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Schools Must Teach Students How to Recognize Fake News

Schools Must Teach Students How to Recognize Fake News

“The Baltimore bridge collapse was a terrorist attack.” “Harvard University took down the American flag and replaced it with a Palestinian flag.” “COVID vaccines make men sterile.” Those are all relatively recent, but let’s not forget old classics like “Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen” and “Hillary Clinton is operating a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizzeria.”

Social media is flooded with fake news. The sheer amount of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda online makes it nearly impossible to avoid or track.

The danger is clear. People rely on news to stay informed so they can make decisions in their lives and when electing representatives and leaders around the world. During the pandemic, when people needed information in order to protect their health and their families, fake news sowed confusion. In extreme cases, fake news has driven people to criminal, violent and even murderous acts. And it’s not just regular people that are to blame – companies and even governments with immense resources are often engaged in deliberate disinformation campaigns meant to undermine credibility, peace and stability.

And who uses social media more than anyone else? Young people. Many young people spend huge amounts of time online, using social media — and being exposed to propaganda that many of them cannot distinguish from reality, making them especially vulnerable victims.

We always say young people are the future. But growing up barraged by fake news distorts young people’s perspective on the world, warps their opinions and hinders their capacity to make sound and accurate judgments about the world around them. What kind of future does that lead to?

We educate young people in order to prepare them for life. But how can they go out and “face reality” if they cannot tell reality from fantasy, or truth from lies? That is why we must teach young people to distinguish real news from fake news, by making critical thinking classes part of every student’s education. Such classes should be mandatory. Ideally, they should start early, teaching younger kids that not everything they read, hear or see is true and encouraging them to ask questions. Later, in high school and college, critical thinking classes can foster dialogue specifically about misinformation and propaganda in social media spaces.

If this sounds like an extreme plan, that is because we now live in an extreme world. It is no longer enough just to incorporate critical thinking skills into individual subjects. To protect young people’s futures as citizens, they must be taught to protect themselves from misinformation. That way, equipped to question and analyze information, they can spot fake news and make choices driven by facts and logic. Strong, consistent training in critical thinking will empower students with the means to understand and make their way through today’s blizzard-like information environment.

It won’t be easy. After all, the problem is bigger than social media; plenty of supposedly legitimate and mainstream news sources are biased, “spinning” news stories so hard that they essentially become fake news. In other cases, news reports can just be unintentionally inaccurate, or report erroneous claims unquestioningly. That means critical thinking must apply to more than just social media. In addition, other factors contribute to how people of all ages assess and interpret information. Students must therefore also learn to recognize and question their own biases, preconceptions and assumptions. This will help them understand multiple perspectives and promote more open dialogue, resulting in more civil discourse and creating an environment less conducive to fake news.

It would be great if we lived in a world where we could trust everything we see online or everything our leaders say, but we don’t. Fake news threatens young people’s capacity to understand the world, and to become adults responsible for dealing with the world’s problems. That is why, in today’s world, critical thinking is a crucial skill that must be taught in schools alongside reading, math, science and history. If we do not teach students how to recognize misinformation and propaganda, we are failing them — and preparing them to fail us, themselves and society at large.

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