Heads need to be alert to 'fake news' risk for pupils

Summit between ministers and social media companies will discuss how to curb spread of misinformation on vaccines

Tes Reporter

pupils at laptops

School leaders must be alert to the dangers of "fake news" and the risks posed to pupils, the education secretary has warned.

Damian Hinds and health secretary Matt Hancock will be at a summit on social media today, at which they will discuss how to curb the spread of misleading content on vaccinations.

The summit comes after the Department for Education published online safety guidance for schools that includes teaching children how to recognise and respond to "fake news".

Damian Hinds said the reputations of institutions and companies can "quickly be eroded by the spread of so-called 'fake news'" as he highlighted the importance of young people becoming "new-media savvy".

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Mr Hinds said that while the internet puts a vast amount of information at people's fingertips, it also makes it "much easier to spread falsehoods – inadvertently or by design".

He added: "Today we will be addressing with social media companies how to curb the spread of misleading content on vaccinations.

"But this issue goes much further than that, and without firm action it is set to get a lot worse.

"The reputations of institutions and companies, and liberal democracy itself, can quickly be eroded by the spread of so-called 'fake news'.

"Since ancient times, propagandists have sought to manipulate the truth. But in the internet age, these techniques are available not just to states but to campaign groups and individuals.

"And social media's network effects, and the power of 'likes', mean their spread can be self-propelling.

"What starts as disinformation – deliberate falsification – gets replicated through misinformation – stating or passing on something that you believe to be true but isn't.

"Trusted sources become more important than ever. For health information, clearly that means the NHS. For news, young people will have to work out their own preferred sources, but the important thing is to be discerning.

"We need the tech companies to make that easier – but we also need to ensure that young people are new-media savvy.

"That's why we are introducing new content to schools that is a fusion of the relationships, citizenship and computing curricula.

"Children won't just learn about what a spoofer or a sock puppet are, or how clickbait headlines try to lure you in. They'll learn about how so-called confirmation bias helps stories spread, and discuss why someone might want to bend the truth in the first place."

From 2020, the government is making health education – which includes content on physical and mental wellbeing – universally compulsory, alongside introducing compulsory relationships education for primary-age pupils and relationships and sex education for secondary-age pupils.

This will mean every child will learn about internet safety and harms alongside the importance of mental wellbeing, the Department for Education said.

The social media and mental health summit is a strategic partnership between government and stakeholders who meet regularly on a range of issues that stem from internet usage.

The DfE said Mr Hinds will say that, through the introduction of health education, primary and secondary pupils will be taught the facts and science relating to allergies, immunisation and vaccination.

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