Don’t believe it? Google it.
Right now, there are undoubtedly thousands of students across the country desperately googling for quick facts and citations to drop into papers. In schools everywhere, librarians are tearing their hair out… how much time did they spend going over reference sites and databases.
Finding unreliable information on the Internet is nothing new. But, charges of “Fake News” leveled by and to traditionally trusted sources of authority flood our headlines daily. Fake News was the viral phenomena of the 2016 election cycle and continues to run unabated. But what is it exactly, and how do we help kids (and adults) from getting infected by it?
Researchers from three universities in England and the U.S., released a paper today outlining a strategy for “inoculating” the public against fake news and alternative facts that readers – and traditional and social media – have been grappling with recently.
The study’s lead author, Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge, describes these types of misinformation as “sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus.” As reported in Forbes, the researchers dub their strategy a “psychological vaccination,” a method conceptually similar to medical vaccinations. By exposing people to a small “dose” of misinformation and then highlighting false claims and refuting potential counterarguments, people build up cognitive resistance to misinformation, so the next time they come across it they are less susceptible.
While the researchers’ strategy has yet to reach the masses, we can build on the theory and educate people about the types of misinformation masquerading as fact. The nonprofit media watchdog, Media Matters for America, highlights types of fake news that run viral in social media, and are sometimes picked up by mainstream media as transmission and popularity swells (see graphic).
As Professor Sam Wineburg of the Stanford Graduate School of Education observes, “Schools are preparing a generation of bubble children without the immunities to deal with the information toxins that surround them. Quality information is to a thriving democracy what clean air and clear water are to public health. When information becomes polluted, our civic discourse is compromised.”
So how can we safely inoculate students against fake news? Expose them to it, so they recognize it. Teach them to take the time to understand evidence, read critically, and identify inaccurate sources. Though they may live and breathe technology and social media, they need help examining sources, discerning fact, fiction, and opinion in real life contexts. It’s a teachable moment for everyone.
Let’s prevent the spread of toxic news. More on how in the stories below.