Stanford University recently published a study of middle school to college age students with some shocking findings. As the authors noted, large swaths of students were unable to distinguish credible news sources from fake and sponsored news sources online. The study, given to students in twelve states and from schools of varying affluence, goes in depth to detail some of the astonishingly poor reasoning the kids use in asserting that highly questionable sources like sponsored ads, tweets from interest groups, and even photos with absolutely no attribution are credible and therefore fit to be used in forming opinions.
In recent months, fake news has been treated in the media as a new issue suddenly bubbling up from the dark underbelly of the internet. While I reject the idea that it is a new concept, I do believe that it has grown in volume and in resemblance to actual news with the advent of the internet, and more specifically, social media. Social media is something of a wild frontier; it has existed just long enough for people to become wise to its power, but it hasn’t been around long enough for government to get too involved in it. Online, everyone can play the demagogue. What we say garners the attention of our followers. The more radical our statements, the more attention (good and bad) we get, and the more attention we get, the more visibility our posts earn. To add to this, we can say virtually whatever we want. No one filters us, or forces us to support our claims. We are allowed to speak our minds in the form of social media posts, blogs, and personal websites, and we’re free to give these posts as much visible similarity to actual news as we want.
And people should be able to do that. All of it. I’ll admit, I signed that Change.org petition to get Mark Zuckerberg to take action against fake news on Facebook. I also immediately regretted it. When a nation elects a demagogue thanks, in part, to misinformation, there is a problem to address. However, we must be cautious in how we address it. Simply not allowing less than truthful claims to become public is a form of censorship, which is an idea that should not be turned to in haste or panic. I believe we need to look elsewhere for a solution, which is where Stanford’s recent study comes in.
The students who participated in the study are just as susceptible to fake news and post-truthism as adults, if not more so. The difference is students are more malleable than adults. Their world view is still forming. While the adults in their lives will no doubt play a large part in the formation of their opinions, they have less rigid schema at stake than a 40 year old die-hard republican or democrat. Students who are unable to tell the difference between real and fake news represent a clear deficiency in our curriculum, but also our brightest hope to correct this issue.
I teach 7th grade English in upstate New York, so upon reading about Standford’s study, I pored over the Common Core Learning Standards to see what they said on the topic. I had some vague memory of bias being mentioned in the standards, and I was certain I’d discover that there are standards devoted to preventing the bleak scenario described by the Stanford researchers. What I discovered did less to ease my concern than I’d hoped.
I found two seventh grade standards which, when taken together, serve to bolster students’ defenses against misleading articles. Informational Text Standard 8 requires kids to “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.” A teacher who addresses this standard thoroughly might teach his or her kids to discredit articles based on a lack of substantial evidence for its claims. However, through this process, the students are never taught to consider the agenda or allegiances of the online source from which the article comes. Standard 9 asks that students “Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.” This can be used to detect bias in an article, which is important, but again, does not require that students evaluate the credibility of the larger source. Dismayed, I expanded my search to include all informational reading standards for grades 6-12, and discovered that while standards on evaluating arguments based on reason grow in rigor across the years, the same lack of source consideration remains. Furthermore, these standards do nothing to combat the larger issue of fake news, which is the fabrication and gross recontextualization of events which are then presented as facts in order to induce a visceral reaction. When you make up facts, it’s easy to use perfectly fine logic to come to any conclusion you wish.
I considered the idea that the standards I sought might appear elsewhere in the NYS curriculum, so I turned to the standards for Social Studies. At the 7th grade level, the Social Studies standards don’t even mention the internet as a medium for receiving information, focusing entirely on historical content. I am willing to entertain the idea that these standards exist somewhere, but if it’s a struggle even to locate them, I can’t imagine they are taught well in our schools. I encourage anyone who can locate standards relating to this issue in any content area to contact me.
In short, there is a gigantic, gaping hole in the Common Core Learning Standards where students should be taught to consider their sources, particularly digital ones. The standards stop just short of this, helping students to dispel individual arguments (provided that they suffer flaws in logic and reasoning), but not the publications they come from. This deficit is almost certainly a reflection of who wrote the standards: people who did not grow up with the internet, and thus did not entirely realize its alluring pull to impulsive, wild thinking. Thus, I am calling on my fellow teachers to redouble our efforts on this issue. We need to teach our students how to evaluate their sources, and we need to teach it this academic year. The next four years have the potential to wreak havoc on our world socially and environmentally. We must do all we can to ensure our youth are equipped to handle the sea of information that will make up their daily lives if we are to fight for our continued prosperity and well being.
I implore lawmakers to work as quickly as possible to prepare students for the future in this respect. Federal lawmakers should continue to push for nationwide curriculum to address this issue. In the event that federal measures fail, state legislators should ensure they are ready to pick up the slack. In New York, standards are currently under revision. Plans to present the new standards to the Board of Regents are set for early 2017, at which time there may be time for public comment, according to NYSED.gov. At that time, I encourage everyone to voice concerns over this lapse, which the proposed revisions still fail to address.
In my admittedly short career as an educator, never before has the answer to the age old question, “Why do I need to know this?” been so urgent and tangible. Why? Because look at the news, that’s why. These events serve as a sobering reminder why quality public education is the foundation of a healthy democracy. We cannot afford to let our educational institutions trail behind the times so severely. Teachers, administrators, and lawmakers: the time to look ahead is now.