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Are children equipped to navigate post-truth societies?

01 Apr 2019
Are children equipped to navigate post-truth societies?

By Patrizia Faustini

In 2014 the World Economic Forum called the rapid spread of misinformation online one of the ten most critical issues for our societies. A 2016 Stanford study of 7,800 student responses from middle school to college highlighted discomforting results. Researchers found that students had a “dismaying inability” to recognize the difference between: fake and real news, advertising and journalistic writing, neutral and biased sources and fake and real social media accounts. Results of the Stanford survey “shocked” the researchers, they said. According to the Global Digital Report from We Are Social and Hootsuite, in 2018 there were 4 billion people worldwide using the internet, and nearly a quarter of a billion new users had come online for the first time in 2017. The global number of people using social media has grown by 13 percent in the past 12 months, with Central and Southern Asia recording the fastest gains (up 90 percent and 33 percent respectively). Children comprise approximately one in three of all internet users, as explained in the UNICEF Innocenti Discussion Paper One in Three: Internet Governance and Children’s Rights. In more developed countries, children under the age of 18 comprise approximately one-fifth of the population; in less developed countries, however, children constitute a substantially greater percentage of the total population – between one-third and one-half of the population. The complexity of the information environment that news consumers are immersed in today requires new abilities and skills to navigate safely. The rapid spread of ‘fake news’ has amplified the necessity for all internet users to learn how to separate fact from fiction, how to recognize the difference between opinion and facts. As more and more people rely mostly or entirely on internet news sources, it is increasingly difficult for them to maintain the capacity to distinguish between true and false, good and bad, and right or wrong on many practical issues. Children and young people tend to be avid users of social media. As shown in a recent UNICEF Innocenti paper, the impact of digital technology use can have positive impacts on children’s mental well-being. However, relatively little research has been conducted on children’s exposure to false or misleading content and online interactions.     While the overall trend of youth literacy (aged 15-24) is positive, in a society where objective facts are becoming less influential than emotion and belief in shaping public opinion, education systems can miss an historical opportunity to provide children with the skills and tools necessary to critically assess information sources. How can we prepare savvy citizens to quickly separate myth from fact? How can we ensure young people do not lose their connection to the bulk of reliable inherited scientifically verified knowledge?  And then how can research matters to reduce inequality and increase educational opportunities if evidence is constantly discredited by counter-narratives propagating appeals to emotions and personal beliefs?
Although research and evidence can be bent for special interests, post-truth epistemology cannot simply be reduced to “denying truth and giving all opinions equal weight.” On the contrary, schools and educational curricula can and must play a critical role in equipping children to recognize misinformation
Although research and evidence can be bent for special interests, post-truth epistemology cannot simply be reduced to “denying truth and giving all opinions equal weight.” On the contrary, schools and educational curricula can and must play a critical role in equipping children to recognize misinformation and to tackle its spread online by cultivating truth-based reality through critical media literacy and historical analyses. Andreas Schleicher, education director of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, is planning to include questions about distinguishing what is true from what is not true in the next round of the influential international PISA tests. According to him, the scope is “to test children about their ability of engaging with diversity, to be open to that, to draw value out of it, and to see diversity not as a problem.” The same aspects are also measured by UNICEF Innocenti’s Global Kids Online survey and will be the focus of an upcoming synthesis report due towards the end of 2019. A recent study shows that the spread of misinformation is driven by several mechanisms that create false beliefs, which once adopted, are rarely corrected. Content-selective exposure is the primary driver of content diffusion, and leads to the generation of homogenous clusters –  echo chambers – which have their own cascade dynamics.  Selection of information based on harmony with personal beliefs and “vision of the world” create a “comfort zone” where people feel safe. The lack of mediation between the news source and the final user gives rise to increasingly polarized and homogenous communities having similar consumption patterns. Members of these polarized communities then tend to read and discuss only what confirms their original convictions and beliefs. Developing critical thinking skills is one of the main objectives of an educational science of any time and today it remains one of the main antidote to the spread of fake news. How to force students out of their comfort zones and to break those echo chambers is still part of a debate among teachers and educators and maybe there is not one single answer. Interesting perspectives, ideas, strategies can be found on the net that suggest how to develop the ability of students to judge the credibility of information that comes from smartphones, tablets, and computers, but it is still a work in progress. All too often young people are seen as easily manipulated political storm troops where adults “exploit” them. If children and youth were truly treated as rights holders and provided –  by educational systems as duty bearers –   with the ability and skills to enjoy their “right to information” maybe they would be less vulnerable to these bubbles and echo chambers. The internet stimulated a great acceleration of globalization. And while many communities reaped the reward from increased communication and interaction between diverse cultures and peoples, mono-culture pockets defined and strengthened by post-truth echo-chambers were also propagated. The online debate on immunization, which has recently led WHO to raise the alarm about a dramatic increase in measles infections and outbreaks in Europe, shows how the circulation of fake news can potentially have even life-threatening impacts. How to help children and young people navigate fake news and misinformation online is one of the key questions for education in the years ahead.
Patrizia Faustini is a Senior Communication Associate at the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti.