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Schoolkids Are Falling Victim to Disinformation and Conspiracy Fantasies

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

Scientific American

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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 fantasies 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 study published in September 2021 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 more than 80 percent of middle schoolers believed that an advertisement labeled as sponsored content was actually a news story. The researchers also 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. When college students in the survey looked at a Twitter post touting a poll favoring gun control, more than two thirds failed to note that the liberal antigun groups behind the poll could have influenced the data.

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. YouTube is one of the most popular social media sites among teens: After Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science, spent time searching for videos on YouTube and observed what the algorithm told her to watch next, she suggested that it was “one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.”

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 children whose parents might believe conspiracy fantasies or other lies fueled by disinformation, school is the one place where they can be taught skills to evaluate such claims objectively.

Yet few American kids are receiving this instruction. In summer 2021 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 can be as general as putting a list of resources on an education department website. 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. Overall there are very few data showing the best way to teach children how to tell fact from fiction.

Children are ripe targets for fake news. Age 14 is when kids often start believing in unproven conspiratorial ideas, according to a 2021 study.

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, who runs the Stanford History Education Group. There are factions of educational researchers behind each method, says Renee Hobbs, director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island, and “each group goes out of its way to diss the other.” These approaches 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.

News literacy is a subset of media literacy research that deals directly with the propagation of conspiracies and the ability to distinguish real news from fake stories. It entails a set of skills that help people judge the reliability and credibility of news and information. But as with media literacy, researchers have very different ideas about how this type of news analysis should be taught.

Some programs, such as Schneider’s Stony Brook program and the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.–based News Literacy Project, 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.”

Yet some media literacy scholars doubt the efficacy of these approaches. Hobbs, for instance, wrote a 2010 paper arguing that these methods glorify journalism, ignore its many problems and do little to instill critical thinking skills. “All that focus on the ideals of journalism is mere propaganda if it is blind to the realities of contemporary journalism, where partisan politics and smear fests are the surest way to build audiences,” she stated.

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.

"Some approaches to media literacy not only don't work but might actually backfire by increasing students' cynicism." —Peter Adams, News Literacy Project

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. He is the principal investigator of the Mapping Impactful Media Literacy Practices initiative, a research project supported by the National Association for Media Literacy Education. “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.”

For instance, in a 2017 study researchers looked at how well students who had taken Stony Brook’s undergraduate course could answer certain questions a year later compared with students who had not. Students who had taken the class were more likely to correctly answer questions about the news media, such as that PBS does not rely primarily on advertising for financial support. But the study did not test how well the students could discern fake from real news, so it is hard to know how well the program inoculates students against falsehoods.

Moreover, the small amount of research that does exist has largely been conducted with college students, not the middle school or high school students who are so vulnerable to disinformation. Indeed, the various approaches that are being used in K–12 classrooms have hardly been tested at all. 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, etcetera—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. They found that whereas historians and students were often fooled by manipulative websites, 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.

Working with the Poynter Institute and the Local Media Association and with support from Google.org (a charity founded by the technology giant), Wineburg and his team have created a civic online reasoning course that teaches students to evaluate information by reading laterally. The effects so far look promising. In a field experiment involving 40,000 high school students in urban public health districts, Wineburg and his group found that students who took the class became better able to evaluate websites and the credibility of online claims, such as Facebook posts, compared with students who did not take the class.

Still, even if news literacy education teaches specific skills well, some researchers question its broader, longer-term impact. 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? How sure can we be that these methods will inculcate students with skepticism about conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns? 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.

Some research does hint that news literacy approaches could have these broader beneficial effects. In a 2017 study of 397 adults, researchers found that people who were more media-literate were less likely to endorse conspiracy theories compared with people who were less media-literate. “We can’t definitely say news literacy causes you to reject conspiracy theories, but the fact that we see a positive relationship there tells us there’s something to this that we need to continue to explore,” says co-author Seth Ashley, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Boise State University.

While Ashley’s results are encouraging, some experts worry that a focus only on evaluating websites and news articles is too narrow. “News literacy in a lot of ways focuses on credibility and whether we know something is true or not, and that’s a really important question, but that is one question,” says Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. “Once we figure out if it’s false or true, what is the other assessment and the other analyzing we need to do?” Determining credibility of the information is just the first step, she argues. Students should also be thinking about why the news is being told in a particular way, whose stories are being told and whose are not, and how the information is getting to the news consumer.

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.” Adams’s concern was amplified by danah boyd, a technology scholar at Microsoft Research and founder and president of the Data & Society research institute, in a 2018 talk at the South by Southwest media conference. Boyd argued that although it is good to ask students to challenge their assumptions, “the hole that opens up, that invites people to look for new explanations, that hole can be filled in deeply problematic ways.” Jordan Russell, a high school social studies teacher in Bryan, Tex., agrees. “It’s very easy for students to go from healthy critical thinking to unhealthy skepticism” and the idea that everyone is lying all the time, he says.

To avoid these potential problems, Ashley advocates for broad approaches that 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. Ashley adds that when students think everything is a lie, they also think there is no point in engaging with difficult topics.

With news literacy education, the goal is to get students to the next level, “to that place where you can start to see and appreciate the fact that the world is messy, and that’s okay,” Ashley says. “You have these fundamental approaches to gathering knowledge that you can accept, but you still value uncertainty, and you value ongoing debates about how the world works.” 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? “[We] desperately need professional development and training and support for educators because they’re not experts in the field,” Adams says. “And it’s the most complex and fraught and largest information landscape in human history.”

In 2019 Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act into the U.S. Senate, which, if passed, would authorize $20 million to create a grant program at the Department of Education to help states develop and fund media literacy education initiatives in K–12 schools. More investment in this kind of education is 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. At the Center for News Literacy, Schneider plans to conduct a trial soon to determine how his course shapes the development of news literacy, civic engagement and critical thinking skills among students in middle school and high school.

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, a contributing editor at Scientific American, is author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting—from Tots to Teens (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021). She wrote about the reasons that autoimmune diseases overwhelmingly affect women in the September 2021 issue.

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This post originally appeared on Scientific American and was published February 1, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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