Fake news and critical thinking

Posted on 25 May 2017

Hannah Broadbent, Deputy Director at Childnet, a partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre, reports back on last week’s discussions with Safer Internet Centres from across Europe about fake news and media literacy education.

At the Insafe training meeting last week, our team at the UK Safer Internet Centre met together with Safer Internet Centres from across Europe to discuss emerging trends, challenges and innovative new approaches for promoting media literacy and critical thinking.

A key topic of discussion was the issue of fake news; an issue that countries across Europe are grappling with.

Manipulating and distributing false information to mislead isn’t a new thing. What is new is its speed and reach on social media platforms.

As media literacy expert Martina Chapman explained, social media has democratised media, giving everyone the opportunity to create and share their own content. At the same time, people are increasingly looking to social media for live, up-to-the-minute news.

While the speed and accessibility of social media as content delivery platform has many benefits, it also presents some challenges, as more responsibility is placed on users to judge the truth and accuracy of stories and spot fact from fiction.

Some of the challenges:

  • Misinformation: it is easy to generate high quality digital content, including editing or misusing images and videos, to create credible fake news. Some fake news stories and sites are ‘real’ looking that even journalists are misled.
  • Viral trends: sensational news travels fast on social media. Driven by likes and shares, ‘Clickbait’ headlines draw people in and are not always what they seem.
  • Information overload: the sheer volume of conflicting information can make it hard to identify high quality information.
  • Targeting and profiling: content appearing on social media newsfeeds is targeted based on who you follow and your interests, but this profiling can reduce exposure to different perspectives. Sometimes people actually choose to ignore views that are not in line with their own.
  • Fake news is big money: fake news can be a money-making business with clicks driving advertising revenue. This means some people deliberately create viral fake news stories for financial gain.

Critical Thinking

These challenges make it even more important that children – and all internet users – understand how to critically evaluate online content.

In the UK, we know that many young people are not making critical judgments about the information they find online.

Ofcom’s 2016 report found that over a quarter of 8-11s (28%) and 12-15s (27%) believe that if a website has been listed by Google then it can be trusted, while around one in ten in each age group don’t think about whether the results can be trusted (10% of 8-11s and 11% of 12-15s). Encouragingly, around half of 8-17s are making some critical judgment, and recognise that some websites can be trusted while others cannot.

We know too from our research this Safer Internet Day that images and videos can hold particular power, with many young people more likely to trust something if they have seen an image or video of it. We found that despite 70% of 8-17 year olds recognising that images and videos can be misleading and don’t always tell the full story, just a third (33%) of young people said they find it easy to check if the images and videos they find online are truthful. Almost half (48%) said they are more likely to trust something has happened if they see an image or video of it.

Building critical thinking

It was encouraging to hear from Martina Chapman that critical thinking was identified as a core skill in a mapping of significant media literacy practices from across Europe published by the European Audiovisual Observatory this March. (Safer Internet Day and Safer Internet Centres were identified as significant projects in large number of countries, including the UK!).

At the UK Safer Internet Centre we’re doing a lot of work to explore the best methods for developing critical thinking skills that will build children’s resilience in our complex media environment. One of the challenges central to this issue is Trust.

Our free Trust Me toolkit provides practical activities and realistic scenarios that aim to provoke discussion among pupils and challenge them to think critically about what they see on websites and social media, as well as their online communication with others. The toolkit, created by Childnet as part of its work in the UK Safer Internet Centre, contains lesson plans and detailed teacher guides for both primary and secondary level.

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