Fake news spurs call for media literacy lessons in schools

Fake news spurs call for media literacy lessons in schools

(Calif.) The recent alarm over the potential spread of fake news has prompted two California lawmakers to call for media literacy education in schools, as evidence shows that many children and some adults are largely unable to distinguish between fact and fiction online.

Both bills introduced this month–one in the State Senate and the other in the Assembly–call for the development of media literacy curriculum and ‘civic online reasoning’ to be integrated either into the social sciences, or across multiple subject areas.

That’s a very good idea, said Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media, who has issued clarion calls about misleading internet news for years.

“The reason fake news is on the agenda right now has to do with the 2016 presidential election, but it’s also the case that the rise of the Internet and online media, and the droves of people getting their news from Facebook, has made it easier for fake news to go viral and reach wide audiences,” Hobbs said in an interview. “These bills recognize that, as a society, we need to confront questions of the moral obligations and ethical standards about the messages that circulate in our culture today, and I think that is actually the kind of learning experience that students are hungry for. How do they decide what to believe in this really crowded digital landscape?”

During the final three months of the 2016 presidential campaign, reader engagement with false and misleading stories from hoax websites outperformed actual news stories on social media, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis. Twenty top-performing false election stories from hoax websites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 1 million more shares, reactions and comments on social media than the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news outlets.

A recent Stanford University study of almost 8,000 students in 12 states found that 80 percent of middle school students tested did not understand that “sponsored content” on a news organization’s website is paid advertising; fewer than 20 percent of high school students understood that looking at one photo online is not enough research to know if something is factual; and 93 percent of college students failed to flag a lobbyist’s website as a biased source of information.

And on social media, students may have even fewer contextual clues to help critically evaluate messages, Hobbes said. It is often difficult to even identify who the author is and the purpose of the message because so much of what one encounters online is decontextualized from its original source–including memes, quotes or standalone photos.

The troubling statistics found by Stanford researchers were one of the reasons state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, authored SB 135. In a press release, Dodd expressed concern that adolescents can spend up to nine hours each day absorbing information from a websites, social media, television and radio, without the skills to analyze and evaluate what they see or hear.

Under his bill, the State Board of Education would be required to include media literacy–defined in part as the ability to synthesize, analyze and produce mediated messages–in the next revision of instructional materials and curriculum frameworks in K-12 social sciences. Professional development must also be made available to teachers.

A separate bill, authored by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, would require the Instructional Quality Commission to develop revised curriculum standards and frameworks for English language arts, mathematics, history-social science and science that incorporate civic online reasoning in order to ensure students are able to distinguish between real news and fake news.

Hobbs, who has advocated for improved media literacy education since 2010, said she hopes these bills are able to gain traction in California and serve as an example to other states, as she said both bills are better than many across the country that appeared to be hastily written.

She said many young people today are idealistic and optimistic about the future, but struggle to developed informed opinions in a culture where even adults find it difficult to distinguish between fact, fiction and advertisements.

“There are the value messages from celebrity culture that say ‘the more attention you get the better,’ and we all recognize some of the unintended consequences of a culture where everybody seems to be selling something, or pitching something, and is always trying to grab your attention,” Hobbs explained. “There are consequences, and truth may be one of them in this hyper-attention-grasping society.”