Here is a conversation I genuinely had with a sixth former last academic year:
Him: "Can I ask you something a bit…like…you might get offended?"
Me: "Of course."
Him: "Are you a feminist?"
Me: "I’m not offended. And yes."
Him: "I don’t really agree with that."
Me: "Agree with what? Gender equality?"
Him: "No, I think men and women should be equal but I don’t agree with the concept of white male privilege."
Me: "Right. Okay. Well, if you like I can show you some statistics about how much of the world’s wealth white men own?"
Him: "Oh, no, I mean, men might have the upper hand, economically. But socially, I think women have the advantage."
Me: "Give me an example of a time when a woman has a social advantage, so I know what you mean."
Him: "Well, for example, a woman can say she was raped when she wasn’t."
Me: "I suppose technically she could, yes. But why would she do that?"
Him: "I dunno. Women are mental, aren’t they?"
Me: "I see." [This part of the conversation is a bit hazy in my memory because I was starting to get angry and making huge attempts to squash the feeling since I knew it wouldn’t be an aid to progress, but somehow we got onto Gandhi].
Him: "Wasn’t he a paedophile?"
Me: "What, Gandhi?!"
Him: "Nah, sorry, not Gandhi, another Indian fella."
Me: "Do you by any chance follow a lot of right-wing political accounts on Facebook?"
Him: "Well, my Mum votes [insert right-wing party here], so…"
The above conversation is all too reflective of the modern age – one in which algorithms gauge the perceived political leanings of a household and pump increasingly rabid misinformation into the consciousness accordingly.
I remember last year having to de-friend an old school pal on Facebook because she shared an article from Britain First, the far-right ultranationalist political party, along with a rant about how the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was trying to introduce Sharia law after he banned body shaming advertisements on TFL.
My initial response was that there was literally no excuse for that level of stupidity since we technically had the same education, but then I remembered that she didn’t do history beyond Year 9 and therefore not only wouldn’t have Nazi propaganda as a frame of reference but also would never have had Mr Biggins as a teacher (who is responsible for at least half of my critical thinking abilities).
In Hilary Clinton’s most recent memoir, she talks about the role she believes Russia played in the election of Donald Trump. She believes his victory was in no small part due to the spreading of fake news on social media, generated from people who had a vested interest in her demise.
This might initially sound like the paranoid blatherings of a sore loser, but recent findings by university research teams have shown that there are a number of fake social media accounts whose job it is to create a “false consensus” by targeting liberal and left-wing commentators in their droves. In this way, they generate the impression that the public does not agree with their target.
In light of what my freedom of information request revealed about the extent to which politicians allow what they see on social media to influence their policy decisions, this is highly troubling.
When I was at university, we had one token conspiracy theorist who would entertain us after nights out, as we congregated in the kitchen munching cheese on toast, with his theories about how the moon landings weren’t real and the world was really run by lizards. Now, that conspiracy theorist is the internet, and far from being an odd-but-harmless beardy guy with an acoustic guitar who thinks he has been abducted by aliens, it’s an all-pervasive force with a political agenda.
Not only that but watching cosily named "alt-right" YouTube videos is, for many teenagers, the new rock n roll. It’s rebellious, in a world in which there are calls for Katie Hopkins to be no-platformed ahead of her forthcoming schools' tour, to fill your brain with these sorts of views. Adults’ disapproval is what makes it intriguing.
Now, I could do what the average commentator would, here and say “schools need to sort this out”. Yet, to do so would not acknowledge the myriad other influences on young people, the extent to which there are already not enough hours in the day for teachers to do everything that is expected of them, or the timetabling/budget restrictions on schools. In fact, I believe the solution is fourfold:
1. The government should, during its current discussions about radicalisation and the internet, take into account that it is a gradual process. Simply removing the “hate preachers” at the extreme end won’t prevent the algorithms – which incrementally detect a proclivity for certain views and then supply ever-more extreme information in the name of “entertainment” – from doing their work. I’m not suggesting we curtail freedom of speech, simply that the technological structure of social media needs to be examined.
2. Social media needs a bullshit detector. Just as Wikipedia requires you to cite reliable sources when you upload information, an authenticity stamp should be applied to reliable sources online. (I realise, of course, that Wikipedia is not without its accuracy problems but it’s still a darn sight more reliable than most of the information on the web)
3. Public awareness campaigns should be aimed at parents, not young people. Government-funded campaigns designed for the “youth” are cringe as they have, in the past, inspired a desire in me to take up smoking in protest against their patronising tone. But parents are both a more receptive audience and in desperate need of reliable information on technology and social media.
4. The entire education system needs rethinking. Yes, I know my columns always seem to land on this conclusion, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In the modern age, it is not-so-much what children know, it's how they think that will, I suspect, prove to be important. Bearing in mind that the curriculum favours those who can remember and regurgitate information, parrot style, is it any wonder young people are susceptible to gullibility?
Policymakers need to understand that critical thinking skills require time and space to nurture and develop. Filling every solitary second available in the school day with a barrage of information has left children ill-equipped to question and decipher reliable information when they encounter fake news.
We don’t need to create specific lessons around spotting fake news online (although I’d happily attend such a lesson). Rather, the skill of thinking critically, if developed across all school subjects, will naturally be applied to the world outside the school walls. Neuroplasticity tells us it is so.
So, there you have it. My solution. In light of the heartening news over the weekend that a previous column I wrote about including acknowledgement of the benefits of immigration in the history curriculum has been tabled as a recommendation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, I can only hope that the powers-that-be are reading this too.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @natashadevon. Find out more about her work here.