Teaching discernment in an age of misinformationWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Do you remember the tabloids with outrageous headlines that once stuffed the newspaper stands at supermarket checkouts? Their cover stories frequently reported sightings of Bigfoot, UFOs or a resurrected Elvis Presley. My all-time favourite headline was “Scientists believe the dinosaurs died of constipation.”
Those farcical newspapers may be long gone from newsstands, but misinformation masquerading as truth is an exploding problem in today’s era of digital communication. And we all shoulder some of the blame.
You, me, our kids – even the neighbour’s boy who used to drop newspapers on doorsteps to supplement his allowance – we’re all citizen journalists now. With the help of social media and other digital platforms, we get to decide which news reports to distribute to our personal media networks.
Yet many of us, both adults and adolescents, do a poor job of vetting the information first.
Back in 2017 it was already apparent that teens were having trouble sorting truth from fiction, even though they’re often assumed to be more digitally astute than adults. Common Sense Media reported that only 44 per cent of teens in a U.S. study felt that they could tell fake news stories from real ones.
A year later, an MIT study showed that Twitter users across a broad range of ages were giving misinformation preferential treatment: false news stories were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories.
Those results had academics worried. With more than half of Canadians saying they get their news from social media, what might it mean for society if citizens are so easily duped by misinformation? Researchers were worried, but the general public? Not so much.
Now, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the menace of misinformation is no longer just a concern for academics. The pandemic has made it personal for all of us. With nothing less than our health and our kids’ health at stake, we’ve had to evaluate a rising tide of information to carefully discern truth from fiction.
And it certainly hasn’t been easy. For many parents, sorting through conflicting reports has been a confusing and highly stressful experience. But it has helped us understand, with new urgency, why our kids need critical thinking skills to prepare them well for life.
Teaching our kids to protect others
As much as we want to protect our kids from being misguided or easily manipulated, teaching critical thinking is not just about helping our kids be more savvy. Another message our kids need to hear from us is that protecting others is super important too – and that means fact-checking what they hear and read before passing that information along.
We need to help our kids understand that mindlessly clicking a “share” button without verifying the facts can make them morally complicit in disturbing outcomes that they can’t always foresee. Some obvious examples you might share with your kids include:
- stoking racism and anti-immigration sentiment;
- stoking outrage that can lead vigilantes to target falsely accused individuals;
- spreading confusion and panic around police incidents or natural disasters that can tie up 9-1-1 services and hamper emergency efforts;
- inflaming civic unrest, potentially leading to injuries and property damage.
In our increasingly connected world, Ephesians 4:25 gains new poignancy for adults and teens alike: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
The next teachable moment for your kids might be as close as how you respond to the next ping from your phone. Will you automatically pass along that sensational news story, adding your knee-jerk cry of indignation or distress? Or will you pause with a heightened sense of caution, letting your kids know that you’re taking a moment to verify the facts?
If you’re ready to be fully transparent, an honest evaluation of your motives might help your teen think about their motives too. What’s really behind that rush to post, share or tweet “hot news”? Are their friends best protected by hearing information quickly, or by hearing the truth? It’s fine for a teen to want to be seen as a thought leader in their social media circle, but thought leaders give careful thought to a topic first.
Simple debunking skills for everyone
Our teens may be way ahead of us in identifying false information – or they might not. Within Canada’s education system, it’s well recognized that kids need media literacy skills that help them distinguish between false and trustworthy online information. Just how thoroughly those skills are taught in schools, however, can vary greatly from school to school and from province to province.
Ideally, in their high school years, teens will be taught the basic investigative skills described below. How many of these skills are already instinctive for you? Perhaps your teen can coach you, or you can both learn together.
These skills are very easy to learn. They involve not much more than a few quick Google searches to cross-check information with independent sources. And remembering what to look for is as simple as A, B, C, D. You want to look for:
- Author credentials
- Bias in how the info is presented
- Claims made – are they really true?
- Deceptive images
Author credentials – Checking the source
Stopping the spread of misinformation means always tracing information back to its source – the original website, article, blog post or image – so you can investigate the author.
If you’re reading a social media post, follow the link at the bottom of the post, or any links provided in the caption.
If you can't find anything about the source of the information, don't pass that info on to someone else.
The author’s profile may be impressive, but that's not enough
Checking a content author’s credentials is a little like hiring someone. You may be impressed by their carefully prepared “resume” – the information you discover in their author bio or on an organization’s “About us” web page – but don’t stop there. You’d be foolish not to check their “references” too to find out what others think of them. The Internet can provide some very revealing references!
So always do a quick Google search on the author’s name and/or the name of the organization who created the content. Get at least three outside opinions about the source of the information. Find out:
- Is the author recognized by others as an expert in that field? Are the “experts” cited in the content recognized as experts by others?
- Do unrelated organizations respect the source organization?
- Who funds the work of the author or the organization?
- Does the organization have a misleading name? Could it be confused with a more respected organization?
- Does the organization’s website have a misleading URL? Is it very similar to another URL owned by a respected organization?
Bias – Discerning the author’s point of view
- Based on what you’ve learned about the author or source organization, does the information now seem biased in some way? What appears to be their agenda?
- Could the source of the information reap financial rewards or benefit in some other way from the spread of this information?
Claims – Checking the facts being presented
- Cross-check the most important assertions being made by doing a Google search using some of the key words and ideas from the content. Are other reputable sources such as mainstream news sites reporting the same information?
(If you’re not sure how to word your search, simply start your search by typing in a question like “Does _____ really ________?”) Sometimes you can zero in on helpful content faster by adding the word “hoax” or “fake” to your search key words.
- Check the claims being presented on fact-checking sites like:
Photos can appear to offer visual evidence of a specific event. But if you can find the originals, they may tell a very different story.
- Does the image you’re looking at really depict that event, or was it captured at another time and place?
- Has the image been altered in some way?
The easiest way to check the veracity of an image is to look for reputable websites showing identical or nearly identical images. Does their explanation of the image – including where and when the image was taken – match what your original source says?
Next, a preschool-worthy game of “spot the difference” will tell you if your original image has been altered in some way.
How to search for similar images
The instructions here will help you search for similar images using a desktop computer or laptop.
- For photos, one option is to do a reverse image search at Google Images (Images.Google.com). You can either:
- click on the suspicious image on a web page and drag it into the Google Images search box,
- or click on the camera icon in the Google Images search box and upload a copy of the suspicious image that you’ve already saved on your computer or phone,
- or simply paste a link to the suspect image in the search box.
(To capture a link to an online image:
right-click on the image and choose “Copy Image Link” or “Copy Image Address.”
Or on a Mac, hold down Control as you click the image, then choose “Copy Image Address.”)
- click on the suspicious image on a web page and drag it into the Google Images search box,
- Another popular website for reverse image searches is TinEye.com. And a fun “image busting” site to check out for doctored images and videos is HoaxEye.com.
For more help with performing reverse image searches, plus some tips on fact-checking videos, see this article on Snopes.com.
Learning how to do a reverse image search on your phone is a little more complicated, but once you’ve got it down, it can become second nature too. For help with this, you’ll need to search online for instructions specific to your phone.
Just as they’ve learned to take simple hygiene steps to protect others from COVID-19, our teens are more than capable of learning simple new routines around verifying information that will help protect others too. Encourage your teen to be someone their friends can trust for trustworthy information: help them hone their instincts and break the chain when they suspect misleading information is being spread.
Would you like to explore this topic further? MediaSmarts.ca has extensive material available for parents and teachers in the Authenticating Information section of their website.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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