One of the thoughts that burrows its way into my mind and simply won’t let go is exactly how to help my students (and, for that matter, everyone I know) navigate the flood of information, dodge the misinformation and find their way to the truth.
I recently picked up “Fact vs. Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News” by Jennifer LaGarde and Darren Hudgins (2018). Toward the end of the first chapter, the authors describe a scene from Star Wars where C-3PO turns to R2-D2 as they’re under siege by a corridor full of stormtroopers and says, “We’re doomed.”
As I read that description, I felt like shouting, “Yep! You’ve got it!”
That’s exactly how I feel when I think about taking on the monumental task of guiding children through the process of becoming critical thinkers, especially as we walk with caution through a landscape full of political landmines, strive to be considerate of contentious community opinions and find that our professional autonomy in this regard may indeed be restricted.
Eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time seems like a great place to begin, but which bite to take first? I would propose that we might begin by steeping ourselves in definitions that allow us to speak with clarity in regards to the types of misleading information. Developing a common vocabulary, if you will.
In my quest to deeply understand the elephant on the menu, I dug into this infographic from the European Association for Viewers Interests which took me on a tour of ten types of misleading news—propaganda, clickbait, sponsored content, satire and hoax, error, partisan, conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, misinformation and bogus information. Of course, I recognized those terms, but it allowed me to more clearly articulate the similarities and differences in text and images that fit these descriptions.
As if those were not enough, as consumers of information, we must also be aware of the potential for false attribution, counterfeit accounts, misleading headlines, and doctored content.
After all, it is not just children who struggle. Plenty of adults also work hard to determine what is legitimate information and what’s bunk. So much of the content that is shared online is deliberately crafted to get us to click, retweet, get riled up, share, comment, tune in and get out the vote.
Here in this safe space, I’ll admit that even though I know better, once in a while, they get me too. There have been times I have turned to my adult son and said, “Can you BELIEVE this?” only to have him point out that it’s a counterfeit account or clear propaganda.
Catching ourselves in the heat of the moment takes self-regulation, the ability to pause, and the willingness to reflect. These are skills that require plenty of practice, opportunities to get it wrong and analyze why, and it feels like we needed to get all of this figured out decades ago.
Just as soon as we feel like we begin to make headway, those who manipulate information find new ways to twist us, to set our heads spinning, and once again the safety of the truth feels ripped from our grasp.
But we cannot give up.
We cannot throw our hands up and declare that we’re doomed.
To do so means we truly will be.
(By the way, while below I share some great information that I gleaned from “Fact vs. Fiction,” it is chock full of additional information, resources, and analysis. I encourage you to pick up a copy or borrow it from your library and dig into it in its entirety.)
It’s time to get focused on what LaGarde and Hutchins call A News Consumer’s Skill Set. While these skills will require plenty of teaching, and it’s not as simple as “just do these things,” it certainly brings into focus the work ahead.
- LaGarde and Hudgins suggest that we must learn to recognize our own biases. Each and every one of us brings our own implicit biases to our consumption of information. Recognizing those predetermined opinions and thoughts gives us the chance to remember that those biases tend to make us more prone to accepting stories that align with our own opinions and rejecting those that do not.
- I love the phrase “nonsense detectors,” which LaGarde and Hudgins use to describe that Spidey-sense we should get when we see sensationalism, vague statistics, highly emotional stories, and images that make us say, “Really?” Honing these skills allows us to recognize clickbait when we see it and navigate it as critical thinkers.
- Even once we have checked our own biases and tuned into our clickbait alert system, our work is not done. It is critical that we examine and analyze the authority of the original source, not just our perceived trust in the person who shared the information with us via social media or any other conduct.
- Finally, and probably the most difficult to consistently follow through on because it takes time and effort, is the idea that we should triangulate the information—ie, find other credible sources that back up the same facts.
Even when focused on the key behaviors delineated by LaGarde and Hudgins, the work ahead is still daunting, but if we don’t do it, who will?
The good news is that there is plenty of help for the work from quality sources.
The first step begins now. We can reflect and assess our own biases, develop those Spidey-senses for clickbait in all its nefarious forms, consistently model for youngsters how to find the original source and put forth the extra effort to triangulate the facts.
I’m up for the challenge. Who’s with me?