Many adults lack digital media literacy, but children can learn how to distinguish fact from fake
Posted on Jan 13, 2021 at 4:17 pm
We started my media literacy classes last week with the annual unit I call Finding Truth in a Digital World. The first lesson was on the tree octopus of the Pacific Northwest.
“The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) can be found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America,” says a website devoted to the strange creature. “Unlike most other cephalopods, tree octopuses are amphibious and only spend their early life and mating season in their ancestral aquatic environment.”
If you are skeptical about the existence of such an organism, good for you! It does not exist. The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is a mythical creature used to test students’ digital skills. When the elaborate website was introduced to 25 Connecticut high school students in 2006, none of them saw the joke, and 24 of them said the website was “very credible.”
These are the findings of Donald Leu, a professor in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. In an interview a decade after the study, Leu complained that “we wasted 10 years” in our internet literacy teaching.
“I don’t necessarily like to use this term in public, but … we have a generation of digital natives who are also digital goofs,” says Leu. “They’re locals when it comes to videos, social networks, and texting, but they’re stupid when it comes to information. They don’t know how to find or evaluate information, and they don’t know how to communicate information in a richer context beyond text messages. “
Unfortunately, it’s not limited to kids. Countless adults are also digital doofuses these days, a fact that is emphatically demonstrated by what happened at the US Capitol last week when “Hundreds of pro-Trump insurgents flooded the building, four people died and the Senate evacuated and vice president Mike Pence forced “brought to safety.”
Of the 62 lawsuits filed by Trump’s legal team of electoral fraud, 61 were lost in court – the only successful case concerned votes in Pennsylvania that did not change that state’s election results. Similarly, all of Trump’s conspiracy theories about electoral fraud in Georgia – several of which he parroted in a phone call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2 – have been repeatedly debunked.
But that didn’t stop enraged Trump supporters from storming the Capitol in a planned protest against the election encouraged by the president himself.
“As a reluctant chronicler of our poisoned information ecosystem, none of this is very surprising to me,” wrote New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel. “It is the culmination of more than five years of hatred, trolling, violent harassment and conspiracy theories that have moved from the underbelly of the Internet to the White House and back again. While this hatred and violence has occasionally found its way onto the streets, it seems like we are only just beginning to understand its real implications. “
“For years professional crooks, trolls, true believers and political opportunists have sown conspiratorial lies and created complicated and dangerous alternate realities,” added Warzel. “We are now witnessing the harvest. It’s likely to get worse. “
Farhad Manjoo, another Times columnist and author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” noted that Trump’s phone call to Raffensperger contained conspiratorial fodder related to QAnon, “a far-reaching, completely unfounded theory that states that “President Trump is waging a secret war against elitist Satan-worshiping pedophiles in government, business and the media.”
“On that phone call I heard a president who is kind of a rabbit and a rabbit hole – both a rabid consumer and producer of online conspiracy propaganda,” wrote Manjoo. “The conspiracy to reverse the 2020 elections is not Trump alone – it is also the product of a widespread online phenomenon whose goals, logic and methods are as unpredictable as the internet itself.”
Manjoo explained how the current information ecosystem consists of non-partisan media channels and social media platforms that maintain a “symbiotic relationship” in which they “improvise a bit like jazz musicians, each hitting the other’s riff.”
It’s a poetic description, but poetry hides a society on the brink of chaos, underscored by the terrifying events in Washington last week.
So what to do
Many have called for more action on the “production side” of the misinformation avalanche, especially social media platforms such as Twitter, which last week permanently banned Donald Trump’s account “because of the risk of further incitement to violence”.
But this is a controversial move that has been questioned by some free speech advocates, and an issue that deserves a discussion of its own. My focus here is clearly on the consumer side, especially children.
I place my hope in the younger generation. Many adults are hopelessly obsessed with their views. Our impressionable youth, on the other hand, can still learn anew about the power of digital information and distinguish facts from fiction.
2006 middle school students may have been fooled by the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, but media literacy education offered at all grade levels today can teach kids ways to spot all the insidious misinformation out there. It’s a strategy already endorsed by the Connecticut Department of Education, so let’s get started – now!
This analysis was first published by CTNewsJunkie, Connecticut’s leading political news source.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and soccer assistant teaching courses in journalism, media literacy and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Connecticut.
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