLEY: "It's unconscionable that the Americans would do such an awful thing," says one girl. Huchon says usually about a third of the students believe the hoax because they have no reason to be skeptical of him.

HUCHON: And we play with this. We use this as a trap to make them realize that even where they're in confidence they should not believe the fact. They should have a few reflexes to try and fact-check a little bit more.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: A second video shows the class that the first was a total lie and explains how conspiracy theories are made to look credible.

HUCHON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The kids are shocked. Many feel tricked. So Huchon shows them how they can keep from being fooled again.

HUCHON: (Speaking French).


HUCHON: (Speaking French).


HUCHON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He teaches them how to check the authenticity of articles, pictures and videos, and explains how their personal information is used by advertisers and how American voters were allegedly targeted in this way to influence the last presidential election. Sharon Victor Caron and Anna Defringue say Huchon has changed the way they see the web.

SHARON VICTOR CARON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Now we're going to be more careful online and verify things," says Victor Caron.

ANNA DEFRINGUE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "And we'll think twice before we share things," says Defringue. Huchon says teachers are confronted with a generation that operates with new codes and has new ways of getting information, and presenting alternate facts is not the way to combat conspiracy theories.

HUCHON: The best way to fight this kind of fake news discourse is not to give arguments but to try and check the validity of the argument of the other.

BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron has proposed enacting a law to fight fake news during French elections. Huchon says that won't work. He says the only way to win is to teach young people how to think critically. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Le Touquet, France.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAM ROBINSON SONG, "SCHOOL DAZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

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