3 ways teachers can navigate the torrent of news

There is an overwhelming amount of misinformation online but teachers can do a lot to help students, says Jess McBeath
10th November 2020, 10:54am
Jess McBeath

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3 ways teachers can navigate the torrent of news

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/3-ways-teachers-can-navigate-torrent-news
3 Ways Teachers Can Navigate The Torrent Of News

Have you heard? We're in the middle of an "infodemic": a torrent of news. There's just too much conflicting information. We are overloaded, overwhelmed, fatigued. And why is everyone falling for these crock conspiracy theories? Something's gone wrong and we can't quite put our finger on it.

This is critical. Our beliefs, decisions and actions are a product of the ideas we are exposed to. Particularly so for young people.  Their aspirations and opportunities are grounded in and shaped by the information available to them. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says that "Every child has the right to reliable information".

So what can or should educators do? Here are three easy steps.

Step 1: Get the terminology right

"Fake news" is an unhelpful term that oversimplifies the problem. Fake news could be a mixture of fact and opinion. It could be an old photo repurposed with a new headline. It could be a joke that is taken literally. And what does fake news mean anyway? Maybe it means "something I don't like". Or even, "something I wish wasn't true". These days we should use the terms "misinformation" and "disinformation" to refer to false content online. And it's the latter which means false content created or shared specifically to cause harm.


Long read: How can we teach children to spot fake news?

Quick read: Leading US academic warns of students being sucked in by false information

Advice: How to use tech to empower young people


Step 2: It's more than fact-checking

Now, I want you to not think about a pink elephant. There is no elephant here and it is definitely not pink. Great. Glad you're not doing that.

Once you see something, it's hard to unsee it. Once you've heard an idea, it's hard to unthink it. Even after debunking misinformation, we are more likely to remember the false content because it came first; it stuck. What we need to do is "prebunk". Forewarned is forearmed. Can you think of any major events on the horizon? What disinformation can we expect in 2021? Make sure the right information sticks.  To find out more about prebunking, take a look at First Draft News.

There is, of course, so much more here. Competence in media literacy is associated with numerical literacy. This allows us to get under the skin of a false claim, to see that they're comparing apples with oranges, that they've skewed the graph: you have spotted the clear flaw in an apparently compelling argument. Voilà!  Digital self-defence. 

We're more likely to believe something if it's repeated. Our brains prefer pictures to words because they're easier to process. And images are powerful. How a piece of information makes us feel is a predictor of what we'll do. Content that makes you think "I knew it! I never liked him" hits all our buttons - and then we hit the "share" button.  

So, our media literacy education needs to start with recognising this essential range of skills. We need to engage our logical brain but also build our emotional intelligence. It's putting some detail into the notion of "think before you post": What are you thinking, what are you feeling and why is that? There are plenty of free educational materials to get started on this.

Step 3: Become part of the solution

Some young people are taking on the role of debunking misinformation believed by family members. How do you effectively address someone else's false belief? Should we include this in media literacy education? I think so. 

Media literacy is not a one-dimensional thing. It's not just about seeing a piece of information and deciding whether you believe it or not: it's a social problem. When people are drawn into false conspiracy theories, it's not just about the issue itself, the topic they're centred on. It's about identity, belonging, friendship, social hierarchies and shared values.

This is why throwing facts at the problem doesn't help: if the conspiracy theorists accept that fact, it may go against everything they feel they stand for. They may lose identity, friendships, social standing. People who have been drawn into false conspiracies may have actually done an incredible amount of research and analytical thinking. They may have watched a kazillion YouTube videos about it, prompted by the recommendation algorithm. A topic of disinformation may even include some truth at the centre - and people always talk their way back to the lie.

So we also need to talk about managing relationships. For example, empathising with someone about how difficult and intractable an issue seems to be, understanding their values and motivations - and then looking to engage in conversation where you're both trying to find a solution. Let's equip young people to do that.

Jess McBeath is an online safety consultant who works on the #SafeAndEmpowered programme, designed to support young people as safe and empowered digital citizens. She tweets @jess_mcbeathThe programme is funded by Education Scotland and is free to educators in Scotland.

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