Media literacy

Many adults aren’t digital media savvy, but kids can learn to tell facts from fakes

Barth Keck

We started the yearly unit I call “Finding Truth in a Digital World” last week in my media literacy classes. The first lesson was about the tree octopus of the Pacific Northwest.

“The Tree Octopus of the Pacific Northwest (paxarbolis octopus) is found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America,” according to a website dedicated to the strange creature. “Unlike most other cephalopods, tree octopuses are amphibious, spending only their childhood and the period of their breeding season in their ancestral aquatic environment.”

If you are skeptical about the existence of such an organization, good for you! He does not exist. The Pacific Northwest tree octopus is a mythical creature used to test students’ digital literacy skills. When the elaborate website was presented in 2006 to 25 Connecticut college students, none of them detected the hoax, and 24 of them called the website “very believable”.

These are the conclusions of Donald Leu, a professor at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. In an interview a decade after the study, Leu lamented that “we’ve lost 10 years” in teaching internet literacy.

“I don’t necessarily like to use that term in public, but … we have a generation of digital natives who are also digital doofus,” Leu said. “They’re natives when it comes to video, social media, and texting, but they’re information dumb. They don’t know how to locate information or evaluate information, and they don’t know how to communicate information in richer context beyond text messaging.

Unfortunately, this is not limited to children. Countless adults these days are also digital doofus, a fact forcefully demonstrated by what happened at the US Capitol last week when “hundreds of pro-Trump rioters swarmed the building, killing four. and forcing the Senate to evacuate and Vice President Mike Pence to safety. »

Of the 62 lawsuits filed by Trump’s legal team alleging voter fraud, 61 have lost in court – the only successful case involved votes in Pennsylvania that did not change that state’s election outcome. Similarly, all of Trump’s conspiracy theories about voter fraud in Georgia — including several he repeated in a Jan. 2 phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — have been repeatedly debunked.

But that hasn’t stopped angry 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 news ecosystem, none of this is very surprising to me,” wrote New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel. “This is the culmination of more than five years of hate, trolling, violent harassment and conspiracy theories that have flowed from the underbelly of the internet to the White House and back again. Although this hate and violence have sometimes spilled onto the streets, it seems that we are only beginning to understand its true impact.

“For years, professional con artists, trolls, true believers and political opportunists have been sowing conspiratorial lies, creating complex and dangerous alternate realities,” Warzel added. “We are now witnessing the harvest. This is likely to get worse. »

Farhad Manjoo, another Times The columnist and author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” noted how Trump’s phone call to Raffensperger involved QAnon-affiliated conspiratorial fodder, “a far-reaching and totally unfounded theory that says that President Trump is waging a covert war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business and the media.

“In that phone call, I heard a president who is sort of both a rabbit hole and a rabbit hole — as much a rabid consumer of conspiratorial propaganda online as he is a producer of it,” Manjoo wrote. “The conspiracy to void the 2020 election isn’t Trump’s doing alone — it’s also the product of a sprawling online phenomenon whose goals, logic, and methods are as unpredictable as the internet itself. same.”

Manjoo explained how today’s news ecosystem is made up of hyper-partisan news outlets and social media platforms that have a “symbiotic relationship” in which they act “much like improvising jazz musicians, each hitting the riff of the other”.

It’s a poetic description, but beneath the poetry lies a society on the brink of chaos, underscored by the chilling events in Washington last week.

So what to do?

Many have called for more action on the “production side” of the avalanche of disinformation, including social media platforms like Twitter, which last week permanently banned Donald Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement to violence”.

But it’s a controversial decision, questioned by some free speech advocates, and a topic worthy of its own dedicated discussion. I focus here on the consumer side, especially children.

I place my hope in the younger generation. Many adults have become hopelessly obsessed with their opinions, a reality demonstrated on my own Facebook feed by a small but vocal cabal of FB “friends” who stick to their conspiracy theories, immune to any grounded fact-checking. on proofs that I send them. Our impressionable youth, on the other hand, can still learn anew about the power of digital information and how to discern fact from fiction.

Middle schoolers in 2006 might have been fooled by the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, but the media education offered today in all levels can teach children ways to recognize any insidious misinformation. It’s a strategy already approved by the Connecticut Department of Education, so let’s get to it – now!

This analysis was first published by CTNewsJunkie, Connecticut’s leading political news source.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches journalism, media literacy, and AP English language and composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Connecticut.

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