Sorting fact from fiction

It’s hard enough for adults to sort fact from fiction in the media these days. Little wonder there is increasing concern about the capacity of students to filter misinformation, Will Brodie writes.

IEU Rep Emma Forte, who teaches at St Leonard’s College, an independent school in south-east Melbourne, said students are taught to identify bias and fake news in mainstream media, but social media presents a bigger challenge.

“I worry that because students consume social media in such large and frequent quantities, teachers can’t keep up with the untruths and personalities that perpetuate such untruths and hate.

“We don’t always know where to fit this lesson into our curriculum – is it a job for the English faculty? Is it a pastoral care issue? Should it be addressed school-wide? Is there space for it in a parent seminar? No doubt, it’s important to address, but where does it fit in, and who holds that responsibility?”

Guardian UK writer and teacher Lola Okolosie said “toxic influencers” such as Andrew Tate are reaching children “more easily than ever”. Due to the internet’s reach, the same hate and lies can beset Brighton Australia, and Brighton UK.

Okolosie urges parents to log in to the sites their kids consume to “catch a glimpse of what other ‘conversations’ take place on such platforms”.

She also called on parents to help teachers prepare children.

“Teachers can’t be the only guards against such a huge problem – to expect so is to pile an impossible responsibility on to an already overworked profession.”

Emma concurs.

“We teach our students important values, like respect, inclusivity, and diversity, and use social action initiatives to build up our wider community networks, beliefs about justice, and encourage acts of philanthropy, but there is a small percentage of students who switch off, don’t take these values seriously or don’t see the importance in building cohesion between different societal groups, particularly marginalised or minority groups.”

Education against extremism

United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris said education is crucial in combatting hate speech, “especially as a prevention tool”.

“Evidence shows that developing media and information literacy skills makes (learners) less prone to exclusionary and violent extremist ideas.”

The non-profit Teaching Tolerance is a program of the US Southern Poverty Law Center. Its mission is to reduce bias and promote equity in schools.

Its Speak Up At School guide lays out a checklist for dealing with hate speech incidents in the classroom:

1INTERRUPT: Do not show anger, make recriminations or lecture – just a calm, straightforward ‘Stop, it is not ok to talk like that’.

2QUESTION: Ask simple, exploratory questions in response to bigoted remarks, eg, ‘Why would you say a hurtful thing like that?’. Unpack the prejudices and add context and information to dispel them.

3CALL IT OUT: Denounce the words not the person – ‘I’m offended by your words because . . .’

4COUNTER AND CORRECT: Know the facts and counter hearsay, bias and rumours with reliable statistics, quotes, research, reports, and facts. Develop and promote a counter narrative.

5EMPATHISE: Provide other perspectives and encourage empathy. ‘Can you imagine how that comment feels for X’.

6ECHO: Amplify the anti-bias messages of others by endorsing and adding to what they are saying so that they feel supported.

7EDUCATE: Promote critical thinking skills and share ways to identify and respond to manipulative techniques and propaganda.

8REPORT: Encourage targets and witnesses to report hate speech so that the problem is not invisible. Report the incident to someone in authority.

The UN said any measures undertaken in the classroom “must be reflected in all aspects of school life, including policies, extracurricular activities, sports, and social and cultural events”.

Also critical is the “active engagement” of teachers, administration, and parents, while social and emotional learning (SEL) can provide practical tools for teachers. They can use case studies and real-life scenarios to discuss controversial situations and engage different points of view. SEL also helps learners “manage stress and negative emotions, acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, and resolve conflicts”.

In Finland, misinformation education is integrated throughout education as a matter of national defence – they share a border with Russia, which targets them with fake news.

“Multi-platform information literacy and strong critical thinking have become a core, cross-subject component of a national curriculum that was introduced in 2016,” The Guardian reported.

Kari Kivinen, head teacher at a college in Helsinki, said in maths lessons, his pupils learn how easily statistics can lie. In art, they see how an image’s meaning can be manipulated. In history, they analyse propaganda campaigns, while Finnish language teachers work with them on the “many ways in which words can be used to confuse, mislead and deceive”.

He said his students “stumble across” news via WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat.

“Or more precisely, an algorithm selects it, just for them. They must be able to approach it critically. Not cynically – we don’t want them to think everyone lies – but critically.”

Australian schools also confront misinformation, but it’s not central to curricula. At St Leonard’s, students in Year 6 English learn to identify fake news and bias in the news and Year 11 Media and Politics classes examine the spread of fake news online. Such themes are also explored in history classes, where students are taught to question the “origin, purpose, and authority of sources and when they are made and distributed”.

“Across disciplines and year levels, students are taught critical thinking and reasoning to help them identify bias, sort fact from fiction, and understand when truth is not supported by credible evidence,” Emma said.

“Through the teaching of skills, and explicit use of fake news and other media forms, students are better equipped to locate news that is truthful and informative and turn away from news items and news sources that lack credibility and authority on a matter or are misleading and spread misinformation.”

Finland might be the gold standard for tackling misinformation and hate speech. But Deakin University’s Lucinda McKnight demands we go much further.

Evidence shows that developing media and information literacy skills makes (learners) less prone to exclusionary and violent extremist ideas.

Vital for democracy

“The ability to critically consume and strategically create social media is vital to the health of democracies. Yet writing for social media posts and powerful platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Facebook is not central to how we teach English,” she wrote for The Conversation.

She said the narrow approach to teaching writing must change “so students are practising the forms of writing and communication that are meaningful in today’s world”.

“Students need to be able to create memes, write rolling news blogs and produce digital news podcasts, all for networked audiences. They need to determine aims, invent concepts, manipulate images, combine different media, compose compelling text, and respect copyright law. This is impactful and purposeful writing to achieve influence in the world.

“Social media use potentially both threatens and supports democracy. Yet media education remains devalued in the English curriculum and classroom, largely in favour of reproducing print literature forms and essays.

“It is time for English to join the 21st century and embrace all the diverse and digital means of communication that are part of our lives today. Our freedom and futures depend on it.”