In 2004, city councillors in Aliso Viejo, California, were made aware of a highly dangerous compound called dihydrogen monoxide. Apparently, it is lethal if inhaled, can cause tissue damage and is the key component of acid rain. The councillors planned to ban the substance from the city, going as far as preparing motions for a debate, because it could “threaten human safety” – before realising it was a hoax. Dihydrogen monoxide is another name for water.
You’d think they could have spotted the hoax by simply searching online for dihydrogen monoxide, but Googling it leads you to the parody website of the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Department, which reinforces the myth. This hoax has been catching people out for years, including a New Zealand MP, due to the clever use of language and a website that has a .org suffix that makes it appear more credible. And if a hoax like this can fool well-educated adults, it presents even more of a danger to impressionable students.
A recent Ofcom report reveals that 93 per cent of 8- to 11-year-olds go online for an average of 13.5 hours a week, with the proportion rising to 99 per cent and 20.5 hours for 12- to 15-year-olds. It is vital, therefore, that we teach students how to spot unreliable sources of information.
The proliferation of hoax websites, fauxtography (manipulated images presented as fact), biased social media profiles and, increasingly, deepfake videos means that we cannot assume that students can easily verify sources. In fact, a recent study from Stanford University highlights that, while young people may possess many tech skills, they are actually not very good at identifying reliable sources. Researchers discovered that more than 80 per cent of middle-school students could not distinguish between a real news story and a native advertisement, despite it being clearly marked as “sponsored content”.
Perhaps more worrying were the findings around how much students rely on an image for evidence. In the Stanford study, high-school students were shown a picture of some strange flowers captioned to suggest that they had been mutated as a result of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan. More than 80 per cent of students failed to question the source of the image, which was taken from an image-sharing website, and half of those (40 per cent) thought the image provided strong evidence despite it coming from an unreliable source. Given the popularity of image-sharing social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat, it is vital that we teach our young people to scrutinise images before sharing them.
Fake news? Finding reliable sources
To tackle this problem, it is important to do two things: direct students to reliable websites and teach them how to spot unreliable sources for themselves.
The first part is all about careful content curation. Teachers need to critically evaluate each source for reliability, and share them through a VLE or other central platform, such as the school website. This can, however, be a time-consuming process. Another solution is to use a program, such as Web for Classrooms, that curates reliable, verified web pages for students. Wizenoze, the company behind this tool, has indexed more than eight million websites that are from verified and trusted sources, and has sorted them by age appropriateness and readability.
Ashley Holmes, a class teacher from Inverbrothock Primary School in Arbroath, used the solution because her students were “faced with inappropriate pop-ups, adverts, and content” that they “could not comprehend”. Ashley was reassured that her students could search for images and video using Web for Classrooms. Web for Classrooms will be integrated into Prowise's free educational software, Presenter, from early 2019.
While curation of content will help students to avoid unreliable parts of the internet, it is also important to teach them the crucial life skill of distinguishing fact from fiction online. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to show them some of the false and misleading information that already exists. They could, for example, look at the Pacific tree octopus or the Republic of Molossia websites, the former is a famous hoax fighting for the conservation of a non-existent species and the other an example of geofiction, detailing a fictional “micronation”.
Ask students to comment on the differences in the appearance and the URL address in comparison with legitimate websites, and to check who created the sites, when they were created and whether any reputable websites link to them. This can be helped (but not for all sites) by inserting “Related:” or “Link:” before the address and can be a really useful way of finding out how reputable a website actually is.
Another fun activity is to take a series of fake images that have gone viral, such as the bear chasing a cyclist or the photograph of Turtle Mountain, and put them alongside genuine photographs. Can the students identify the real and the fake? Encourage them to use fact-checking websites and look at the sources of the photographs, finding out whether they came from individuals or reputable organisations.
Students should be taught to question sources and not trust images that come from individuals on social media, even if they have realistic captions.
Being able to interrogate the validity of websites and images online is a crucial 21st-century life skill. With machine learning making it possible to create deepfake videos that can make it appear anyone is saying anything, it is vital that students are taught to not blindly trust what they read, see and hear online.
The internet is going to continue to grow, providing us with more services and information than ever before, and some of that information is going to be false and misleading. Teaching students to tell the difference is vital, for both them and society, and failing to do could have far-reaching consequences for us all.
Nic Ford is academic deputy head at Bolton School (Boys’ Division)
Prowise Presenter is free educational software that allows teachers and students to create lessons and presentations quickly, easily and interactively. To view the educational content and interactive options for teachers and students in both primary and secondary education, click here.