Shawn Lee, a high school teacher in Seattle who teaches social studies, wants online lessons to be like a 21st-century version of driver’s education, which is important for modern life.
Lee has tried to bring this kind of education into his classroom by teaching about how important it is to check online sources twice, get news from different sources, and use critical thinking on the web. He has also set up a group where teachers can share materials.
Lee said, “This technology is so new that nobody showed us how to use it.” “People say, “There’s nothing we can do,” and then they throw up their hands. I don’t think that’s true. I’d like to think that the republic can make it through an algorithm.”
Lee’s work is part of a growing group of teachers and people who study misinformation who are trying to stop the spread of false information on the Internet about everything from presidential politics to pandemics. So far, the U.S. is behind many other democracies in this fight, and it is clear what will happen if nothing is done.
But because misinformation about vaccines, public health, voting, climate change, and the war in Ukraine has become so political, it can be hard for teachers to teach students how to use the internet well. How to Talk About Conspiracy Theories Without Getting Fired” was the title of a talk at a recent meeting of Lee’s group. Julie Smith, an expert on media literacy who teaches at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, says, “It’s not about teaching what to think, but how to think.” “It’s engaging about engaging your brain. It wants to know, “Who made this? Why? Why does it show up now? How and why does it make me feel?'”
People often say that new laws and changes to algorithms are the best ways to stop online misinformation, even though tech companies are also looking for ways to stop it.
But teaching people how to use the internet may be the best way. New Jersey, Illinois, and Texas are among the states that have recently put in place new standards for teaching internet literacy. This is a broad category that can include lessons about how the internet and social media work, as well as lessons on how to spot misinformation by checking multiple sources and being wary of claims that don’t give enough context or have very emotional headlines.
Lessons on media literacy are often taught in high school history, government, or other social studies classes, but experts say it’s never too early or too late to help people learn how to use the internet better.
Finnish kids start learning about the internet in preschool. This is part of a strong programme to fight misinformation that aims to make Finns less likely to believe false things they read online. Finland has a long history of fighting against propaganda and false information spread by its neighbour, Russia. After Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, which sparked a new wave of false information, Finland increased its current efforts.
Petri Honkonen, Finland’s minister of science and culture, said in a recent interview, “Before the Internet, media literacy was one of our top priorities.” “The point is critical thinking, which is a skill more and more people need. We have to find a way to keep people safe. We also have to look out for democracy.”
Honkonen talked to The Associated Press earlier this year during a trip to Washington, where he met with people to talk about Finland’s efforts to fight fake news online. Finland was at the top of a recent list of western democracies’ efforts to teach people how to understand the media. The U.S. came in at No. 18, while Canada came in at No. 7.
In Finland, learning doesn’t stop after elementary school. Public service announcements give advice on how to avoid false claims online and how to check more than one source. More programmes are made for older people, who are more likely to believe false information than younger people who are more used to using the internet.
People in the U.S. who think that teaching people how to use the internet is a form of thought control have fought against efforts to do so. Lee, a teacher in Seattle, said that some teachers don’t even try because they are afraid. A few years ago, the University of Washington started “MisinfoDay,” which brought together high school students and their teachers for a one-day event with speakers, exercises, and activities that all had to do with understanding media. This year, 700 students from all over the state went to one of three MisinfoDays.
The event was made by a professor at the University of Washington, Jevin West. He said he has heard from teachers in other states and even as far away as Australia who want to do something similar.
West said, “Perhaps, one day, there will be a national day in the United States that is all about media literacy.” “There are many things we can do in terms of rules, technology, and research, but nothing will be more important than this idea of making us more resistant to false information.”
For teachers who already have a lot on their plates in the classroom, teaching media literacy can seem like just one more thing they have to do. Erin McNeill, a mother from Massachusetts who started Media Literacy Now, a national organisation that promotes digital literacy education, says that this skill is just as important for the future economy as computer engineering or software coding.
McNeill said, “This is a problem with new ideas.” “Basic communication is a part of our information economy, and if we don’t get this right, it will have huge effects on our economy.”
When talking to people who know a lot about media literacy, the driver’s education comparison comes up a lot. Automobiles were first made at the beginning of the 20th century, and they quickly became very popular. But it took almost 30 years before the first driver’s education classes were made available.
What’s different? Governments made laws about how vehicles should be safe and how drivers should act. Automakers added things like seat belts, air bags, and steering columns that can fold up. Around the middle of the 1930s, people who cared about safety began to push for driver’s education to be required.
Many people who study misinformation and media literacy look at that partnership between the government, business, and teachers as a model. They say that education has to be a part of any effective solution to the problems caused by online misinformation.
Media education in Canadian schools has been going on for decades. At first, it was mostly about TV, but it has grown and changed with the digital age. Matthew Johnson, the director of education at MediaSmarts, an organisation that runs media literacy programmes in Canada, says that it is now seen as an important part of preparing students.
“To make sure cars are safe, we need speed limits, roads that are well made, and good rules. “But we also teach people how to drive safely,” he added. “No matter what regulators or online platforms do, content will always end up in front of an audience, and that audience needs to be able to think critically about it.”