There is a war under way for the brains of the world, and few people are adequately armed to defend themselves.
The proliferation of fakery on the internet and in social media, some of it to get attention and some with infinitely greater malice, has left people baffled, confused and misinformed. Young people, with their substantial dependence on social media for news, are especially vulnerable.
On Friday afternoon, hundreds of students at Marietta High School got a brief taste of how easily internet users can be misled and demonstrations on ways to tell fact from fabrication in the virtual world.
Katy Byron is editor and program manager of MediaWise, a course devised as part of the Google News Project in collaboration with the Poynter Institute and other news, education and journalism advocacy groups, to arm internet users with tools to defend themselves not just from being misinformed but also to prevent themselves from inadvertently becoming part of the problem by sharing and reposting falsehoods.
“This is to teach students like you guys to sort fact from fiction on the internet,” Byron told the assembly in the auditorium while running through a deck of slides and videos projected on a giant screen at the back of the stage. “This is to show you how to figure out what’s fake, what’s fact, what’s reliable.”
The examples included Instagram posts about celebrities, including reports of injuries and deaths which in fact did not happen. The instructional crash course offered students tools to use for verifying information, its sources and in some cases its intent. Fakery online ranges from the innocuous to the now well-documented interference in U.S. elections.
Images can be traced through Google reverse image search, which can find the origin of a photo to allow users to know whether it’s being used legitimately, she told the students. An ordinary search can provide information about the sources of shared information that is questionable, and the citation lists on Wikipedia articles can provide avenues to verification.
Hands went up when she asked students whether they’d shared information they later found to be false, with one student bellowing, “Yes!” to the question.
The methods of disguising fakery as fact are evolving rapidly. A host of websites now provide fake news generators that give the appearance of legitimacy, as Byron demonstrated by fabricating a tweet that appeared to have been posted by The Marietta Times, complete with a “verification” check.
Byron said after the presentation that the MediaWise project’s goal is to reach 1 million teenagers, at least half of whom are from underserved or low-income communities. She’s made 30 presentations so far, and Marietta was the first outside large urban areas. She also spoke to Marietta Middle School at a morning presentation on Friday.
The project doesn’t end with one-hour presentations at schools. Students were given the option to participate in a teen fact-checking network and given the hashtag #isthislegit and the Twitter handle @mediawise to flag suspect postings for investigation by the MediaWise pros.
Byron said the Stanford History Education Group is completing development of a public school curriculum that will be available for free download by teachers in the fall.
Students seemed to know that a significant part of what they see on their phones doesn’t correspond with reality.
“This presentation, it made me see things more clearly, but I think lots of people my age are still unaware of these things,” sophomore Evelyn Hawkins said. Senior Emily Gasaway called the presentation “an eye-opener to watch.”
James Goddard, a sophomore, said he appreciated the advice and tools offered by the program.
“It shows us a good way to figure out fake news, and it’s especially important considering how much time we spend on our phones,” he said.
Assistant principal Chris Laumann said at least one teacher had expressed interest in the MediaWise curriculum.
“He said this is the whole point of public education,” Laumann said.
For more information on MediaWise, along with techniques for sorting fact from falsehood online, see poynter.org/mediawise.
• Google News Project effort to help people sort fact from fiction and deception online.
• Being taken to schools by the Poynter Institute.
• School curriculum under development by the education department of Stanford University.
• MediaWise information and tools: poynter.org/mediawise