• February 29th, 2024
  • Thursday, 10:14:03 PM

Helping Students Sort Fact from Fiction

Photo: Institute for Policy Studies Olivia Alperstein


Olivia Alperstein


I was delighted to learn that New Jersey has become the first state in the country to require public schools to teach media literacy to K-12 students as a way to combat misinformation.


Everyone should be as lucky as I was to learn from someone like my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Nancy Livingston, who taught us how to determine if a claim is true or not. Don’t accept statements at face value, she warned us. Are sources cited? Are they reputable?


I’m from the era of the Mavis Beacon typing program, when our computer literacy instructions in school included how to conduct basic searches on Google or Ask Jeeves. If you were lucky, websites loaded in a matter of minutes.


It’s difficult for anyone of any age to figure out how to separate dodgy claims from verified news stories.


Sorting out true from false was challenging enough then. I can’t imagine growing up now, with so much instant disinformation online, and trying to sort it all when you’ve got apps that are specifically designed to dampen your critical thinking skills and trap you in information bubbles.


Journalists and advocates have documented how easy it is to go from watching videos about fitness, cryptocurrency, or video games to suddenly seeing content promoting anti-vaccine conspiracies or white supremacy. Even when websites remove harmful content, cynical nogoodniks and troll farms churn out disinformation at astronomical speed and volume.


The answer isn’t to prohibit kids from accessing social media entirely. As every generation can attest, if adults tell kids not to do something, most kids will naturally want to do it even more. All that would do is push kids onto the internet without the necessary skills to discern between fact and fiction, with potentially dangerous results.


What they really need is some common sense training for how to spot when they’re about to get into the back of a digital white van.


We now live in an era of short attention spans, and a lot of nuance gets lost in short videos, posts, or tweets. People respond to clickbait, provocative and misleading headlines, and content that is designed to make them angry and/or afraid.


It’s difficult for anyone of any age to figure out how to separate dodgy claims from verified news stories. Just look at the adults losing their life savings to crypto scams or sharing badly doctored videos of Anthony Fauci on Facebook.


Darker still, look at the fully grown adults who stormed the U.S. Capitol because they falsely believed the 2020 election was stolen. Or those who shoot and kill other people because of hateful, bigoted lies they’re told online, on TV, or on the radio.


A better world depends on younger generations’ ability to properly understand the problems we all face — and to recognize false solutions when they’re being peddled.


The people who teach us how to think, not just what to think, are the most influential people in our lives. I’m so proud that my home state is setting up younger generations for success by helping them better navigate a brave new world that makes 1984 look like Goodnight, Moon.


I hope that every other state in this country follows New Jersey’s example. Each and every student deserves a quality civic education and critical thinking skills in the same way kids learn geometry or physics.



Olivia Alperstein is the Deputy Communications Director at the Institute for Policy Studies. This commentary is distributed by Otherwords.


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