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Getting a Handle on Questionable Online Content

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “The Upside of ‘Fake News’: Renewed Calls for Media Literacy” by Peter Adams in Social Education, September 2018 (Vol. 82, #4, p. 232-234).
In this article in Social Education, Peter Adams (News Literacy Project) says a bright side of the current focus on “fake news” has been a renewed emphasis on teaching media literacy in schools. This is particularly important, says Adams, because of “the wholesale upheaval of the information ecosystem in the twenty-first century.”
One distorting feature of social media news feeds is the standardized format. “This can lead us, without thinking, to lump dissimilar things together,” says Adams: “sensational stories that turn out to be intentionally false, viral rumors that are actually misperceived satire, images that are repurposed from their original context, and legitimate news reports that contain inadvertent errors.”
A possible reaction is that everything is fake and nothing can be trusted. “But adopting this cynical posture robs us of our civic agency,” says Adams, “of our ability to base decisions and actions on credible information. This isn’t just a form of profound civic disempowerment for individuals; it’s also bad for democracy.” The alternative in schools, he believes, is using five guiding principles to teach history and current events in the “post truth” era:
• All information is not designed to manipulate. “Yes, it’s important to examine inaccurate or otherwise flawed news coverage,” says Adams. “But it’s equally important (if not more so) to study exemplary journalism.”
• Mainstream news is distinct from most other channels of information. When looking at reputable reporting, students need to use a different set of standards than when they analyze raw images and video, viral quotes, or social media rants from unknown individuals. This might include taking a critical look at the use of polarizing terms in mainstream news reports – lie, torture, riot, terrorist.
• People tend to see what they want in “the media.” The well-established phenomenon known as confirmation bias means that we tend to under-scrutinize (or look for reasons to accept) claims and ideas with which we agree and over-scrutinize (or look for reasons to dismiss) information that conflicts with our beliefs. The best way to overcome this tendency, says Adams, “is to work against our own biases – to seek to disprove, rather than confirm, our hypotheses about coverage… When your students believe they perceive bias in a news report, that is the beginning, not the end, of inquiry.”
• Misinformation is pollution. Cleaning up the information environment “is everyone’s job,” says Adams, because “other people’s vulnerability to misinformation can affect you – even if you’re savvy enough not to fall for it.”
• Digital forensics skills are obligatory. Many students who have grown up as “digital natives” need explicit instruction in:
- Investigating the authenticity of images, video, and social media posts;
- Looking into the ownership of websites;
- Conducting advanced searches of the web and social media platforms;
- Conducting reverse image searches.
“Not teaching students the fundamentals of digital forensics,” Adams concludes, “puts them at an unfair disadvantage as they contend with a misinformation landscape that is increasingly tricky to navigate.”

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