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Teaching students to scrutinize online fact from fiction

Anew Illinois law allows high schools to teach media literacy to students in all subjects. In case skeptics are tempted to portray this as some kind of underground conspiracy to indoctrinate kids, it’s exactly the opposite. There’s no agenda here other than to arm young people with better tools to distinguish fact from fiction and to be on the lookout for deliberate misinformation.

This is an age where computer programs can generate video or alter photographs to make it appear that something concocted digitally actually happened in real life. There are thousands of people out there who have nothing better to do with their lives than to make up stories disguised as actual news. Before anyone has a chance to debunk such social media postings, an item might have already gone viral by being shared and shared again. That’s how QAnon got started.

Today’s political context is rife with examples. But the manipulation of media for surreptitious goals goes way back to include the John F. Kennedy assassination, U.S. moon landings and even the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And because some people will believe anything, professional manipulators like Infowars’ Alex Jones gladly feed their conspiratorial appetites with nonsense, such as that the 2012 massacre of little kids at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut was faked and that grieving parents were just actors. Jones, at long last, faces multimillion-dollar court judgments for the harm he inflicted on the real parents of real Sandy Hook victims with his lies.

So why turn high school students into misinformation debunkers? Young people who heavily rely on their phones to consume social media and internet content are probably the biggest recirculators of bogus content. Some think they’re sharing something funny. Others take it seriously and want to alert others. Either way, misinformation postings that deserve to die in obscurity wind up going viral and being accepted by the gullible as fact.

“The idea is to teach about asking questions” about how such messages are constructed, Yonty Friesem, an associate professor of civic media at Columbia College in Chicago, told National Public Radio. “Who is behind it? What’s going on here? And how does it affect me and society? And what’s my role in how I’m using media?” Friesem helped write the new Illinois law.

Among the questions he wants kids to ask is: “How do you assess, like, the media effects on yourself but others to trigger emotions and behavior?” In other words, how are people trying to manipulate their audience to win acceptance of bogus postings and get them to take action by recirculating it?

This isn’t about censorship but rather teaching healthy scrutiny among the upcoming generation of news consumers. More states should consider such laws to fight back against the Alex Joneses of the world.

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