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Feb. 3, 2022, 10:40 a.m.
Audience & Social

Kids are falling victim to disinformation and conspiracy theories. What’s the best way to fix that?

Although children are prime targets, educators cannot figure out how best to teach them to separate fact from fiction.

The following is an abridged version of an article that was originally published by Scientific American. It is being republished here with permission.

When Amanda Gardner, an educator with two decades of experience, helped to start a new charter elementary and middle school outside of Seattle last year, she did not anticipate teaching students who denied that the Holocaust happened, argued that Covid is a hoax and told their teacher that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Yet some children insisted that these conspiracy theories were true. Both misinformation, which includes honest mistakes, and disinformation, which involves an intention to mislead, have had “a growing impact on students over the past 10 to 20 years,” Gardner says, yet many schools do not focus on the issue. “Most high schools probably do some teaching to prevent plagiarism, but I think that’s about it.”

Children, it turns out, are ripe targets for fake news. Age 14 is when kids often start believing in unproven conspiratorial ideas, according to a 2021 study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Many teens also have trouble assessing the credibility of online information. In a 2016 study involving nearly 8,000 U.S. students, Stanford University researchers found that less than 20 percent of high schoolers seriously questioned spurious claims in social media, such as a Facebook post that said images of strange-looking flowers, supposedly near the site of a nuclear power plant accident in Japan, proved that dangerous radiation levels persisted in the area.

Disinformation campaigns often directly go after young users, steering them toward misleading content. A 2018 Wall Street Journal investigation found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which offers personalized suggestions about what users should watch next, is skewed to recommend videos that are more extreme and far-fetched than what the viewer started with. For instance, when researchers searched for videos using the phrase “lunar eclipse,” they were steered to a video suggesting that Earth is flat.

One tool that schools can use to deal with this problem is called media literacy education. The idea is to teach kids how to evaluate and think critically about the messages they receive and to recognize falsehoods masquerading as truth. For many children, school is the one place where they can be taught skills to evaluate such claims objectively.

Yet few American kids are receiving this instruction. Last summer, Illinois became the first U.S. state to require all high school students to take a media literacy class. Thirteen other states have laws that touch on media literacy, but requirements vary widely. A growing number of students are being taught some form of media literacy in college, but that is “way, way too late to begin this kind of instruction,” says Howard Schneider, executive director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University. When he began teaching college students years ago, he found that “they came with tremendous deficits, and they were already falling into very bad habits.”

Even if more students took such classes, there is profound disagreement about what those courses should teach. Certain curricula try to train students to give more weight to journalistic sources, but some researchers argue that this practice ignores the potential biases of publications and reporters. Other courses push students to identify where information comes from and ask how the content helps those disseminating it.

Most media literacy approaches “begin to look thin when you ask, ‘Can you show me the evidence?’” says Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford University, who runs the Stanford History Education Group. The approaches in use have not been compared head-to-head, and some have only small studies supporting them. Like online media sources themselves, it is hard to know which ones to trust.

Some programs, such as Schneider’s Stony Brook program, teach students to discern the quality of the information in part by learning how responsible journalism works. They study how journalists pursue news, how to distinguish between different kinds of information and how to judge evidence behind reported stories. The goal, Schneider wrote in a 2007 article for Nieman Reports, is to shape students into “consumers who could differentiate between raw, unmediated information coursing through the Internet and independent, verified journalism.”

Other approaches teach students methods for evaluating the credibility of news and information sources, in part by determining the goals and incentives of those sources. They teach students to ask: Who created the content and why? And what do other sources say? But these methods are relatively new and have not been widely studied.

The lack of rigorous studies of the different approaches is indeed a major roadblock, says Paul Mihailidis, a civic media and journalism expert at Emerson College. “Most of the science done is very small scale, very exploratory. It’s very qualitative,” he says. That is not simply because of a lack of resources, he adds. “There’s also a lack of clarity about what the goals are.”

Moreover, the small amount of research that does exist has largely been conducted with college students. The various approaches that are being used in K–12 classrooms have hardly been tested. As part of his current research initiative, Mihailidis and his team interviewed the heads of all major organizations that are part of the National Media Literacy Alliance, which works to promote media literacy education. “We are finding, repeatedly, that many of the ways in which they support schools and teachers — resources, guidelines, best practices, etc. — are not studied in much of a rigorous fashion,” he says.

Some researchers, including Wineburg, are trying to fill in the research gaps. In a study published in 2019, Wineburg and his team compared how 10 history professors, 10 journalism fact-checkers and 25 Stanford undergraduates evaluated websites and information on social and political issues. Historians and students were often fooled by manipulative websites, but journalism fact-checkers were not. In addition, their methods of analysis differed significantly: historians and students tried to assess the validity of websites and information by reading vertically, navigating within a site to learn more about it, but fact-checkers read laterally, opening new browser tabs for different sources and running searches to judge the original website’s credibility.

But what about the longer-term impact of media literacy? Once students learn how to evaluate websites and claims, how confident can we be that they will retain these skills and use them down the line? And will these methods lead students to become civically engaged members of society? “There’s always this kind of leap into ‘that will make our democracy and news systems stronger.’ And I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case,” Mihailidis says.

At the same time, pressing students to be skeptical about all information also may have unexpected downsides. “We think that some approaches to media literacy not only don’t work but might actually backfire by increasing students’ cynicism or exacerbating misunderstandings about the way news media work,” says Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at the News Literacy Project. Students may begin to “read all kinds of nefarious motives into everything.”

Some say that the way around this might be to help students develop mindsets in which they become comfortable with uncertainty. According to educational psychologist William Perry of Harvard University, students go through various stages of learning. First children are black-and-white thinkers — they think there are right answers and wrong answers. Then they develop into relativists, realizing that knowledge can be contextual. This stage can be dangerous, however. It is the one where, as Russell notes, people can come to believe there is no truth. When students think everything is a lie, they can also think there is no point in engaging with difficult topics. But instead of driving students to apathy, the goal is to steer them toward awareness and engagement.

Schools still have a long way to go before they get there, though. One big challenge is how to expand these programs so they reach everyone, especially kids in lower-income school districts, who are much less likely to receive any news literacy instruction at all. And teachers already have so much material they have to impart — can they squeeze in more, especially if what they have to add is nuanced and complex?

More investment in media literacy education is also critical if America’s young people are going to learn how to navigate this new and constantly evolving media landscape with their wits about them. And more research is necessary to understand how to get them there.

But many more studies will be needed for researchers to reach a comprehensive understanding of what works and what doesn’t over the long term. Education scholars need to take “an ambitious, big step forward,” Schneider says. “What we’re facing are transformational changes in the way we receive, process and share information. We’re in the middle of the most profound revolution in 500 years.”

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a journalist who covers parenting, science and medicine. She is also the author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.

Illustration of misinformation on the web by CarloxPX on Unsplash.

POSTED     Feb. 3, 2022, 10:40 a.m.
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