The Need for Media Literacy in the Age of ‘Fake News’

Digital literacy education can equip young people with the tools they need to better navigate online resources and take advantage of the internet as a tool for learning.

An article on The Atlantic’s website, “Working Better: Bite-Sized Ideas and Wisdom to Help Businesses Become More Aligned, Productive, and Agile,” looks at first glance like many well-designed digital stories. There are interactive infographics and Q&As with experts embedded in the multipart story.

It might take even a savvy reader a few moments to figure out that “Working Better” is native advertising—a sophisticated ad made to look like other parts of the publication. A small box in the corner notes that the piece is “sponsored” by Xerox, though that box itself looks like an ad unconnected to the story.

For readers, it can be quite a challenge to decipher which online articles are trustworthy and which are not.

In fact, a 2016 Stanford University study found that many middle and high school students are quick to believe false information they encounter online.[pullquote]More than 80% of middle school students can’t distinguish sponsored content from news.[/pullquote]

The study found that more than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t distinguish sponsored content from a news article. In another part of the study, researchers showed high school students a photo of deformed flowers, labeled as having “birth defects” from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The photos had no attribution or contextual information, yet many of the teenagers found them trustworthy, and nearly 40 percent argued that photographic evidence itself was proof of legitimacy.

Social media can amplify this kind of confusion, where headlines from unknown sources are often posted without context, and where users’ networks can create echo chambers. Google’s algorithms and advertising platforms promote the “fake news” alongside sourced material. Google, along with Twitter and Facebook, have come under close scrutiny lately after allegations that erroneous articles influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Many articles from unverified publications spreading myths about the candidates went viral.

In an article about the Stanford study, the Wall Street Journal talks to parents and educators who have their kids use search engines that censor websites they deem inappropriate, and those who bar their children from using social media to protect them from false information. But are those methods sustainable as kids get older? Some educators and journalists say they don’t get to the root of the issue.

“The fake news problem we’re facing isn’t just about articles gaining traffic from Facebook timelines or Google search results,” writes online journalist Kyle Chayka at the Verge. “It’s also an issue of news literacy—a reader’s ability to discern credible news.”

Digital literacy education can equip young people with the tools they need to better navigate online resources and take advantage of the internet as a tool for learning.[pullquote]Instead of shunning social media, some students took control of the platform to spread facts.[/pullquote]

Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Curriculum offers an online curriculum on responsible and empowering internet use. It includes information on privacy, and cyberbullying, copyright, and information literacy. The curriculum is designed for different grades, and has lessons for youth as young as second or third grade. Kids can build skills such as how to recognize advertising, how to conduct strategic online searches, how to judge the legitimacy of online sources, and how to sift out misinformation.

The News Literacy Project’s Checkology program takes students through a series of online exercises on how to evaluate information using actual examples of fake news. In response to the Stanford findings, an educator compiled a list on his blog of resources for teaching kids to recognize fake news.

A University of California, Davis marine biology professor came up with a nifty way to approach the problem. Instead of shunning the social media sites where fake news thrives, her students take command of the platform to spread accuracy. Some of her students hosted an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit, a trove of both misinformation and information, responding to users’ science questions with facts.

Social media sites and online information sources are integral parts of young people’s lives—92 percent of teens went online daily in 2015, according to Pew. Therefore, arming children and teens with investigative skills and the ability to reflect on what they are seeing can help them weed out the garbage and leverage the internet for inspired learning.

Published January 24, 2017

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