Fake news stories about schools – including serious allegations against teachers – have been “spreading like wildfire” across social media, TESS has learned.
Over recent weeks, controversy has grown over the trend for fake reports, some of which are widely believed to have played a major role in delivering Donald Trump his shock victory in the US presidential election.
Now, headteachers are warning that schools are also being given the sham news treatment, which is thought to be having negative effects on staff, parents and pupils.
They say that fake stories about their schools, created through “prank” websites, are causing unnecessary concern and taking hours of staff time to rectify.
TESS is aware of a number of schools – in Scotland and other parts of the UK – that have fallen victim to hoax articles.
Paul Reynolds, head at Ross High School in East Lothian, had to respond quickly on a Sunday evening – as he was putting his children to bed – after word spread that the school would be closed following a police incident.
Some staff had seen a Facebook post and alerted senior management, forcing the school to upload a statement on its own Facebook page to say it was a hoax. Mr Reynolds also used Twitter to shut down the false claim.
“It seemed to work as the attendance wasn’t affected,” he said. “But clearly it could have had some detrimental effects on attendance.
“This is the first time something like this has been done. These things can go viral.”
Other Scottish schools have also had to respond to suggestions online that their school was closed. Meanwhile some were caught up in the “killer clown” panic that swept in from the US, which saw lurid tales of suspicious figures in fancy dress carrying weapons near school grounds.
Some stories, which have been shared online across communities, make serious claims about teachers. One said that a teacher had taken “selfies” after having sex with a student.
These things can go viral
South of the border, Keziah Featherstone, headteacher at the Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol, said that children as young as 8 had seen a fake story on social media about a teacher kidnapping a pupil. Some parents had also believed it to be true, she added.
Ms Featherstone, who was warned about the prank story earlier this month, said that dealing with the aftermath had required up to 20 hours’ work.
“It has taken up an awful lot of time. It is hours of work. Receptionists have been taking calls from parents and children who don’t understand it’s a prank,” the headteacher of the all-through school added.
Two of the websites (breakingnews247.net and breakingnews365.net) are being mistaken for real news sites. They only state that they are entertainment sites at the end of a story page.
“We have had a number of parents come in. We still have parents say, ‘It must be true, it’s a news site’. They haven’t read all the way through,” said Ms Featherstone.
“[The sites’ creators] have done quite a lot to make them seem more believable. It’s very professionally done.”
The easy-to-use websites allow users to upload a photo of the school with a headline and short news story. The articles can then be shared instantly via Facebook and Twitter.
Some stories suggesting that schools were closed because of a reported emergency have forced headteachers to act quickly to ensure that student attendance was unaffected.
Andrew Minchin, the headteacher at Robert Napier School in Gillingham, Kent, had to deal with two fake news articles in two days at the end of half term. One claimed that the school had been shut because of a gas leak while the other said it was closed because it had been set on fire.
Once the headteacher realised that the fake posts were gaining traction, he sent an email to parents and uploaded a notice on the school’s website during his time off. Staff also had to go into the school to double-check that there had been no incidents.
“I live in a deprived community, so we have to immediately respond, as the parents will assume it’s fact,” said Mr Minchin. “Because of our challenging community, we are constantly trying to deal with the issue of student attendance and this doesn’t help.”
Schools have to tread a fine line between responding to the fake stories to get the right message out and not encouraging further pranks by drawing undue attention to them.
“Sites like these are flourishing at the moment. But we don’t want to make a big issue of it, as it may increase the spike,” said Mr Minchin.
Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said that schools needed to have protocols in place: “Fake news is a growing problem and social media makes it easy to spread misinformation, which is why it is tremendously important to teach youngsters to read critically, especially online.
“The natural human desire to know what’s going on will never prevent deliberately spread false rumours, and unfortunately it is an added pressure on education leaders to monitor and deal with when required.”