"It goes out there on the internet and is available on the same terms as any piece of historical research... There's a kind of parity of esteem of information on the net" – Bill Gates
“A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots” – Mark Twain
‘Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts … but the point remains…’ – Kellyanne Conway
It doesn’t matter whether you agree with these statements – in 2021, most believe we have a problem with the spread of false information. Whether through a complex and sophisticated social media campaign, or a simple share or retweet, it is now more simple than ever for false information to spread. And this isn’t the only problem – the more "fake news" spreads, the harder it is for all of us to find reliable, verifiable news (or keep belief in the news that we do find).
Though hardly a new phenomenon (biased reporting was hardly created by Twitter or Facebook), the speed and sheer quantity of misinformation can be terrifying: Donald Trump proclaiming an election win, the lies shared on Brexit and "Covid is a hoax", to name just a few.
And this frames the bigger problem: if a central tenet of education is to prepare young people and students for the challenges that life will throw at them, are we doing enough to help them deal with the issue of fake news (an issue which presents a daily challenge)?
Are we doing enough to combat the fake news that will shape and help to form ideals, opinions and the foundation beliefs that students might build their lives around?
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Obviously, there’s an argument to be made that this is being covered in PSHE, British Values and in other areas of the curriculum, and outside of schools (as football clubs and others recently boycotted social media) the voices asking that social media companies take more responsibility are growing louder. This has mainly been in the form of calls for verification via ID for those who hold a social media account. This would undoubtedly help, but it wouldn’t solve the problem.
Clearly, ID verification would help to deter online harassment, bullying and other attacks, but, firstly, it wouldn’t stop it and, secondly, it would be unlikely to stem the tide of fake news. For this, we need something more; more than just an expectation that teachers discuss and interrogate sources of information, and hope that this is communicated throughout the curriculum.
Teachers need time to focus on fake news
As teachers the world over will tell you, some of the best lessons occur because discussion sends the lesson on totally different tangents than had been planned. The problem here is that with an ever-narrowing curriculum and focus on assessment, there isn’t always the time to do this, let alone around fake news.
It’s easy to ask students to "check sources" or "make sure the information is from a reliable source", but do we teach them what this actually means? Do we teach students how to identify fake news? How to interrogate sources of information (videos, blogs, memes, TikTok clips)? And, maybe most importantly, do we teach them how to process and deal with this (mis)information?
With social media algorithms working overtime, and far too many echo chambers nice and tightly sealed, it’s certainly not easy, but we have a duty to students to force them to investigate the "how", the "what", the "when", the "where", the "who" and (most importantly) the "why".
Moving to further education from secondary, I’ve loved seeing how curriculum areas manage and balance theoretical and practical elements (deciding which gets more focus at various points, making sure everything is covered equally, etc). With this in mind, why can’t we build in more opportunities for practical skills when looking at British Values, PHSE, etc? The creation and spread of fake news is a direct challenge to British Values: teaching young people how to combat this spread must be near the top of any agenda, at all times. Giving students opportunities to practise these skills will help to do this.
After all, it is likely that the ideals and beliefs that form as a result of fake news and misinformation will be passed on to friends, peers and, potentially, the next generation. We have already seen how misinformation in the digital age can be used to win elections or influence popular thought – if we don’t start to properly and fully address this by giving students the skills they need, we may have bigger problems than Twitter and Facebook in 25 years' time.
Jonny Kay is the head of teaching and learning at a college in the North East. He tweets at @jonnykayteacher