Let’s teach 1 million teenagers how to spot fake news by 2020

Here’s a New Year’s resolution — let’s teach 1 million teenagers how to spot fake news online by 2020.

Achieving this objective is vital in keeping our republic the strongest in the world. 2019 must be the year that we stop ignoring that our democracy, while still the standard, is becoming ill and requires our attention.

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That’s why this year MediaWise, which is funded by Google.org, will be teaching a new generation of kids to become skilled evaluators of digital content.

And it’s truly needed — the data and anecdotal evidence reads like a poor medical screening.  

How bad is it?

Manipulated photos and videos flood social media, hoaxers are able to compete with legitimate news sources, and foreign countries are attacking our country with disinformation. It’s no wonder teens are so confused as to what to believe online.

It has reached a chronic level, too. In a 2016 study from Stanford University, researchers evaluated students' ability to assess information sources. The researchers described the results as "dismaying," "bleak" and "[a] threat to democracy."

MediaWise wants to change this, though. As part of the Google News Initiative, it aims to teach 1 million teenagers how to spot fake news on the internet by 2020, with at least half of them coming from underserved or low-income communities.

“If misinformation on the internet is a disease,” says Katy Byron, editor and program manager of MediaWise, “then MediaWise is like the Red Cross.”

Making teens trust people over 30

Learning how to identify fake news probably isn’t a top priority compared to the many other distractions of adolescence. Media literacy also isn’t a focus in school. Unlike math or English, most students will never take a class on media or digital literacy. So this makes it tricky to appeal to teenagers.

That’s why MediaWise is being creative.

One way they plan on reaching the youth is by talking to them where they are — online. MediaWise has partnered with YouTube creators and other social media influencers to get their lessons and message out.

A major influencer MediaWise has partnered with is John Green, host and co-creator of the CrashCourse, a YouTube channel which has over 8.5 million subscribers. This month CrashCourse is launching a 10-part series on navigating digital information.

MediaWise is also hosting big and small in-person teaching sessions across the country, and they are starting January off with a bang. They will be going to three schools in Houston this month where they will be teaching over 1,700 students.

MediaWise wants to get into the traditional classrooms, too. Using curriculum that the Stanford History Education Group is creating, MediaWise will make these materials available to schools nationally in the fall of 2019. Stanford is writing this curriculum after studying how professional fact-checkers, college students, and historians navigate digital information.

Maybe not 1 million, but you can reach at least one

Okay, so you might not have 8 million social media subscribers. Maybe you can’t travel across the states, and you probably don’t have time to write curriculum.

But do you have time for a conversation with your child about where they get their news from? Or better yet, you could watch the 10-part CrashCourse series with them to open up a dialogue about the topic.

You may be surprised how much your kid wants to talk about it. Byron, the manager of MediaWise, says students express to her that they don’t like being confused or tricked online. “There’s definitely a hunger there for more information on how to figure it out,” she says.

Feeling really inspired in the new year? You could look into how much digital literacy is taught in your school system. Not enough? Make your voice heard that this should be a priority in your child’s education.

Or contact MediaWise to see if there is a way they can do an event in your community.

Think of the compound effect we could make if we all worked toward this ambitious goal. One million could just be the start.

And then next year we can revisit your original resolution of shedding 10 pounds...  

Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and in several positions in PR. He's on Twitter at @AdamChiara.