By Nadav Ziv
Bleak. That is the word researchers from the Stanford History Education Group used in 2016 to summarize “young people’s ability to reason about information on the internet.” And yes, Stanford students were among the young people to whom they were referring.
So far, much of the conversation regarding disinformation online has centered around its source: whether that be foreign actors — a continuing concern as the U.S. government has identified efforts by Russia, China and Iran to influence the midterm elections and 2020 presidential race — or that obscure friend you have on Facebook who shares articles and pictures of questionable veracity. The United States has attempted to address the question of foreign intervention through tools such as indictments, and Facebook now offers the ability to report posts for being “false news” or spreading “incorrect voting info” (In case you’re looking for it, click the three ellipses at the top right of the post and select “Give Feedback on this Post”).
We should give more attention to educating people directly: enabling them to identify, analyze and respond to false news. The government and tech companies will never be able to shield people from all misleading or factually incorrect information, and such a distinction may be detrimental in that it endows these actors with substantial power to determine the scope of public discussion.
In educating individual citizens, we provide them with the tools to properly exercise their democratic mandate of keeping government accountable. The quality and existence of conversations about polarizing issues — many of which are deeply personal and emotional — stand to benefit from a civic society in which we may disagree on values and policy, but do so with information that is based off reasonable standards of evidence.
What might such a system of education look like? Last year, my high school policy debate partner and I tried to answer this question under the scope of that years resolved: “The United States Federal Government should substantially increase its funding and/or regulation of elementary and/or secondary education.” Our plan was based off the intended next steps of the Stanford researchers, and involved the creation of an online curriculum developed by leading universities and civic institutions. This curriculum would be utilized by teachers and integrated into English and/or history classes in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades to allow for varied conversations according to age level, and the repetition of basic elements to ensure maximum retention. The Federal Government would also mandate this curriculum, and accountability mechanisms would include the same tests used by researchers that led them to conclude “students are shockingly ill-equipped to manage the emerging media landscape.”
Such efforts are currently underway by non-profits like the News Literacy Project — an organization founded by Pulitzer Prize Winning reporter Alan Miller — and Media Wise — a partnership between Poynter, the Stanford History Education Group, Local Media Association and National Association for Media Literacy Education, that is also supported by Google. But until these efforts are incorporated into a large-scale, legally mandatory educational framework across the entirety of the United States, they will not be sufficient.
At the university level, Stanford and other institutions can include online evidence evaluation courses as part of their prerequisites for incoming frosh, and engage students in conversations regarding standards of evidence during New Student Orientation community-norm development for discussions back at dorms. The Stanford History Education Group can and should continue its leading role in developing curricula and partnering with other organizations, but they have an abundance of potential powerful allies somewhere closer: the student population. In addition to teaching students themselves, the SHEG can enlist them in promoting evidence evaluation education throughout their communities back home. And finally, as students, we can also play an important role by gently yet firmly calling out false or misleading information when we encounter it.
The clock is ticking. 2017 represented the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, and “the United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties” according to the non-profit Freedom House. Institutional structures are not enough to preserve democracy. In a country that is disillusioned with the civic process, that is grappling with painful questions about its identity and past at the same time it confronts existential problems regarding its future, it is essential we implement educational mechanisms to begin fixing the process. A populace with wool over its eyes will not stay free.