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Equity Resources, Podcast Articles   |   Feb 21, 2021

Educator tools for media literacy and how to advocate for truth

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Educator tools for media literacy and how to advocate for truth

By Angela Watson

Disinformation, conspiracy theories, and hate group propaganda have infiltrated our online and offline conversations.

How can we as educators ensure we are finding and sharing accurate information?

Join me as I talk with Peter Adams. He’s the head of the education team of the News Literacy Project, a national education nonprofit offering nonpartisan programs that teach students how to know what to believe in the digital age.

We’ll begin by talking about why information (and misinformation) is more prevalent. Peter gives a brief overview of how extremists of all kinds have become better networked and influential, and how hate groups and conspiracy theorists have leveraged our polarization to promote their own agendas.

Then we discuss:

  • Why objectivity does not mean staying neutral
  • What’s actually news-worthy (“How come the media isn’t talking about this?”)
  • The difference between a conspiracy and conspiracy theory
  • Intellectual humility and not demonizing everyone on “the other side”
  • Looking for disconfirming evidence of our beliefs
  • Having open, offline conversations with people who think differently
  • What it means to “do your own research”
  • Overcoming cynicism and relentlessly pursuing truth
  • How social media and search engine algorithms shape our thinking about what’s true
  • How educators can ensure they’re relying on and sharing accurate info
  • Why investing in our own news literacy as educators is one of the best things we can do for kids

For ongoing support in these areas, you can sign up for The Sift, a free weekly newsletter for educators distributed NewsLit.org. It’s a rundown of what happened the week before that you can use in the classroom to teach news literacy. It includes a distillation of the most news-literacy-relevant pieces of news and information that were published the previous week to help educators stay informed.

It also includes a Viral Rumor Rundown of about four or five viral rumors that circulated the week before, with ideas for discussion, classroom activities, and links to resources. Here’s the most recent set of Viral Rumor Rundown Google Slides with a ready-to-use lesson that teaches fact-checking.

NewsLit also offers a free e-learning platform called The Checkology Virtual Classroom, with 14 lessons to help teach students about many of the topics you’ll learn about in my interview with Peter, including how to understand conspiracy theories. Checkology is primarily aimed at middle school and high school grades, but some teachers in upper elementary adapt the lessons and folks in higher ed have utilized them, as well.

Listen to the audio below, 

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Sponsored by Pear Deck and BetterHelp

As information abounds, so does misinformation

ANGELA: So, Peter, I think it’s fair to say that misinformation, so stuff that’s just not true or only partially true, has always been around, but because of the sheer volume of information and media that we’re exposed to in modern life, particularly with the internet, I think there’s bound to also be more misinformation shared, too. Just about everyone has access to an online platform that is fairly unvetted: basically, anyone with access to Wi-Fi has the ability to go online and spread ideas, true or not.

And over the last decade or so, that has led to an increase in the amount of false information out there. Do you think that would be true to say?

PETER: Yeah, absolutely. I think there are a lot of real opportunities and advantages to our information landscape now and to the level of access people have to contribute information and publish information for a potentially global audience, but there are also some significant challenges and pitfalls.

And I think one aspect is that we are all-consuming — as you mentioned — much, much more information in different ways than ever before, and doing this a significant amount of the time on social media platforms that are built for quick reaction and engagement, which I think affects how we interact with things and how quickly and maybe carelessly we share them.

Extremists of all kinds are now better networked and more influential

I feel like the amount of disinformation — meaning deliberately false, something that was shared with the purpose of deceiving or misleading people — is also more prevalent. Do you think that that is a bigger, more dangerous issue, or do you think that that’s just fearmongering or hype?

No, I think it’s absolutely more prevalent and sophisticated and dangerous. Folks who create and spread disinformation are really more organized and networked. I think that’s a point that often gets overlooked, it’s a point that Joan Donovan, the disinformation researcher at Harvard, makes quite a bit.

And so the internet isn’t just great at helping people build robust niche communities interested in cats or specific kinds of exercise or video games, it’s also a powerful organizing tool for white supremacists and neo-Nazis and other extremist groups who use those, and other bad actors who are intent on spreading disinformation.

They’ve been really adept at using the internet to build community and influence, and also to try to mainstream their ideas, including hate, as just another “idea” that people should consider as they move across the internet.

The internet has had this democratizing influence, and I think people online browse with that in mind, thinking, “I’m in charge, I’m free to consider anything I want.”

And there are some really bad, nefarious actors out there, looking to exploit that, to say, “I’ve got an idea for you to consider,” and they may baby-step people into some really extreme views.

In fact, that’s what they call red-pilling online: they try to slowly introduce people to these extreme ideas, and they also target specific communities that they think would be open to those ideas.

So, we’ve seen white supremacists target disaffected teens on video game discord surveys, or anti-vaccination activists targeting people in wellness and natural health communities on Facebook. QAnon believers trying to seed the narrative fragments of their belief system and groups concerned with child safety.

Or, more recently, political extremists and white nationalists and neo-Nazis trying to target conservatives that are leaving mainstream social media platforms for places like Parlor, and then when they left Parler to Gab and other places, there were a group of people there, waiting for them to target them.

How hate groups and conspiracy theorists have leveraged our polarization 

I know that your organization is non-partisan, and so I wonder what you would say to someone who is thinking, “Well, there are bad actors on the left. There’s also bias coming from the left, extremists, radicals on the left, and they are equally dangerous.” What would you say to that?

Obviously, there are all kinds of radicalism and extremism.

I think far-right extremism, right now, poses a far greater problem. I would separate that from mainstream conservatism, and NOT think of those things together.

I think the great success of the QAnon belief system was that its adherence managed to get enough mainstream conservatives to embrace their ideas and iconography and slogans.

This was partly out of just an enthusiasm for former President Trump, and that they were able to infuse the national conversation with this mass delusion. I mean you saw that in physical form at the Capitol, on January 6th.

So, I think this begs for us, as educators, to help students understand that the national conversation and our political conversation doesn’t exist on some kind of pristine, static left/right spectrum … that people are actively trying to pull the national conversation right or pull the national conversation left. If they’re activists or partisans, they’re trying to get people to pay attention to a particular issue, often with noble intentions. And bad actors are also trying to do the same thing.

And so it’s very important for us, as a nation, to decide what are subjects of legitimate debate, what ideas worthy of conversation and consideration, what kinds of things can we have disagreements about, and what kinds of things are closed questions, what kinds of things fall outside of the bounds.

What extremist groups try to do is drag the national conversation to the point where their ideas are no longer outside of consideration, but they become things that people consider, and so I think it’s important we prepare students for that.

Download this infographic from NewsLit here

Why objectivity does not mean staying neutral

I always really encourage folks to think about so-called objectivity or objectivity of process as different than actually being neutral. And I think that’s where a lot of news outlets have damaged their credibility and actually gotten into trouble when they cater to perceptions of partisanship instead of being truly fair and accurate to the issues.

And I think news outlets, lately, have done a better job of that, but certainly, you don’t want to remain neutral on a question like whether vaccines work or whether climate change is real and is being caused by human behavior. The objective view of climate change is that it is a dire threat to the planet and is being caused by human behavior.

I think it’s important to disconnect this idea that neutrality and the absence of bias are the same thing, because in some cases, being neutral IS a kind of bias on questions where there is overwhelming evidence that something is true.

It’s interesting to think about something like climate change as an objective fact, when so many people have framed it as, “Well, that’s subjective; some people believe in it, some people don’t.” That’s such an interesting shift in our culture, where I feel like we used to all be dealing with the same facts, but we would have different interpretations of those facts or different ideas of how to respond to those facts.

Now, I feel like we’re actually dealing with alternative facts, like there’s one set of actual evidence and research and experts who have dedicated their lives to the study of these kinds of things, and then presenting us with those facts, and other people saying, “I just reject the facts.”

I think that’s exactly right. Just because a large number of people are saying that climate change might be overblown or isn’t really happening doesn’t count as evidence for that position.

It’s the product, I think, of people indulging their own biases when they look at news and information, ensconcing themselves in partisan echo chambers, listening to pundits who assure them that an inaccurate view is actually well-founded, when it’s not. So, I think that’s a huge issue.

Deciding what is news-worthy (“How come the media’s not talking about this?”) 

Another aspect of that that is really fascinating to me is how we decide what is newsworthy. My parents are pretty much opposite on the political spectrum of me. Their whole world view is just completely different from mine.

That’s been a big challenge, and I think a lot of people are dealing with that in their families: they have family members who feel and believe the opposite of them, or very, very differently from them on a spectrum.

And, often, when we try to have conversations — and we do try to have conversations from time to time — I’ll say to my dad, “What do you think about this?” And he’s like, “What are you talking about? I have no idea.” He’s not heard anything about it.

And in my news sources, that same incident is a huge scandal, and I’m like, how did my father not know about this? And then he’ll say, “But what about this?” And I’ll be like, “I’m not familiar, I don’t know. I haven’t heard that at all.”

It’s very jarring to think that something that he’s hearing about just constantly on the news every single day — for example, about Hunter Biden’s laptop — and the rest of the media is not covering it.

Yeah. I think that is a huge issue and it reflects the polarization that we touched on before. And, again, I think this is not a problem exclusively on the right, but the right and the far-right have evolved a more insular media ecosystem than the left and far-left.

That kind of insularity is something I’ve experienced with family members as well. There’s this huge story that a family member will tell me about. And I’ll ask, “How do you know about this?” Because, obviously, I look at a lot of news, every day.

But it’s a very limited number of outlets that are trying to push a story into the national consciousness.

The Hunter Biden laptop story, if you really looked at it, fell apart pretty quickly, to the point where some of the folks who originally looked into it at The Wall Street Journal, for example, and even at The New York Post (which is one of the standards-based, legitimate papers to publish about it), didn’t want their byline on the reporting, because they felt like it was not substantiated. They didn’t really have the story completely verified, and there were lots of holes and a huge potential that this was a partisan hit job, that this was a contrived attempted October surprise in the election.

The difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory

Can you talk about the difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory, and what kinds of things we need to watch out for if we’re trying to be smart consumers of information?

Yes. I think, first of all, having some humility in terms of our vulnerabilities to conspiracy theories. I think people often look down on believers of conspiracy theories and think that they don’t have any conspiratorial beliefs, and I would challenge that. I mean there are a lot of people who think that there was a cabal behind the JFK assassination, for example.

So, there are some very mainstream conspiratorial impulses that everybody, I think, is vulnerable to, and so they should not think that they are immune, first of all, and recognize that. And then, second, to really recognize some of the key characteristics, as you point out.

The conspiracy theories have plots that are really big and complex, they involved a large number of people or multiple organizations, and they also evolve and adapt — they’re self-sealing, they explain away inconsistent details, and they sprawl to incorporate all kinds of other conspiratorial themes and tropes and entities.

But real conspiracies generally involve a very limited number of entities or people, small groups of people who manage to keep things pretty much completely under wraps for a limited amount of time, and they have much simpler mechanics. So, they’re generally secret, they’re not things that people are talking or speculating about, they’re not things that produce theories because no one knows about them until, suddenly, everybody knows about them because something gets leaked or something gets exposed, and then everyone knows. So, that’s one of the big differences.

Some other things to watch out for then are not just elaborate plots that weave together all kinds of themes and characters, but especially plots and ideas that drive really strong emotions. I mean QAnon used this notion of child trafficking and abuse to really harness people, loop them in. I mean who is going to say, “No, I’m not going to listen, I’m not concerned about that”? So, this kind of emotional manipulation.

And then also thinking about why conspiracy theories appeal to people, how they can seem so compelling.

Conspiracy theories actually serve people’s natural emotional and psychological needs in many ways, their need to make sense of the world, their need for a simple explanation, for a simple good/bad understanding of some difficult complex realities, the need for community.

So, if we can help folks recognize why conspiracy theories appeal to people and some of these key traits, I think we can help people avoid falling down those rabbit holes.

Conspiracy or conspiracy theory?

See if you can tell the difference — take the quiz from NewsLit here.

Intellectual humility and not demonizing everyone on the “other side”

I really like what you said about having humility about this and recognizing that probably all of us, at one time or another, have fallen for a conspiracy theory or believed something that wasn’t true.

Humility is such a core value for me to strive for. I think the world would be a much better place if we could all get much more comfortable with saying, “I don’t know everything, and there is a possibility that I could be wrong. Maybe I have a piece of the truth and someone else has another piece of the truth.”

I just look back on my life and my own learning, I am a different person than I was 10 years ago, I believe different things now than I did 10 years ago and 10 years before that.

And I think that is the hallmark of being a good citizen is having enough of an open mind to be listening to different information, to sit with the cognitive dissonance, to sit with the discomfort of hearing something that contradicts what you previously thought, considering it, weighing it, and just realizing none of us, individually, have a monopoly on truth.

None of us know it all, and I think that perspective has helped me soften things a little bit, too. Because it’s very easy to demonize the “other side,” and say “These people are evil.” I’ve heard the right say that about the left, the left has said that about the right: “They’re evil, and they’re going to destroy the country.”

And all that rhetoric — I fall into it, certainly, I certainly fall into it sometimes, because we care about our country, all of us care about our country. We just have very different visions of what it should look like and what the world should look like.

I think having that humility of remembering that none of us have it ALL exactly right is very helpful for me, personally, in navigating some of this stuff, and not keeping the tension on this rolling boil all the time, where we’re ready to rage at each other.

Completely, I agree. I think intellectual humility is extremely important.

Looking for disconfirming evidence of our own beliefs

I think one way we can make intellectual humility real for students is to teach them to look for disconfirming evidence: to be aware of their own biases, to be aware of how they’re feeling about something, especially to be aware when they strongly want something to be true.

And then to not only pause, but to look for disconfirming evidence. Look for reasons why you could be wrong in your perception, and to reexamine things that you’re sure about.

Their views on climate change, for example. We talked about that being overwhelmingly supported by the science: the view that climate change is happening and that it’s a real threat.

But, to continually revisit that issue and to approach it with humility and make sure that you understand the science and that you understand the research that’s been done lately, and really try to understand folks who disagree with you is an important step.

Having open conversations offline with folks who think differently

It’s important not to demonize folks and, as you mentioned, flatten people into caricatures of people who don’t get it, who aren’t trying, or who have evil intentions. I think that’s extremely harmful.

Yes. And having those one-on-one conversations, for me, is really important. I’ve gone through phases where I feel like I just can’t. After the 2016 election was a really hard time, for example. My parents and I–I’ll just go back to that conversation because I don’t think they would have any problem with me talking about this, they know we have different perspectives, and it’s fascinating to love a person who feels so differently than you and believes so differently than you.

I know that my parents see me as someone really very smart, and they respect the way that I think, and I respect a lot of the things that they think. We have a lot of things in common and we have lots of ways that we can spend time together. And remembering that seems to be so, so important because then you think the “other side” can’t all be terrible people, right? Because there are these people that I love on “that side.”

And I remember — I wish I could think of her name — but I was listening to a journalist who was covering The Troubles, as they call it, in Northern Ireland, and the conflict over there for so many years, and she was saying that that tension still exists, and a lot of what they’ve had to do is just change the subject, to remember that we’re all humans.

We can’t just be continually talking and thinking about the things that we disagree on, even though those are very serious things. We’re not disagreeing about pizza toppings: these are huge disagreements that impact people’s safety and wellbeing, and some folks have very harmful beliefs.

But if we’re only focusing on that all the time, then there’s just going to be this constant rage, violence, misunderstanding, and we miss the chance to … I don’t want to say the word “unify” … but we do have to share this country. We do have to all live in it together, somehow. And that burdens me a lot. I think about that a lot.

Yes. I think, also, that online culture and communication dynamics play a role there, as well. People say and do things online they would never say and do in person, and that has caused escalating rhetoric and a flattening caricaturing of people who disagree with you.

And I think it’s also easy — because we live in such a time that’s focused on a left/right partisanship — to forget that people are more complex than that. Even a staunch conservative has views that are more conservative on some issues and more progressive on others, and they might have some inconsistencies about some things. There are points where their views depart from what people might consider to be an orthodox conservative.

And the same thing with liberals, that some people are more liberal on some issues than others. And that’s easy to forget online, especially with quick comments and people trying to score insults and give their hot takes.

So sitting down together — you’re right, there’s no replacement for sitting down and actually talking to people, and I think it’s a great reminder that people need to do that.

Download this free poster/image for students from NewsLit.org

And I do want to clarify, for anyone listening, if you’re a person of color or you’re part of a marginalized group, I’m not saying that you have a responsibility to sit down and talk to or educate people who are harming you. I’m speaking from my own position here; that’s why I’m choosing to use a specific example of me and my parents because I know that everyone’s situation is different.

But I can say, in my personal situation, what I have decided to do is not engage with that kind of stuff online. Years ago, I muted or unfollowed people who were posting stuff that just made me want to rage on them in the comments.

And what I will do from time to time is I will look at their page, and then I’ll have a conversation the next time that I see them, or we’ll have a phone call. Sometimes, I will call them up and be like, “Hey, I saw this thing on your page, and I wanted to talk to you about it. It looked like maybe you were saying this, and I wanted to give you a chance to share a little bit more about what you were thinking.”

Then we can have that conversation offline. And it’s also private, because when you do it on someone’s social media profile, there’s an audience, and that changes the interaction. You don’t know who these other people are. On Facebook, folks might be friends with all kinds of random people; someone in the thread might be someone they went to high school with, neighbors, and so on. I don’t know these folks.

So it’s just not productive for me to engage there with this audience of strangers who may have bad intent or derail the conversation. But I have not given up on having those conversations offline, and I feel like, a lot of times, it’s more effective.

I think you’re absolutely right to make that point, and it hearkens back to earlier in our conversation when we were talking about the parameters of acceptable discourse or acceptable legitimate debate.

White supremacist ideas or hateful ideologies and questioning people’s humanity fall well outside the bounds of acceptable debate, and that’s something where we need to draw those parameters starkly. We need to draw those boundaries pretty starkly, and cannot allow the setting of those parameters itself to become the subject of debate or, rather, a partisan exercise.

And people will say, “If you draw the line here at acceptable debate, you’re being partisan,” and that’s a ploy, I think, that extremists use to try to make sure that they can get their views considered by the mainstream national conversation.

It’s a really dangerous dynamic that we’re seeing play out now, that that boundary needs to be redrawn right now.

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What does it mean to “do your own research”?

Let’s circle back to what you were saying earlier about looking for evidence for what you believe and looking for counter-evidence–looking for a different viewpoint, looking for a possibility that you were wrong.

I want to talk a bit about fact-checking, because one phase that I see circulating around a lot these days is “do your research,” and I see people use that phrase to prop up really horrible things and lies. I see conspiracy theorists use that phrase, like, “Just do your research and you’ll uncover the truth.”

There’s an implication that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear or everything you read, but you should work to uncover the truth for yourself. And that sounds great, but when you’re pointing people toward other conspiracy theorists as reference points for research, it can be so dangerous.

And I think often, people who are trying to “do their own research,” are just watching one YouTube video, or they’re spending two minutes on Google.

So, when we talk about doing the research — finding the truth for yourself, examining different viewpoints — what would you suggest to people who want to do their own research in a way that is actually grounded in truth and real evidence?

That’s a great question and a great problem to highlight. And this has become so common, it’s itself a joke on the internet, “Do your own research.”

I think the mistake people make is a failure to differentiate between different kinds of information and the quality of information that they’re looking at. Too often, when people say, “Do your own research,” and they’re embracing a conspiracy theory or an inaccurate or dangerous view.

For example, the unfounded, baseless idea that the 2020 election was somehow stolen, we saw, was actually a dangerous idea. We saw that in the Capitol on January 6th. It’s dangerous for democracy in the United States.

And so I think what people, too often, mean when they say, “Do your own research” is, “Go find the rabbit hole that I found. There’s stuff out there that says this,” and that doesn’t count as research. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to find actual credible information and evidence.

So, to remember that not all information is created equal, that these kinds of rabbit holes and anonymous speculation, anonymous video footage posted somewhere, or a meme, is not on equal footing with legitimate standards-based journalism or scientific or academic research that is standards-based or peer-reviewed.

Overcoming cynicism and relentlessly pursuing truth 

People need to really look for actual strong evidence, and to really overcome, I think, a lot of the cynicism that’s out there about institutions.

I think a lot of the disinformation about COVID and Coronavirus has taken hold because people are cynical about pharmaceutical companies, for example. Sometimes, there are seeds of truth there, and especially in some communities that have been disserved by these institutions more than others.

But, at other times, people are just being recklessly cynical about the government and  “the media,” and I think we need to move past that–past this idea that all institutions are always engaging in some kind of tactical, agenda-driven behavior that is designed to manipulate us in some way. I think that opens people up to this kind of rabbit-hole research that we talked about earlier.

Yeah, I agree. And I think it causes people to give up on pursuing truth.

So many times, I hear people say things like, “Well, I guess we’ll never really know the truth,” and I’m like, “No, we actually have quite a bit of evidence for this thing. We do know the truth.”

Questioning what we hear–that’s right, that’s necessary. No source should be above questioning. But we do have actual experts in their fields, and their statements, I think, should hold more weight. These are people who have dedicated their lives to understanding science or history and those kinds of topics.

And I think about how every teacher knows what it’s like to have a parent who watched this one YouTube video or read this one article, and now they know better than the teacher. The teacher has six years of formal schooling, 15 years of teaching experience, poured through all these books and PD trainings, and works daily to deepen their teaching practice, but this parent read this single article from a Facebook feed and counters all of that with, “No, I know how to teach better than you.”

So, educators know what this feels like, and I think we have to be really careful not to do that to other people.

I feel like it’s important to not give up on trying to discern truths or respect people who are experts in their field, and to link together different experts and try to put together evidence in a way that is not anti-institution, if that makes sense.

These organizations that we have exist for a reason, they are credible for a reason, and I think they should weigh a little bit more in our minds, just like a teacher with formal degrees and experience and training knows a bit more about teaching than the average person who does not.

Yeah, absolutely. I think you highlighted one very important point here, which is the notion of giving up on being able to know what’s true. That is actually one very common goal of some disinformation actors.

Russia, for example, is very good at this. They don’t need to convince you that they’re not responsible for human rights abuses in Syria, for example; they just want to make you give up on the idea that you can ever definitively know.

So, they spread enough fog that people give up. And there’s a great book by Peter Pomerantsev, calling Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, talking about this particular tactic out of Russia, and how involved in those efforts Vladimir Putin has been since his days in Russian intelligence.

So, convincing people with, “Who knows? Who could possibly know the truth about this? I have my view; you have yours, and we’ll agree to disagree” can be deeply not just counterproductive, but dangerous.

How social media and search engine algorithms shape our thinking about what’s true

How does social media play into all this? I’m thinking about Google and other internet search engines, as well, because I think some folks don’t realize that your search engine knows your web history, and your search engine shows you articles and sources that align with things that you’ve already taken an interest in.

If I were to Google, let’s say, vaccines, I would probably get completely different articles than you or someone else, and certainly different articles than a person who has clicked on a lot of anti-vaccine videos or resources in the past.

So, given that we know that the algorithms feed us more resources like the things we’re interested in, what do we need to understand about what we’re seeing appear in our feeds and in our search engine results?

Yeah, it’s super important. I think educators have long known and tried to help students understand that algorithms aren’t always great measures of credibility or aren’t always great at determining that so that the top result for a given search isn’t necessarily the most credible, and even the top page or the first page of results, often.

And, really, I think it’s vital to help students understand how algorithms work. Yes, young people are so-called digital natives, I think a lot of educators feels like their students get or understand technology better than they do sometimes, or know how to use it more efficiently or adeptly, but they often don’t, I think, understand the dynamics that drive that technology.

So, students are very good at using social media, but they’re not very good at understanding it, and why would they be? Because we have to teach them how that data is being used — why Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat or TikTok are free, and what they want you to do, why engagement is so important, why time on platform translates into dollars, and how that data is being used.

How Facebook uses what you post to parse you out into micro-targeting audiences that they can sell to advertisers in a very compelling way to talk about this. And it’s not something I think, on the whole, that users of social media — whether adults or teens — really truly understand. They don’t know about the role that algorithms play in that, on social media: that they’re prioritizing engagement over other things.

A number of platforms have been called to account for this over the last several years, especially YouTube algorithms, for example, in the way they suggest the next video. I think everyone listening has fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole, where they just keep letting the algorithm serve them something awesome that keeps them watching. Everybody has their own thing they’re interested in, and the algorithm learns what keeps you on the platform.

The algorithm learns when you watch an entire video, it learns from videos you watch over and over again, it learns from things that you start to watch and quickly stop. And so its goal in keeping you on the platform can be great and entertaining, and YouTube gets to serve more and more ads — that’s the point — but it can also go very wrong.

So, if you start watching a video about airlines, and you get suggested a video about pollution, and then you get suggested a video from a conspiracy community about chem trails, and if you watch that, you might get suggested other conspiratorial videos and, very quickly, go down a rabbit hole. People have also documented algorithms driving people into more and more radical or polarized views.

So, that polarization we talked about earlier is, in part driven by this, that algorithms are serving us information in ways that often lead us to be more extreme, hold more extreme views, or hold more polarized views than we otherwise might.

And, finally, I think people also really need to understand the way that mobile technology is being used. Google collects information on us in so many ways. If you have an Android phone, it also understands where you tend to travel and what you tend to watch on YouTube, and keywords in emails that you receive on Gmail.

So, the cross-platform collapse of that data and how powerful that picture and how sharp that picture can be is something we all need to think really carefully about, and then the role that governments can or should play in regulating that is a really key conversation for the next generation.

How educators can ensure they’re relying on and sharing accurate info

Yeah, I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about that, for sure. What are some practical steps that educators who are listening to this can do to make sure that they are relying on and sharing good sources of information?

One thing I always say to educators and students is to remember that trustworthy information doesn’t actually ask you to trust it; it shows you why you should.

Whether it’s a piece of quality journalism or a fact-check, they’re telling you not just what they know, but how they know it, so they’re sourcing information in a very clear, transparent way.

And that’s something, I think, people tend to lose sight of. If you’ve ever seen somebody dismiss a whole source of information without really looking at the link, they’re not really engaging with the process, with the methodology that produced that information. And if you really look at it, you don’t have to trust Snopes or you don’t have to trust The New York Times for what’s in that piece. If you drill down, you can see exactly how they know what they know.

The second thing, I think, is for people to just realize that if they’re having a strong emotional reaction — if they feel themselves leaning into a piece of information that might be baseless — to pause, and take stock of their emotions. If it’s a headline they’re reacting to, actually click and look at the piece to see if it’s really what it seems to be from the headline, and then to really analyze the evidence. And if they have time, do a quick Google search, or maybe check the comments under the piece to see if it’s been drawn into question.

Quiz: Should you share it?

Can you tell the difference between social media posts that are false or misleading and those that are credible?

Test your news literacy fitness with this quiz, and exercise your right to be well-informed.

The Sift: a free weekly fact-checking and rumor-debunking for educators

Well, Peter, obviously this conversation just scratches the surface, and things are always changing in the news cycle. So, one action step that I would like to give to everyone listening is to sign up for the free newsletter that you co-write. It’s called The Sift, and I think it’s a really valuable tool for educators. Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of resources people can expect from The Sift?

Yeah, sure. My colleagues and I write The Sift and put it out every Monday, and it’s a rundown of what happened the week before that you can use in the classroom, the following week, to teach news literacy.

So, it is a distillation of the most news-literacy-relevant pieces of news and information that were published the previous week, and also we do a Viral Rumor Rundown every week of about four or five viral rumors that circulated the week before.

And under each of these items, we have ideas for discussion, for classroom activities, and sometimes links to resources.

We have a great new feature that my colleagues write, called News Goggles. My colleagues, Suzannah Gonzales and Hannah Covington, are both former reporters, and so they’ll take some reporter, sometimes it’s a coverage comparison, sometimes it’s a deep dive on one particular piece of journalism, and annotate it and really break it down with classroom-ready slides for teachers to use, and we also do some classroom-ready fact-checking or digital verification slides in the Viral Rumor Rundown.

To sign up for the weekly newsletter or read the archives, go to NewsLit.org.

We also have a great e-learning platform that’s entirely no cost. We’re a non-partisan education non-profit, called The Checkology Virtual Classroom, and we have now 14 lessons and a collection of supplemental exercises and challenges there that can help them teach students about some of the things we talked about, including the first amendment and a new lesson about conspiratorial thinking.

It’s primarily aimed at middle school and high school grades, but we do have some teachers in upper elementary adapt some of the more approachable lessons, and then folks even at the community college level and college level use the tool as well.

Download free news literacy posters/images for your students

Investing time in our own news literacy is one of the best things we can do for students

So, I like to close out every interview with a takeaway truth — something that is the most important idea that you want people to remember in the weeks ahead. What is something you wish every teacher understood about being smart, active consumers of news and information?

Well, I think, first of all, we owe it to our students to try to understand better ourselves and to help them in understanding. Students are inheriting the largest and most complex information landscape in human history, by many magnitudes. It’s not even close. And they didn’t build it. There are all sorts of things that are wonderful and make a lot of sense and do a lot of good, but there are a lot of perverse incentives and really damaging infrastructure and architecture and things that just don’t make sense.

And that’s on us, because it was built on our watch, and we owe it to students — because they’re inheriting this — to give them the skills and tools to navigate it successfully. This is really a matter of personal empowerment.

If students are easily misled, then that can be personally disempowering for them. They can be exploited, they can be misled, and make bad decisions in their lives.

So that’s something I always try to underscore for teachers:

News literacy isn’t a nice-to-have; this is something that we have to do ourselves, in terms of professional development, to prepare ourselves to teach students, because we really owe it to them. They have a right to this.

The News Literacy Project also has a podcast, called “Is That a Fact?”

It explores the question of how American democracy can survive the onslaught of misinformation that has infected our political discourse.

Big ideas/Recap

  • Today’s information landscape has provided an equal opportunity for both the truth and misinformation to spread.
  • Extremist groups try to drag the national conversation to the point where their ideas are no longer outside of consideration.
  • Being neutral is a kind of bias on questions where there is overwhelming evidence that something is true.
  • How people decide what’s newsworthy is an effect of polarization: it’s not a problem exclusively on the right, but the right and the far-right have evolved a more insular media ecosystem than the left and far-left.
  • Conspiracy theories have big and complex plots that are self-sealing and explain away inconsistent details. Real conspiracies generally involve a limited number of people who manage to keep things pretty much completely under wraps for a limited amount of time, and they have much simpler mechanics.
  • Conspiracy theories serve people’s natural emotional and psychological needs in many ways. If we can help people recognize why conspiracy theories are appealing, then we can help people avoid them.
  • One way to make intellectual humility real for students is to teach them to look for disconfirming evidence: to be aware of their own biases, to especially be aware when they strongly want something to be true.
  • Trustworthy information doesn’t actually ask you to trust it; it shows you why you should.
  • Do not give up on trying to discern truths: it’s important to link together different experts and put together evidence in a way that is not anti-institution.

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Angela Watson

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Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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