On a recent Monday morning in a journalism class at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., students watched an excerpt from the CNN program “Crossfire” featuring a heated exchange between comedian Jon Stewart and conservative political commentator Tucker Carlson. Although the conversation, which made headlines after Stewart accused Carlson and his “Crossfire” co-hosts of engaging in political theater rather than journalism, occurred 15 years ago, it immediately sparked student discussion.
Was Stewart right in his argument that Carlson and his colleagues were hurting America with their combative politics? Was Carlson right in accusing Stewart of harboring political biases of his own? Whose perspective were the students to believe, and where could they go for more information? In the end, students were instructed to explore a variety of online news sources to get more information about the exchange. They were, in effect, learning to read “laterally,” discovering what different online sources have to say about a subject, rather than simply digging deeper into one source alone.
This approach to digital media consumption has been championed by Joel Breakstone and his colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) at Stanford University. In 2016, they released a widely reported study which found that despite being fluent in social media, students at the middle, high school and college levels were surprisingly inept when it came to evaluating what they read online. Middle schoolers confused advertisements for news, high schoolers could not verify the authenticity of social media accounts and college students judged the accuracy of websites by their visual and stylistic appeal, largely accepting what the sites said about themselves on face value.
As Sam Wineburg, lead author of the report, put it in an Oct. 1, 2018, follow-up article for The Washington Post: “today’s ‘digital natives’ are digitally naïve.”
According to Breakstone, “there was an alarming consistency” in terms of students’ inability to perform “the most basic evaluation of online material.” The groundbreaking study, which included nearly 8,000 students, generated broad public interest following the 2016 election. “We were in the eye of the storm,” Breakstone recalled. “Everybody was interested in this.” Concerns about fake news and the spread of online disinformation increased as evidence of Russian involvement in disinformation campaigns came to the fore.
Today, as the rallying cry of fake news reaches a fevered pitch ahead of the 2020 presidential election and as young people — who are increasingly becoming politically active — are bombarded with an avalanche of information at the touch of a button, it’s more important than ever that these future voters learn to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.
This has led to a rise in states across the United States calling for greater digital literacy efforts to teach students how to navigate the technologies that are reshaping their world. The trend is part of an increasing awareness that while algorithms and other tech tools may help slow the spread of misinformation, human beings are ultimately responsible for understanding and deciphering what they read online.
While Breakstone said that the issue of digital literacy (also referred to as media literacy) is “much more complex” than just fake news, “there is real reason for concern” that students do not know how to evaluate information they find online. “So much of it is really getting a sense of where the information comes from, what the perspective is and where the author’s authority comes from,” Breakstone told us. “We need to figure out which approaches are most effective in order for students to become better consumers of information.”
The consequences of not doing so are “real and dire,” Breakstone and his colleagues suggested in a paper published last year. “If students are unable to identify who is behind the information they encounter, they are easy marks for those who seek to deceive them,” the researchers warned, cautioning that “[t]he health of our democracy depends on our access to reliable information.”
What is needed, according to the SHEG group, is a new strategy for teaching digital literacy. Instead of the predominant “close reading” approach, in which students check off a list of questions designed to ascertain a website’s trustworthiness — such as broken links, domain names, typos and other details — Breakstone and his colleagues say students should return to the wider web. What do other sites say about this one site or about the information it contains? Can students verify the content they have found through other online sources?
This method of “lateral reading” would seem to provide an answer to the echo chamber effect of so much digital news consumption in America. SHEG researchers point to the fact that it is the method used by professional news fact-checkers, who can verify the accuracy of website content much more quickly than those who read “vertically” within a single website itself.
The vertical, checklist approach to verifying a website’s authenticity is no longer as reliable because today’s technology allows even the most basic of websites to look professional and sophisticated, with official-looking logos and statements that fool many into thinking they are legitimate.
Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University in Vancouver and author of the free e-book “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers,” shares the Stanford group’s enthusiasm for lateral reading. It is one of the four primary “moves” outlined in the book for practicing digital literacy, along with checking for previous website or content authentication; going “upstream” to an original information source; and circling back with new search terms or search choices.
Caulfield said the key to online literacy is to incorporate these strategies as regular habits, “the way you learn to check your mirrors before switching lanes on the highway.”
“When you read something, do you know where it’s from?” he asked via email. “If not, do a quick Wikipedia search on the publication or organization. Is it something fringe or widely reported? Check Google News to see if a variety of papers are reporting it. Has the image you are looking at been modified or falsely captioned? Do a quick reverse image search to see.”
Caulfield does not believe students are any more or less susceptible to misinformation online than adults. In fact, adults can be more accessible targets because they are often more politically engaged and concerned with health and medical issues, popular subjects of disinformation campaigns. Caulfield appears more concerned with disinformation and web illiteracy as it impacts people with influence, who can unwittingly spread false propaganda taken for fact online.
“If the people you look up to in your community are being fed streams of nonsense … then when others turn to them for advice on [political] candidates, policy, whatever, that can have a huge impact,” Caulfield wrote. “[O]f course the ultimate problem is when people with influence and power don’t have these [digital literacy] skills. It makes them very susceptible to manipulation.”
Increasing that susceptibility is our natural human inclination to latch onto fake propaganda and false rumors because they illicit strong emotions and tap into our preconceived biases.
As Annabelle Timsit wrote in a Feb. 12 article for Quartz, such propaganda is nothing new. Everyone from monarchs to the Nazis employed it. What’s different is the sheer amount of information at our fingertips today. “The real problem is that we haven’t developed the skills to absorb, assess, and sort the unprecedented amounts of information coming from new technologies,” she wrote. “We are letting our digital platforms, from our phones to our computers and social media, rule us.”
But Caulfield believes that, in general, Americans are less concerned about digital illiteracy than they should be. One of the things he has done to address the issue is to head the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Digital Polarization Initiative, which involves students from 11 campuses in an effort to fact-check, annotate and provide context for news stories on Twitter and Facebook. Caulfield describes the initiative as an attempt to change the way digital literacy is taught in American classrooms, with the long-term goal of ensuring that every college student graduates with the best up-to-date digital literacy skills. “Since it is people in positions of influence that are the real problem,” Caulfield writes, “making sure college grads have this moves us closer to a disinformation-resistant society.”
While some countries, such as Finland, have had success instituting digital literacy education nationwide, in the U.S. it remains a state-by-state endeavor. California recently became the latest state to pass legislation requiring public schools to teach media literacy. A handful of other states such as Connecticut and New Mexico have passed similar legislation, although advocates say more money is needed to fund such programs. They also argue that media literacy skills should be woven throughout the curriculum rather than as a standalone course, because misinformation can be found in fields ranging from math to history to science.
Erin McNeill founded Media Literacy Now a decade ago to advocate for media literacy education policy in public schools.
“The idea was to get media literacy into the public policy agenda,” she explained. “Ten years ago, very few people had ever heard of it. Since then, it’s been a step-by-step process of making people aware.”
McNeill believes that media literacy should be recognized as being as essential to K-12 education as math, science or English classes. “Media literacy is the same as literacy today,” she said. “So much of our information comes from sources other than print material, from online, from television. Children need to understand how to decode the messages they’re getting and understand where they’re coming from [and] what the messages are trying to tell them.”
McNeill said that while children and young people may think of television or online media primarily as entertainment, they (the consumers of news and information) are being targeted nonetheless. “Whether it’s advertisements, commercials or something more sinister, children need to be able to interpret what is being presented to them and to understand that everything may not be as it appears,” she said.
McNeill’s organization has had success advocating for media literacy policy in Massachusetts, Washington State, Ohio, Florida and Minnesota. Many others have explored legislation without mandating standards. A perennial problem is funding for media literacy efforts and training teachers who are already often overworked and underpaid.
“It really takes champions at the local level to raise the issue and to champion funding,” McNeill said. Media literacy efforts in the states “are almost always under-resourced,” meaning that little is known about how policy is being implemented on a state-by-state basis.
However, McNeill points to Florida, a state that does have a media literacy mandate, as evidence that media literacy education makes a difference. After the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, students there used their media skills to launch a nationwide movement in support of gun control. “Whether you agree with their message or not,” McNeill said, “[the students’] actions show that media literacy skills are being taught” and that such education makes a difference.
In McNeill’s home state of Massachusetts, Mary Robb has taught a “Media Literacy and Democracy” class at Andover High School for almost 20 years. Her students read news and write reviews of news stories on a regular basis.
“We’re learning about our government and also investigating our government through news sources,” Robb explained. “We’re not just learning the story, but also how the story is being told.”
By consulting a variety of sources and fact-checking the news they receive, Robb says she and her students “are no longer passive consumers of news.” She teaches her students that the greatest danger is to limit oneself to a single news source, which cannot provide a complete and accurate picture of events. “My real push is to help them appreciate the news,” Robb said, “and help defend it” against the prevailing cynicism about news media in general. “There is fake news, yes,” she acknowledged. “But news you don’t agree with isn’t necessarily fake news. It’s just a different perspective. I’m trying to help them understand that.”
In the years since the Stanford History Education Group released its study — the year of the last presidential election — more states and more school districts have explored digital literacy education. The Maryland school district to which Montgomery Blair High School belongs has undertaken a three-year Digital Citizenship Program with funding from U.S. presidential candidate John Delaney and his wife April.
Further afield, global media literacy summits have brought together researchers from the Stanford group and digital media giants like Google to share best ideas and practices. Later this fall, the SHEG will release a follow-up to its groundbreaking 2016 study to see where things stand now in regard to young people and digital literacy. The new study will be accompanied by an enhanced media literacy curriculum designed for middle and high school students and available for free via the SHEG website.
At a time when young people get an estimated 75% of their news via the internet, Stanford’s Breakstone says it is “incredibly important for the health of democracy” that students and their teachers have the tools and resources they need to evaluate what they find online. After all, another election is coming.
About the Author
Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.