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Toxic content on the web: The answer is education, not regulation

Toxic content on the web: The answer is education, not regulation
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What should we do about the disinformation and toxic content that fills the web? A solution recently proposed by British security minister Ben Wallace is to force tech giants to monitor and remove objectionable content. If they don’t, tax them until they do.

This plan might work if the internet consisted of Facebook, Google and Twitter. But websites of shady quality multiply at a dizzying pace. Trying to erase toxic digital content is a futile game of Whac-A-Mole: Strike it down in one place and in a few seconds, it mocks you by popping up elsewhere. 

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Sure, the tech giants should do their part to clean up a mess they’ve helped create. But we deceive ourselves when we think there’s a regulatory answer to our widespread confusion. The real question is how to create an informed citizenry in an age when we meet the world through a screen. Figuring this out is neither a regulatory nor a technological challenge. It’s an educational one.

 

So far, the report card is filled with Ds and Fs. First off, there’s the widely held myth that it’s the adults with the problem, that our kids are the digital impresarios. Unfortunately, this belief confuses the ability to fluidly operate digital devices with the sophistication needed to evaluate the information such devices yield.

Between January 2015 and June 2016, my research team tested students in 12 states and analyzed 7,804 responses. At each level — middle school, high school and college — we encountered a dismaying consistency. Young people’s ability to reason about online content can be summed up in a single word: Bleak. This finding extends well beyond American shores. Research on three continents and five countries (Finland, Norway, Canada, Australia and Switzerland) reveals that the technological prowess attributed to digital natives is the stuff of fancy not fact.

Our current materials for teaching web credibility are shockingly dated. One popular guide, “Five Criteria for Web Evaluation,” appears on websites from Illinois State University to Cornell, and scores of sites in between. Students are provided checklists and told to evaluate a site by asking whether it lists contact information, whether its links work and its information current, and whether it carries a preferred domain such as .gov or .org.

Answers to such questions might have meant something in 1998, when the “Five Criteria” appeared during the web’s Mesolithic era. But they carry little meaning on today’s internet, dominated by astroturfing (front groups pretending to be grassroots citizen groups), search engine optimization (the calculated gaming of search results), and canny lobbyists and public relations firms creating sites that pose as academic think tanks (with a roster of play-for-pay academics).

Public schools long have reflected our national mood and fears. When chemical companies dumped untreated waste into lakes and streams, schools rushed to create environmental education courses and held Earth Day celebrations. Today, in the face of information pollution, legislators in seven states have drafted bills to mandate courses in "media literacy" and “digital citizenship.” But squeezing a new elective into a jam-packed curriculum is like slapping new paint on a house teetering on its foundation: it gives it better street appeal but does little to address the underlying problem.

The answer is not to affix another barnacle to the curriculum’s hull. We need to rebuild the entire ship. What should history teaching look like when kids can go online and find “evidence” for the canard that “thousands” of black men put on grey uniforms to take up arms for the Confederacy? What should science teaching look like when anti-vaxxer sites maintain a “proven” link between autism and measles shots (despite a retraction by the journal publishing the claim and the fact that “no respectable body of opinion” supports the linkage)? What should language arts class look like when ad hominem arguments, name calling and “alternative facts” overwhelm civil discourse?

Technology can do many things, but it can’t teach discernment. In Thomas Jefferson’s day, an earlier technological revolution, the advent of moveable type, drastically lowered the cost of print. Jefferson watched with dismay as untrustworthy pamphlets and broadsides of dubious quality littered the streets.

Jefferson understood that a dark side accompanies the expansion of expression. We would do well to take his solution to heart, as well as to realize it won’t come cheap. “If we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Sam Wineburg is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and a professor of history at Stanford University. His current research includes how young people make decisions about what to believe on the internet.