My 13-year-old recently approached me at bedtime, a worried look on his face. “Is there going to be a draft for World War III?” he asked sheepishly.
“Where did you get an idea like that?” I asked. I knew that kids were talking about the United States’ recent conflict with Iran. But when he opened his phone to TikTok, the insanely popular video app used by millions of teenagers, I realized that I had no idea how much. He showed me thousands of videos kids had made. Most were meant to be satirical, I think, about being drafted. A quick search of the hashtag #WWIII showed that these videos had been viewed 1.2 billion times. That’s billion. I think he knew they weren’t real, but the idea still seemed to make him anxious.
After reassuring him that there wasn’t going to be a World War III or a draft for young men, I began to panic thinking about the billions of possibilities for young people who encounter wrong information on social media. After all, the average teen spends up to 9 hours a day online. And research has shown that simply repeating false information can make it seem more true. We need a better way. We need to teach media literacy.
Once bad information is out, it can't be contained.
Online disinformation is one of the biggest threats to our civic health, and in many ways, we underestimate its damage. Experts are already worried that disinformation could influence the 2020 election. The Russian disinformation machine that disrupted the 2016 election has gotten better at its job of creating chaos in the ensuing years.
The range of false information online is growing and proliferating, like that old movie The Blob. Fake text messages are going out all the time. For instance, there was one sent to young men, ordering them to register for the draft. There's also been a lot of false information about the Australia wildfires, so news sites have jumped in to try and tamp it down by providing verifiable information.
Educators, like Brooklyn high school history teacher Amy Berman, say that the “misinformation machine” is a constant classroom battle. “We’re constantly worried that students aren’t savvy enough about the sources they’re reading. Or they skip the source altogether,” she said. “I know it’s so pervasive. They see this stuff, and they’re susceptible to believing it.”
What do parents and teachers need to know about fake news, disinformation, and misinformation?
While conducting research for my book Building Better Citizens, I learned that young people are really bad at discerning what’s true on the internet. A Stanford study of more than 3,000 middle schoolers showed that the majority had great difficulty discerning the difference between news articles and advertisements. They also believed a fake (or “deep faked”) video without stopping to identify its source.
So although this so-called "fake news" is certainly a problem, the actual threat is much bigger. It has to do with the structure of the internet itself. Misinformation, which is misleading due to error, or disinformation, which is misleading on purpose, are not only contained within “fake news” websites. This misinformation is everywhere—social media memes, viral conspiracy theories, and even arguments over what we used to think were undisputed scientific facts.
Researchers have a name for today’s environment of increasing disagreement over facts: truth decay. Faced with an overload of information of questionable accuracy, citizens’ trust is eroding, and soon they will begin to believe nothing is true.
This is already happening on college campuses, according to Mike Caulfield. He's a professor and director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University in Vancouver. “What we see happening is that students have low trust in everything. They don’t know how to sort true from false in an effective and efficient way,” Caulfield told me. “So their defense strategy is to more or less trust nothing.”
Trusting nothing is not an option, warned Sam Wineburg. He's the executive director and founder of the Stanford History Education Group and leader of the Stanford Civic Online Reasoning study. What’s at stake when young people are at risk of trusting no information?
“Liberal democracy,” he said.
Can media literacy help?
Internet misinformation is a serious problem that threatens the health of our democracy. Experts agree that what students need most urgently is media literacy, a set of skills that help young people discern the accuracy of what they’re looking at online. After the 2016 election, there was a mad rush to teach students media literacy. However, not all materials were quality or evidence based.
Now there are many organizations providing materials, tools, and guidance supported by reliable evidence. So you can ask your school about adopting an evidence-based media-literacy curriculum. In addition, here are a few more things parents and teachers can do:
Talk to kids about what they’re looking at online.
Whether it’s World War III memes or whatever the new trend is, one of the biggest safeguards that parents can put in place is to simply know what kids are seeing online and talk to them about it. (I consider myself pretty well educated about student media literacy, and even wrote a book about it, and I had no idea the magnitude of memes my kids were looking at daily.) Ask kids where they think a photo or video came from. Who do they think made it? Also, remind them that just because a post went viral doesn’t mean that it’s real or true.
Help young people understand the difference between facts and opinions.
It’s already difficult for young people to tell the difference between news and opinion articles online. But because of the nature of social media, anyone can be an authority. Young people will see a celebrity or political figure tweet out a statement, and they assume it to be true. We need to teach them the difference between an impassioned personal opinion and news or scientific articles are supported by evidence. Encourage them to think, challenge, and question the statistics they see online.
Talk about bias—in the news and on social media.
The Ad Fontes Media news bias chart places all the major news sites on a graph and slots their coverage into categories, like fact reporting, analysis, opinion, selective story, and propaganda, to help young people better understand what kind of information they’re getting when they read an article. When friends and relatives share articles on social media, students (and grownups!) can consult the chart to better access the article's accuracy.
Provide media-literacy curriculum that’s supported by evidence.
Stanford History Education Group has created a Civic Online Reasoning curriculum that includes free lessons and assessments for educators. One set of lessons, for example, teaches students lateral reading. This is a strategy for investigating the source itself. Is it credible? Many journalistic fact-checkers use lateral reading to identify and verify online information. In another lesson, “What’s the Evidence?”, students look at three arguments about Saturday school and practice evaluating evidence.
Teach young people about the role journalism plays in combatting “fake news.”
Organizations like the News Literacy Project, founded by a veteran journalist, connect educators with resources on how journalism works and provide professional development on how to teach students about the news. Journalist Natalie Wexler suggested that students take on the role of amateur journalist, rooting out corruption and holding power accountable within their own communities.
Stay informed about how misinformation is morphing on the internet.
One thing is clear: When it comes to the internet, the only constant is change. “Technology moves much faster than education,” said Wineburg, and new ways of deceiving users may pop up faster than you think. To learn about what you can do to protect kids and students against misinformation, the RAND Corporation, authors of the Truth Decay study, have created an exhaustive resource list of tools for fighting online disinformation, from educational YouTube videos that teach how to identify false information online to apps and plug-ins that help verify news stories.
Whether it's bedtime questions about World War III or the latest meme, kids have questions about the information they're bombarded with each day. By teaching them media literacy, we equip them with the tools to find reliable answers.