Teaching Disinformation Literacy

First Amendment, News Literacy, Political Viewpoint

By: Jamie Gregory

Last week, I collaborated with a senior English teacher to create a breakout box activity featuring disinformation. Beforehand, the teacher and I had a discussion about teaching information literacy skills and fake websites versus disinformation (here is one famously circulated among librarians and English teachers). I’ll just assume you knew that one was fake. But to be honest, some high school students I’ve taught looked at that website and thought it was real.

The drawback to approaching information literacy skills with fake websites is that real research would never lead to sites like the tree octopus or the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide. Disinformation, spreading false information with malicious and purposeful intent, is much more nuanced. What would students do with sites such as Infowars or BeforeItsNews.com? 

If a high school student in Government or Economics class is researching political parties or an upcoming election using open web searches, sites spreading disinformation will certainly be accessed. And then what?

Enter a student’s own biases and lack of information literacy skills. Many educators are now familiar with the Stanford study revealing the abilities (or lack thereof) of middle school, high school, and college students (and here is a newly published study). Can you distinguish among advertisements, sponsored content, and articles? If you read a Tweet, can you evaluate the political motivations behind it and whether or not it may spread biased information? Can you confidently determine if a photograph is real or has been Photoshopped? These skills matter if a student wants to use these sources as research.

These skills are much more valuable, needed, and difficult to teach. In my state of South Carolina, a few high school courses are ruled by End-of-Course exams which count as 20% of a student’s final grade and, as you might have already guessed, are created and scored by employees at the State Department of Education. Teachers of these courses are basically forced to worry more about this one standardized assessment than helping students reach the goals laid out in the Profile of the High School Graduate. It’s impossible to integrate knowing how to learn, integrity, self-direction, media and technology skills if your sole classroom focus is on a multiple choice exam.

IFLA "How To Spot Fake News"
from IFLA [CC BY 4.0]

Teaching information literacy skills takes a lot of time. Students need a lot of practice, and it needs to be real-world practice, not in the fake laboratory of the made-up websites by educators trying to teach website evaluation. It also helps just to have students think, which requires going beyond textbook reading and PowerPoint lecture notes. Not developing critical thinking skills has serious real-world effects on all of us.

Consider developing lesson plans including the following examples of disinformation.

  • A lack of common sense and drawing conclusions without evidence is how we end up with Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory in 2016 linking a local restaurant with prominent Democrats like Hillary Clinton and accusations of child sex trafficking. Pizzagate culminated with an armed man firing a shot inside the restaurant. Thankfully no one was injured. 
  • How about determining whether or not an event actually happened? It’s a bit difficult to follow Alex Jones’s deranged thinking, claiming the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. According to one theory, CNN used a green screen in its coverage. It seems believable to some that the government or gun control supporters staged the shooting to give their arguments more credibility. In a bizarre comment, Jones did blame his opinions on a form of psychosis, which sounds promising, until you read that he claims the psychosis is a result of the perpetual, insistent, incessant lies of the mainstream media. In a separate lawsuit, Leonard Pozner, whose six year-old son was murdered, actually underwent DNA testing to prove that his son was indeed murdered in order to stop the defamation. I don’t think we could find a more despicable example of the effects of disinformation than that.
  • Ever heard someone question the worth of vaccines? It’s all because of disinformation. Dr. Wakefield’s study has officially been retracted, but the damage has been done. Even though Wakefield’s study only included 12 children and he was paid for his research, people are still buying it. The CDC reports that in 2019 the majority of those who contract the measles were unvaccinated. A lack of basic scientific knowledge also lends credibility to the vaccination scare. Vaccinateyourfamily.org, although biased in favor of vaccinations, provides helpful infographics explaining how immunity works. Have students consider how some websites may be biased, but in a positive way.
  • Other ways we see the effects of disinformation? In libraries, of course. On November 5, it was reported that a county library system in Citrus County, Florida, may not be purchasing a digital subscription to the New York Times for its patrons because stakeholders don’t agree with it (this article reports that it will be back on the board’s November 19 agenda). Commissioner Scott Carnahan is quoted as saying, “I don’t agree with it, I don’t like them” because “fake news, okay, I agree with President Trump.” (The President has called for federal agencies to stop subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post.) A small group of people cannot prevent others from accessing the information they seek based on their own personal preferences. Even the President cannot tell other citizens what to read and then prevent access. Moreover, it harms democracy not to simply dislike anything with which you disagree, but to claim any opposition or criticism is fake and harmful and should be stopped. (Please read the American Library Association’s response statement.)
  • Furthermore, have students read about people who create fake news. A teen in Macedonia created fake news during the 2016 presidential election and profited greatly. Students could debate the free speech limits of creating disinformation, especially in light of how its spread can be highly influential, damaging, even potentially deadly. Or share this story, about how Cameron Harris created fake news stories during the 2016 presidential election. You might want to point out I just linked to a New York Times article. (Maybe stick with this NPR interview.)

For extended First Amendment discussions, ask students to read about Twitter’s recent decision not to post political ads, announced by CEO Jack Dorsey. Read over the recently released document “Teaching and Learning with Twitter,” published in connection with UNESCO. Include Elizabeth Warren’s fake ad experiment on Facebook, deliberately running misinformation to prove a point. Should Facebook allow free speech to go unchecked and unverified, or should it follow Twitter’s lead?

Disinformation literacy encompasses much more than website evaluation. Knowing your own biases, focusing on reading widely across all spectrums, and engaging in open, researched, and civil debates are solutions which teachers can use to combat the preventable spread of disinformation.

Jamie Gregory

Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.   


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