Being tech-savvy without being “media” is a dangerous combination for our youth and our democracy.
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
This claim, falsely attributed to Mark Twain, was actually made by Jonathan Swift (“Lies fly, and truth comes limping after it”), which kind of proves Swift’s point. That was 200 years ago, before the internet and other modern media made it possible to spread disinformation globally in seconds.
Misinformation, misinformation, distortions, half-truths, outright lies, hidden agendas and other “alternative facts” on the Internet are being swallowed by millions of Americans. The result? The United States faces profound challenges both to our national health and to our democracy.
It may be too late to educate adults who are being duped. But it is time for our schools to train 21st century citizens who can better analyze the growing torrent of information that bombards them daily.
The stakes are high. In the past year alone, millions of Americans have embraced beliefs that not long ago would have been considered a mental illness, and the impact is truly mind-boggling. For example:
- Claims that the mass murders of students are government-made hoaxes.
- Donald Trump’s “crushing” victory over an opponent who received the most votes in the history of the United States.
- QAnon’s claims that a vast elite includes a satanic cabal running a cannibalistic pedophilia ring in a pizzeria.
Baseless claims of stolen elections, denial of painfully obvious climate threats, disregard for science and experts in general, rejection of simple measures that could drastically curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus. How did we come here? How did the American education system produce so many people with so little critical ability?
The answer is the overwhelming impact of the Internet. American teenagers spend more than seven hours a day on the Internet and other media. What skills are we giving them to properly process this flood of uncontrolled data? We teach them to read, but not to properly evaluate what they read.
Many Tidewater schools deal, to varying degrees, with issues exacerbated by the Internet, such as plagiarism, inappropriate video games, and violence, and how to avoid predation, financial abuse, and identity theft. But the problem of misinformation has only recently reached epidemic proportions, and many schools will need to redouble their efforts.
Education authorities have begun to create “media literacy” programs that emphasize strategies for evaluating information according to five criteria: where it comes from; who it is intended for; its purpose (for example, to entertain, inform or persuade); the persuasive techniques used; and the difference between primary and secondary sources, and decide which is more credible.
Media literacy also teaches students how to check their sources, unearth their diaries, determine if they’re getting both sides of the story, and verify accuracy with a trustworthy source (like, ironically, the so-called “fake media” – like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or many local newspapers – which provide their reporters with some of the best training available in separating fact from fiction).
But it’s one thing to give students the tools and another to encourage them to use them. They need to be shown that the search for reality and truth is more beneficial than gorging on exciting conspiracies and other fictions. Educators can prime the pump by prompting them with things that matter to them; for example, being strict about the requirements that they list the sources of facts in their reports and reflect this in their note.
At least 20 states are offering or exploring media literacy programs, according to a survey by the organization Media Literacy Now. Unfortunately, Virginia has not been a leader in the media literacy movement. In fact, the state is ranked in the lowest leadership category, according to the survey.
The Virginia Department of Education offers Model Media Literacy “Teaching Skills” programs for our schools for students in grades 3-12. It’s a good start.
But to tackle the burgeoning problem of misinformation, Tidewater schools will need to step up training for our children on how to assess the torrent of misinformation aimed at them.
Edward Burke, a journalist for 30 years for the Boston Globe, the National Law Journal and other publications, he is currently a substitute teacher at schools in the Tidewater area.