As students search for news online, it’s increasingly likely that they’ll come across the steady stream of disinformation on the web: conspiracy theories like QAnon, manipulated images and videos, false claims that the coronavirus is a hoax.
These stories and statements are regularly debunked by fact-checkers and news outlets. But some students believe them—and bring them into social studies classrooms.
These past few months, the election has been at the center of this: President Donald Trump consistently said, with no evidence, that the election had been stolen from him through massive voter fraud. Viral videos that wrongly claimed to show election officials sneaking in extra votes or burning ballots circulated on social media.
Online spread of disinformation and rumor like this has posed new challenges for civics teachers. Confronting it requires a different kind of news literacy education in the social studies classroom, experts say—one that goes beyond the common practices of encouraging students to see both sides of an issue and provide evidence to back up their claims.
“You need young people to be critical thinkers and question,” said Darcy Richie, the senior director of program and impact at Generation Citizen, an action civics education organization. “But there are also certain things that are true and not true.”
In a recent EdWeek Research Center survey, the majority of teachers, 86 percent, said they had not addressed Trump’s claims about voter fraud with students. When asked why not, most said that it wasn’t directly related to their subject, or that their students were too young to understand it. But a number also worried about community reaction: 18 percent said that addressing the topic could lead to complaints from parents, and 14 percent said that they feared being accused of indoctrinating students.
Teachers are “partnering with families to help [students] develop an understanding of reality,” said Richie. When parents are pushing back on established facts, that can be a “hard tightrope” to walk, she said.
In recent weeks—as state election officials repeatedly confirmed the integrity of the presidential election and the head of the General Services Administration formally recognized the results, starting the transition process—teachers say that questions about election-related disinformation have died down somewhat.
But the urgent need for information literacy education isn’t going away, said Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford University, and the executive director of the Stanford History Education Group.
“The election is a case study. And it’s an issue that’s occupying our attention at this moment. But it’s not merely the election,” he said. “We are dealing with a profound shift in how human beings access information.” That shift is central to civics education, Wineburg said.
“Every issue of public policy in which dollars and cents matters is an issue that is fought over on the internet,” he said. “The idea that [information literacy] is somehow a side issue—no. This is how we become informed on issues that will affect us in the ballot booth.”
Evaluating Unknown Sources
Fostering critical thinking year-round, and not just when controversial events are in the news, can get students into the habit of vetting information, said Richie. One way teachers do this is by setting “standards of proof"—for example, requiring students to present multiple sources to support a claim, she said.
Tracy Freeman usually takes this approach in her classes at Normal West High School in Normal, Ill., where she teaches U.S. history and government classes. But election disinformation has forced her to adapt the strategy somewhat.
In the days after the election, one student said they’d heard that Pennsylvania had bused in ballots bearing the names of dead people. “The student wanted to say it was factual,” Freeman said. “So then the class automatically said, ‘What are our sources?’”
Freeman usually requires that students cite two, and the student did name two outlets: Fox News, and The Gateway Pundit, a far-right outlet that has previously spread hoaxes and disinformation. But Freeman proposed in class discussion that they expand their search this time: They checked their local news station, which wasn’t reporting anything about the supposed Pennsylvania incident. And she showed them an interview with a law professor, who explained that there wasn’t widespread evidence of dead people voting.
Finally, Freeman suggested that they wait a week. They could keep listening to on-the-ground reporting from national news outlets like NPR (“They’re in the middle of rallies with microphones—they’ll have people who will find out for us,” Freeman said), and the student could look for other evidence, as well.
When they checked in again, the student was reconsidering his initial claim. “He said, ‘I think I’m making a sweeping generalization,’” said Freeman.
She generally tries to frame conversations in this way—not telling students that they’ve absorbed disinformation but asking them to evaluate it and come to that conclusion themselves.
Still, getting to the facts requires more than just consulting multiple sources and evaluating the evidence, experts agree. Students also need to learn how to evaluate the messenger.
For example, there’s a difference between standards-based news and “demi-news” outlets that are openly partisan, said Peter Adams, the senior vice president of education at the News Literacy Project. Not all sources are created equal, he said.
Again, experts say that teachers shouldn’t be the ones handing down judgments about which sources are trustworthy and which aren’t. They can teach students how to do this work themselves.
One technique for this is “lateral reading,” taught in the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum from the Stanford History Education Group. It prompts students to ask who’s behind the information they’re reading, and whether that entity has an agenda. When presented with an unfamiliar website, lateral readers look at what other trusted sources have to say about that site.
Research from SHEG has found that while this is how professional fact-checkers approach the web, it’s not how college students do. Instead, students generally close-read the original, unfamiliar site, looking at the “About” page, embedded links, and the site’s domain address. These are techniques that schools have long taught for evaluating online information. But, a SHEG report argues, they aren’t effective ways to determine if a site is attempting to hide partisan affiliation, or worse, spread disinformation.
It seems “deceptively simple,” Wineburg said, but “if you want to know if an unfamiliar website is unreliable, don’t study it—leave it.”
‘Asking Them to Think’
This discovery process can be empowering for students and make them feel like savvy consumers, said Daniel Bachman, a government teacher at Massapequa High School in New York.
He remembered earlier in the election cycle, when one student identified a manipulated video, a “deepfake,” of then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. “They enjoy finding out that it’s fake more than they enjoy defending that it’s real,” Bachman said.
Showing students how easy it is to be misled can help them acknowledge the threat of fake news, said Wineburg. “No adolescent wants to be an easy mark,” he said.
“To watch yourself fall into a puddle with supreme confidence, and then to wipe yourself off and wash the mud out of your hair, is a much more powerful experience than someone telling you, look there’s a puddle, be sure not to step in it,” Wineburg added.
Freeman says encouraging students to lead the information-vetting process can also put parents’ minds at ease.
“I’m not telling them to challenge your beliefs,” she says she tells parents at back-to-school night, every year. “I’m asking them to think.”
This year, though, she didn’t have the opportunity for that presentation: Her school started the year online and didn’t have an in-person parent-teacher night. But she knows parents are still paying attention, either listening in on classes or discussing with their children: Some parents have mentioned specifics from her lessons in emails, in passing.
Fred Cole, a high school social studies teacher in Marquette, Mich., is in the same situation, with some students learning from home. But having spent 20 years teaching at Marquette Senior High School, he’s banking on his reputation for being even-handed. “I think it would be much harder for a new teacher,” he said.
The best move is to inform families “early and often” about what you’ll be talking about in class, how it will be covered, and why, said Richie.
“A lot of the conversations about the integrity of the election hinge on patriotism as a value,” said Adams. “So [teachers can frame] conversations in that way, saying the integrity of the election is important, and so are free and fair elections. So, it’s important for us to get to the facts.”
Empowering Students to Make Choices
News literacy has been a hot topic this presidential election cycle, but it’s always relevant in civics education, said Richie.
It’s especially important for students to have these vetting skills when they search for information about state and local issues, she said.
These issues aren’t always covered as widely in the national press: If students are looking for regular coverage of homelessness in their communities, she said, “they’re not going to get that from the New York Times.” Students may have to evaluate sources they’re not as familiar with.
And there’s an entire universe of falsity and disinformation outside of politics. For example, said Freeman, students have asked her this year whether it’s true that wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus can cause cancer. (There’s no evidence that it can).
Patricia Hunt, a social studies teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., makes information literacy a focus of her government classes. Her students study news coverage for what it can teach them about politics and civic processes, but they also analyze the coverage itself, dissecting about 30 articles each year. Her goal, Hunt said, is to empower students to make informed choices in society—in politics, but also in areas like health and finance.
In thinking about how news literacy and civics are so linked, Hunt comes back to a favorite quote from Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher most well-known for her analysis of power and authoritarian governments:
What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.
News literacy feels urgent for the health of democracy, Hunt said. “We rely so much on people making choices. And if people are misinformed, then we won’t be making the right choices. That’s why I spend so much time on this. It’s fragile.”