Recently, congressional committees summoned executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google to Capitol Hill to explain their company’s roles in the national security issue of fake news planted by the Russians to manipulate our last presidential election. Congress wants something done to protect U.S. citizens from fake news, and if the tech companies can’t come up with a technology solution fast enough, then they will step in and impose regulations.
As a school librarian, I disagree with either solution. The only reliable way to protect citizens from fake news, alternate facts, or hate groups is for all of us to learn how to navigate digital information with discernment and skepticism. Teaching that is the job of every librarian, teacher and parent.
The week before the congressional hearings, I led a presentation on this very topic at a conference of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools. The session was standing room only. Teachers and librarians get it. We know that each of us is responsible for the information we consume, and we know how tricky it can be out there in the digital information world. Even so, teaching kids discernment and skepticism isn’t as challenging as you might think. My students amaze me every day with their insights and sincerity, and I’m hoping parents take heed and try to make teaching real news to their children part of everyday parenting.
Below are some techniques I teach to my students, and they are easily adaptable for use at home. In fact, I do these same things at home with my own kids.
Know the Parts of a Newspaper or Cable News Broadcast
At school, I teach my students about the different sections to a newspaper and a cable news broadcast, and what type of information is found in the different sections. They learn about opinion, analysis and editorial, as well as the difference between a news anchor and a news channel personality who presents opinion. We compare and contrast news sources in real time, and the kids easily see how differently the same story can be presented by the various news sources.
Understand Bias and Point of View
“The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” by John Scieszka and Lane Smith, is the story of the three little pigs, but told from the wolf’s point of view. As you might imagine, the story the wolf tells is not the same as the story the pigs tell. It is an excellent story, and it is a terrific tool for teaching point of view. In class, we compare the two versions of the story, listing the parts of the story that are the same and the parts of the story that are different. Then we talk about how important it is to get all versions of a story when doing research.
We also discuss that if the pigs only read news sources written by pigs or the wolves only read news sources written by wolves, the two sides might never be exposed to the other side’s thoughts, opinions, feelings — that neither side would have the opportunity to see things through someone else’s perspective, or to change their minds about something.
Know How a Search Engine Works and What an Algorithm is
Using reliable resources, my students research what a search engine is and how it works. They study Split-Second Search from Google and begin to see how and why they get the results they get on their search queries. I have an entire class search the same term, and they often are surprised to see how different their search results can be from those of their friends. They begin to understand that the first question they should ask when doing a web search isn’t “Is this a good source?” but rather “Why has this source appeared on my results list?”
This is an important question because it introduces the concept of how in our digital worlds our world views are reinforced because the algorithms that tech platforms use, take into account our past searches and what our friends like. It’s easy to lose our skepticism when all we see is what we already believe. It’s not until we see things we don’t know or believe that our sense of curiosity and skepticism is awakened.
Know What Constitutes a Reliable Source
We play a game I call, “Is This a Reliable Source?” where I show them a wide variety of sources — both good and bad. If a student declares that a source is a good one, the first thing they have to tell me is who the author or publisher is and why they think they are reliable. The answer that a source “looks good” is never correct. The students look for widely accepted outlets, or they read through the About section of an unknown website in search of credentials. If it takes too long to find an unknown website’s credentials, that isn’t a good sign. Reliable sources make their credentials obvious and easy to find.
Choose Your Own News Sources
I don’t think relying on news aggregator websites such as Drudge Report or Google news is being in charge of the news you consume. Even news-focused websites like the Skimm can set a bad example for our kids. Their premise is that we are too busy to read the news so we should let them read it for us — then they will tell us what to think about it. It’s too passive, and it leads to lazy habits — the kind of lazy habits that result in a fake news story going viral on Facebook. We should model a much more proactive example with our own news consumption.
Congress, tech companies, algorithms or legislation can’t save us from fake news, alternate facts or hate speech. Only our brains, our own ability to think and our own innate skepticism can. When we ask other people to do the work for us, we’ve already lost the battle. We need to teach this to our children.
Maureen Paschal is a freelance writer, tutor, teacher, librarian and a mom to four. She blogs at Raising The Capable Student.
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