Why teach about medial literacy and critical thinking in schools?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed a rise in misinformation and disinformation online surrounding masking, vaccinations and COVID. This spurred me to spend more time teaching my students the skills for assessing the accuracy of online information. Below are some strategies I've developed and resources I've found to help.
The UNICEF report Digital Misinformation/Disinformation and Children says that "at a societal and cultural level, mis/disinformation disrupts the flow of ideas, undermines trust in public institutions and drowns out or silences marginalized voices, posing significant risks to democracy and public debate" (p. 12). Moreover, children, teens, and many adults are not well equipped to deal with disinformation. Studies show that only 2% of young people have the critical literacy skills necessary to determine if a news story is real or not. Similarly, up to three quarters of children do not feel able to accurately assess the reliability of online information. Media literacy education is an area that requires more attention.
There are solutions. Studies show that young people who have education in media literacy are more likely to assess the accuracy of information correctly. As well, UNICEF indicates that:
Those who received media literacy education in school were 26 per cent more likely to judge an evidence-based post as ‘accurate’ than they were to judge an inaccurate one as ‘accurate’. By contrast, the study found that young people who did not receive media literacy education were just as likely to judge accurate and inaccurate posts to be ‘accurate’. (p. 24)
Spending more time on media literacy education can help students develop skills they need to assess the accuracy of online information.
Misinformation and Disinformation
A good starting point is teaching students about the different types of misinformation and disinformation. The definitions vary for these, but I like to draw from this CBC article The Real 'Fake News': How to Spot Misinformation and Disinformation Online, by Andrea Bellemare, which also gives a good starting point for students.
- Misinformation: Information that is shared without realizing it is wrong.
- Disinformation: Information that is shared with the intent to mislead.
Other sources also discuss malinformation, which is information that stems from the truth, but is framed in a way that is misleading or could cause harm. I like this concept, since it makes it clear that there are shades of gray when it comes to interpreting what is true or false online. For the purpose of this article and for simplicity, I'll refer to misinformation or disinformation as umbrella terms to encompass a broad spectrum of false or misleading online information.
The UNICEF report on misinformation and disinformation uses this graphic to discuss the different types of misinformation and disinformation, which is a useful starting point.
Typically, after discussing these types of misinformation and disinformation, I'll give students examples and have them identify the type of misinformation. I also have them practice developing critical questions that could help with assessing the reliability of the example they are investigating. Most examples I get are drawn from Snopes, which is a useful fact-checking website. I would suggest checking out the Snopes Archives to find examples that are accessible and understandable for students. I tend to use the following guidelines when selecting examples of misinformation and disinformation:
- Find examples that are immediately accessible to students - If it requires too much background knowledge, it is not a good teaching tool.
- Use examples that are mostly harmless - Disinformation relating to animals, food, or silly stuff is a good starting point.
- Do some prebunking - If more serious examples are being used (like examples relating to masking or vaccines), be sure to prebunk, meaning teach about the true facts first before they see the misinformation. Also, make sure these types of false statements are clearly marked as not true.
- Don't use examples grounded in discrimination - Lots of disinformation is grounded in racism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-semitism, islamophobia or other types of discrimination. It is vile, to say the least. All students need to feel safe in my classroom and using these types of disinformation as a teaching tool does not support these students. I choose to counter discrimination in other ways that respect and support minoritized students. Feel free to check out the rest of this blog for examples.
Lateral reading is another important skill that students (and adults) need to practice. It involves fact checking information on a webpage by opening a new tab and reading other reliable websites. This is important because a lot of misinformation or disinformation can be internally consistent within a website and reading vertically will not help in assessing accuracy. Hopping over to another website and verifying information is an essential step to critically thinking about what we read.
To model this skill, I start with the Birds Aren't Real website. Birds Aren't Real is a satirical conspiracy theory, meaning a conspiracy theory that was created to make fun of conspiracy theories. The website holds that the government replaced all birds with drones that are used for surveillance. Using the website, I ask students how I could convince a friend that this conspiracy theory isn't true. I use the opportunity to model for them how check other websites through a quick Google search, finding a New York Times article, a Wikipedia page, and other sources that clarify the topic.
While a lot of what I have discussed has come up in my Language Arts classes, I have discussed lateral reading in science when teaching about vaccines. Vaccine disinformation has caused real harm, so I started off with some prebunking, which means teaching the accurate information first. We checked out the WHO's How Do Vaccines Work page to learn about vaccines and discuss what it means for a source to be authoritative. With reliable information firmly in mind, we can practice fact-checking other sources, such as this true article about an airline offering free travel to promote vaccinations and this Snopes article that debunks a hoax about vaccines causing magnets to stick to peoples' arms. I like to present the Snopes article in its entirety, as it tags the hoax immediately as false, and then we can practice some lateral reading to find many other websites devoted to debunking this same myth.
There are a lot of resources I use to teach lateral reading. Here's a list of some useful ones:
- Crash Course Navigating Digital Information Series: Episode 3: Lateral Reading and Episode 5: Using Wikipedia
- Civic Online Reasoning - Teaching Lateral Reading lessons
- CTRL-F - CIVIX Media Literacy Resources
- Break the Fake
Finally, I'm going to discuss evaluating infographics, which is a skill that builds on what we have previously done. First Draft, a non-profit organization, suggests that visual misinformation may be more pervasive than textual misinformation. As well, visual information is processed more rapidly than textual information, so it may be harder to critically engage with it and spot misinformation. On top of that, a lot of online information is highly visual (particularly social media spaces that are popular with young people), so this area needs attention.
I typically start with an authoritative source, such as this infographic from the WHO about wearing medical masks. We then compare it to the infographic below, which can be found in this BBC article that debunks mask myths. Students are quick to point out that the author is unknown, the source of information is unclear, and lots of the statements seem questionable. We develop critical questions we could use to help us with lateral reading.
Not all infographics are so black and white, so I make sure to show students other examples that are more nuanced. For instance, we check out this How To Find Nessie infographic below and think about the purpose of infographics. Once it becomes clear that this one was created by a travel agency, students are quick to see it in a new light.
Similarly, this infographic created by Two Sides, a non-profit group that promotes the use of paper, provides a lot to discuss. Once some lateral reading reveals that the non-profit's members are primarily companies focused on the production of paper products, students have a lot to say. Thinking about what sources the infographic uses and whose voices are missing leads to important discussions. Using this graphic organizer helps us to better focus our thinking and evaluate this infographic.
In teaching students to identify examples of misinformation and disinformation, practice lateral reading, and evaluate visual information, I hope that I have given them the tools to better assess online information they see in their own digital lives. I think that media literacy education is an innoculation against misinformation and disinformation and is essential for students.