Ideas

Ideas | Bernhard Warner

Teenagers are our best hope in fighting fake news

Viral images like these ricochet around the Internet, kept in circulation by people who often don’t know they are fake.
Randy Pollak for The Boston Globe
Viral images like these ricochet around the Internet, kept in circulation by people who often don’t know they are fake.

Massimo Alvisi teaches middle school in Latina, 35 miles southeast of Rome. His seventh graders, like most Italian 12-year-olds, can pick off a map Italy’s principal mountains, rivers, and seas. In history, they learn about the Middle Ages. In literature, they’re reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Since the start of the school year, his students at the Istituto Comprensivo Alessandro Volta — a public school named for the 18th-century Italian physicist who invented the electric battery — grapple with a subject creeping into curriculums in schools from Wellesley, Mass., to the Mediterranean heartland: the dark art of online deception.

It’s a lively class. On a Tuesday morning in mid-December, the desks are pulled together to form four hexagonal islands, a formation that reinforces collaboration and cross-chatter. Laptop computers are open. There are no textbooks on the desks. (Mobile phones, too, are off-limits). Alvisi stands at the head of the classroom and swipes at a massive touch-screen monitor. It prominently displays last night’s homework assignment. He critiques the work by name as he goes. His pupils, using a piece of freeware, have doctored James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic 1917 US Army recruitment poster, superimposing their own likeness — mostly with comic effect — onto the head of Uncle Sam. The point of the exercise isn’t to show off their design chops, or induce a few chuckles. It’s to learn by doing — to spot a fake by making one.

A student, Lorenzo Pazienza, raises his hand and explains. “With just a little effort, you can alter most any image you find on the Internet,” he says. After momentarily conferring with a student seated to his left, he adds, “a lot of stuff you see online can’t be trusted.”

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Alvisi’s students analyze all kinds of online content — the typical videos, images, articles, and posts that pass as newsy or noteworthy on our Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube feeds — to determine whether it’s to be trusted. On this day, the students repeatedly catch the phonies, including a somewhat famously doctored image that for years tripped up netizens with far more schooling. It’s a photo depicting a shark attacking a low-flying helicopter, which had once falsely been touted as National Geographic’s “Photo of the Year.” Using reverse-image searching techniques, Alvisi’s class could tell it’s fishy. They shout in near-unison that it’s in fact two images Photoshopped into a single scene. The myth-busters at Snopes.com concur. “I advise them to examine everything they encounter, online and off,” Alvisi explains. “They should always be asking themselves: ‘is it real or is it fake?’ If it’s fake, leave it alone. Sharing it will only give it more life.”

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“They’re getting pretty good at it,” he adds. “Much better than their parents, even.” Minutes later, a student with a bright smile and long dark hair pulled back in a braid, corroborates this. “My mom never gives much thought to what she sees online,” she volunteers. “She shares everything.”

Alvisi’s class is an experimental course, one of Italy’s first, designed to teach school children how to spot “bufale” — Italian for “fake news” — on social media channels.

The course stresses digital media literacy and critical thinking — that is, the idea that students should make their own educated judgments about the information before them. In the coming months, what Alvisi teaches will become part of the national curriculum for more than 4.2 million Italian middle and high school students. Similar courses are popping up across Europe, Asia, and the United States, where students dissect online content to determine its authenticity. According to Media Literacy Now, 11 US states, including Massachusetts, have passed or are considering legislation to add media literacy classes to school curricula. In classes like Alvisi’s, the students are graded on how well they can spot and debunk conspiracy theories, unmask propagandists, flag dodgy sources of information, and, when possible, set the record straight. In Italy, students will learn the “Ten Commandments” to combat the spread of fakes, a list that includes such dictates as: “only share news that’s verified as true” and “always check the source.”

If nothing else, it should get kids to think twice about turning in a term paper that cites Joe Blogs, climate expert. At best, though, Alvisi’s students will help the world stay a little healthier. Some advocates see fake news — junky Internet “stories” designed for virality, not accuracy — as an infectious disease and argue that kids should be inoculated against it. If this generation can become expert at snuffing out propaganda and shoddy spin, the thinking goes, then demagogues will have a harder time manipulating the truth. It will be our youngest and most idealistic who will lead us in a more factual debate about the future.

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In 2016, political news, accurate or otherwise, was the ultimate clickbait. According to a Pew Research study from December 2016, nearly nine out of 10 American adults admitted that fake news was messing with their understanding of “basic facts of current events.” A 2016 Stanford University study conducted in America’s schools was even more bleak, saying of students: “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

“When I saw that Stanford research,” Alvisi confided, “I knew we had to urgently bring this into the classroom.”

Since computers entered the classroom, we’ve continuously refined our views of which digital skills are essential for school children — from the push to teach BASIC programming a generation ago to the STEM movement’s emphasis on building and coding. Another mainstay has been the ABCs of the Internet. Educators and community leaders have viewed it as an essential public safety exercise, a way to protect youth from cyber bullies and predators. Safer Internet Day is an offshoot of this.

The imperative, though, has changed everywhere since the 2016 US presidential campaign, when opportunists and shadowy provocateurs flooded cyberspace with false clickbait. According to the human-rights group Freedom House, “manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate.” The classroom goal now is to groom a better educated citizenry who will in turn save the rest of us. From there, bigger pieces will fall into place. Disillusionment in our elected officials, at an all-time low, will begin to fade. The public trust in journalists, university professors, and scientists will be restored. In short, the Minecraft generation will become our last great hope in saving democracy and the values that underpin it.

Is that asking too much of these kids?

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“There are other solutions that could temporarily patch up the problem, but if you really want to tackle this long-term, education is key,” says Sanja Kelly, director of the annual “Freedom on the Net” report conducted by Freedom House. “I know, that sounds like a lot of pressure.”

That teens — and, in time, the rest of us — should emerge as front-line defenders of truth is the new reality simply because there really aren’t any better ideas. Kelly is highly critical, for example, of attempts to outlaw fake news from the net, as Germany is trying to do. Such heavy-handed approaches, she believes, will force companies to simply overcensor content to avoid fines. And after October’s congressional hearings, in which America’s favorite social media platforms shrugged off responsibility for a vast Russian disinformation campaign, who would put any faith in Silicon Valley to find a technical fix? It’s up to teachers like Alvisi and his students then to disarm the bot armies, mercenary trolls, and “sockpuppet” opinion shapers that sow confusion, dissent and distrust.

They are “frontline soldiers in a hardcore cultural war,” says Danah Boyd, the technologist, author, and researcher. If many of these guardians of truth are yet to go through puberty, well, so what?

Kyle Eichner teaches 7th grade social studies at Wellesley Middle School. Her pupils cover roughly 300 years of American history, from the Native Americans’ first encounters with European settlers through the forging of the US Constitution. The classroom discussion often veers toward whether and how present-day America reflects the past they’re learning about in history books. Their observations can land like a gut punch. Last year, when Eichner taught eighth-graders, a student drew connections between propaganda in Nazi Germany and some of Donald Trump’s more divisive statements, including the president’s campaign-trail claim that he saw Muslims “cheering as that building was coming down” on 9/11. Propaganda, the student concluded, “can be used to sway public opinion heavily. People can lie and get away with it and no one bats an eye.” Eichner shared the students’ work, anonymously, on Medium, illustrating how America’s youth make connections between the past and current events.

One way to get her students to connect the dots, she found, is through a free (for now) educational tool called the Checkology Virtual Classroom, developed by the Washington-based News Literacy Project. Eichner is one of 10,000 teachers around the world using the curriculum with a combined 1.5 million students. For some lessons, the online coursework requires the students to play the role of news editor and reporter. That is, before deciding on the news value of a piece of content, they first gather information independently, check its truthfulness, and validate the sources. Their editorial decisions are fairly rigorous. Fairness, balance, and objectivity are important. If there’s a slant, it can be touchingly compassionate. “They give me so much hope,” Eichner enthuses.

In Eichner’s class, the students even discuss issues that you’re just as likely to hear inside the gates of Harvard: topics like the power of source bias — that is, our tendency to refute information that contradicts our beliefs — plus, the outsized influence certain images have on our emotions, and how things go viral.

Catherine Griffin, a freshman history teacher at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Mass., also uses Checkology. They too dig into the viral nature of news; in particular, the power of filter bubbles. Recently in class they examined how algorithms often make our social media feeds a narrow stream of familiar voices. The effect can drive us to more extreme positions as the feed continuously reaffirms our opinions and reinforces our beliefs.

The students also develop strong vetting skills. Eichner rattles off a kind of checklist they’ve constructed to evaluate the trustworthiness of information found online: “Does it have an author? Is it recently published? If you check these links, are they real links? Do other sources have similar information, or is it totally out there? That’s where we start,” Eichner explains.

Griffin takes a similar approach. “I want them to be a little more guarded, to dig deeper,” she said. “Not to be skeptical, but guarded. For example, when they do research, they should research horizontally, not vertically. If they are only finding the information in one place, they should ask: ‘Is this really a credible source?’ My goal is to educate them to come away with these skills.”

Writing an effective digital literacy curriculum is a huge challenge. For starters, teens use the net to gather and share information in a vastly different way than their teachers. “They don’t care about Facebook,” says Griffin. They prefer Instagram and Snapchat. In Europe, it’s WhatsApp. In Asia, it’s something else. Video, for better or worse, is big everywhere.

“Ultimately, if you design these courses correctly, the kids will be able to confront crazy Uncle Bob that, no, stop, that’s a conspiracy YouTube video you’re referencing,” says Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, a non-profit based in The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, that works to fight the spread of digital disinformation. “We need to empower them to bring the skills they’re learning in the classroom to the dinner table.”

Wardle likens the spread of digital disinformation (she hates the phrase “fake news,” calling it “woefully inadequate to describe the problem we’re facing”) to a public health crisis. And the antidote, she says, should be modeled on how we’ve successfully fought off communicable disease outbreaks in the past. In order to stop a disinformation vector in its tracks, the thinking goes, you have to inoculate enough of society with adequate news literacy skills needed to identify the threat and discredit it, limiting its spread. As with vaccinations, you start with the young. In this case, the vaccine is a critical-thinking methodology that teaches them how to decipher the real from the fake. Individually, students build up an immunity to “stories” that are designed to gull them into propagating. Collectively, over time, there’s a return to a more enlightened, fact-filled discourse and less arguing over whose version of reality is correct. “We can do this,” Wardle says. “It’s all about how we frame the problem — saying, yes, there are people who are trying to sow disinformation and who are trying to influence us. It’s saying to people, we need to develop new skills so that we don’t get manipulated.”

Wardle acknowledges this won’t be an easy sell. Past efforts at teaching media criticism have shown promise in getting students to think about the origins and aims of media content. But it will take years to track whether education programs like the types Alvisi, Griffin, and Eichner deploy will have a lasting effect on whether people believe what they read. And then there’s the challenge of scaling it beyond middle and high school to those of us eligible to vote.

Still, there are signs that this movement has room for further growth. Digital media literacy is, or soon will be, part of the national education curriculum in a half-dozen European countries, including Italy, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Sweden. In America, it’s on the legislative agenda in red states (Texas) and the bluest (California). In March, Britain’s BBC will roll out across 1,000 schools a course to help students learn to spot fake news. And Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at the News Literacy Project, says teacher sign-ups for the checkology platform are booming. Trump and Brexit, it turns out, are great for business. His next big task: adapting Checkology for adults.

Bernhard Warner is an American journalist based in Rome. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.