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We should teach media literacy in elementary school


Nowadays, a typical messaging session starts with us logging into our favorite social media website in the morning to catch up on what we missed in our sleep. We quickly scroll past memes from high school friends or extended families, rolling our eyes at their attempts to ridicule opposing viewpoints with some characters’ simplified clickbait logic. After considering whether to use the Block Content button, we move on to consuming self-targeted content, the conclusions of which support our own existing views. We allow ourselves a few more minutes of self-affirmation and then log off, amazed that anyone could ever think differently from us.

It’s a script that got into the national spotlight during the 2016 election and that seems to have gained ground near the 2018 midterm election, especially recently as the nation wavers over the Kavanaugh controversy and controversial DACA rulings .

We are increasingly relying on social media platforms as a medium for interpreting and disseminating political information. As a result, tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have been scrutinized as to how they convey and censor these discussions. In particular, they were accused of serving as a safe house for “fake news” – online content full of misinformation that can lead to political hyperpolarization.

A recent worrying MIT study found that “fake news” is spread much further, faster, deeper and more extensively than the truth, with the effect of political news being even more pronounced than that of reporting on natural disasters, finance or science.

Even more worrying, contrary to the perception that the fake news epidemic is a performance by malicious online news bots, there is evidence that the public actually craves fake news. The same study mentioned above found that online bots were equally likely to spread both false and truthful information, suggesting that the fake news epidemic exists because people, not internet bots, fuel it by preferring misinformation.

Psychologists have speculated that this phenomenon can be explained by man’s inherent need to reconcile his observations with his existing view of the world – a need to avoid what is known as cognitive dissonance. For example, Mark Whitmore, an information psychologist specializing in information psychology, explains: “The brain is wired to accept, reject, incorrectly remember, or distort information depending on whether it accepts or threatens existing beliefs.”

So, rather than relying on balanced, rigorously verified news content, we’ve developed a diet for self-validating sensationalism, and the social media sector, controlled by a handful of for-profit tech companies, is happy to suit our tastes.

The danger of misinformation on the Internet is clear. A recent study found that one in four Americans visited a fake news website in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. Several observers speculated that such new sources played a vital role in shaping the elections and manipulating voter turnout. Furthermore, the overabundance of information has led many to question the integrity of some of our country’s long-established institutions, such as our intelligence services and the media, and has shaken confidence in the very foundations of our democracy.

So how can we incentivize individuals to search for correct online content? Leading scientists are actively addressing this question because we still don’t understand a lot about the phenomenon of “fake news”, but many believe that the complexity of the problem stems from the strong counter-incentive to reject fake information.

Processing and internalizing new information requires a considerable amount of mental effort, especially if this information contradicts your existing worldview. You need to evaluate the information, see if it matches your beliefs, and if not, reorganize your belief system to take into account the new observations. It takes vulnerability and a willingness to admit that you may be wrong. In short, it takes work.

Alternatively, you could choose to simply reject and accept information that does not match your existing worldview. Given an overwhelming amount of conflicting information, who can tell what is actually true and what is false? If you can’t quite tell, why not make life easy for yourself and stick to what supports your current beliefs?

So what options do we have? Many feel that treating the problem by reforming adult behavior is too far from its source. An alternative solution is to use early education to help individuals identify these psychological pitfalls and apply critical thinking to the information they have consumed. There is currently a move in the United States to include Internet information teaching in the primary and secondary curriculum. The movement, which has received bipartisan support, aims to make fact-checking individuals seem like second nature at a young age so that they are less vulnerable to agenda-driven sources of information throughout their lives. While the data is still flowing in, a recent study of 15-27 year olds showed that media literacy training made people less likely to believe a proven false claim, even if the statement is consistent with their existing political view.

States such as Washington, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Mexico have already passed laws based on this idea, and some are now offering media literacy courses as electives in select public schools.

Elementary and secondary schools are designed to provide students with the skills they need to become productive and informed members of our society. As our society evolves, so too must the curricula we teach our students. Schools have recognized this in part by incorporating programming and computer science classes into curricula to cater to our tech-hungry society.

We have to have many difficult conversations to resolve the problems we face as a society, and those conversations will only be productive and lasting if we can all agree on the facts. Right now, when Americans believe that more than 40 percent of the news they see is fake, we as a society aren’t quite there, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be. The internet is an amazing tool, but to use it most effectively we need to take advantage of its benefits while understanding how it makes us vulnerable. If students are still learning outdated practices like cursive at school, shouldn’t they also learn how to responsibly navigate and consume the Internet?

If you’d like to support movements similar to the ones mentioned here, reach out to your local school board today or get involved with media literacy organizations like Media Literacy Now and the Digital Citizenship Institute.


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