Shawn Lee, a high school social studies teacher in Seattle, wants to see lessons on the internet akin to a kind of 21st century driver’s education, an essential for modern life.
Lee has tried to bring that kind of education into his classroom, with lessons about the need to double-check online sources, to diversify newsfeeds and to bring critical thinking to the web. He’s also created an organization for other teachers to share resources.
“This technology is so new that no one taught us how to use it,” Lee said. “People are like, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ and they throw their hands in the air. I disagree with that. I would like to think the republic can survive an algorithm.”
Lee’s efforts are part of a growing movement of educators and misinformation researchers working to offset an explosion of online misinformation about everything from presidential politics to pandemics. So far, the U.S. lags many other democracies in waging this battle, and the consequences of inaction are clear.
But for teachers already facing myriad demands in the classroom, incorporating internet literacy can be a challenge — especially given how politicized misinformation about vaccines, public health, voting, climate change and Russia’s war in Ukraine has become. The title of a talk for a recent gathering of Lee’s group: “How to talk about conspiracy theories without getting fired.”
“It’s not teaching what to think, but how to think,” said Julie Smith, an expert on media literacy who teaches at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri. “It’s engaging about engaging your brain. It’s asking, ‘Who created this? Why? Why am I seeing it now? How does it make me feel and why?’”
New laws and algorithm changes are often offered as the most promising ways of combating online misinformation, even as tech companies study their own solutions.
Teaching internet literacy, however, may be the most effective method. New Jersey, Illinois and Texas are among states that have recently implemented new standards for teaching internet literacy, a broad category that can include lessons about how the internet and social media work, along with a focus on how to spot misinformation by cross-checking multiple sources and staying wary of claims with missing context or highly emotional headlines.
Media literacy lessons are often included in history, government or other social studies classes, and typically offered at the high school level, though experts say it’s never too early — or late — to help people become better users of the internet.
Finnish children begin to learn about the internet in preschool, part of a robust anti-misinformation program that aims to make the country’s residents more resistant to false online claims. Finland has a long history of combating propaganda and misinformation spread by one of its neighbors, Russia, and expanded its current efforts after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea set off another wave of disinformation.
“Media literacy was one of our priorities before the time of the internet,” Petri Honkonen, Finland’s minister of science and culture, said in a recent interview. “The point is critical thinking, and that is a skill that everybody needs more and more. We have to somehow protect people. We also must protect democracy.”
Honkonen spoke with The Associated Press earlier this year during a trip to Washington that included meetings to discuss Finland’s work to fight online misinformation. One recent report on media literacy efforts in western democracies placed Finland at the top. Canada ranked seventh, while the U.S. came in at No. 18.
In Finland the lessons don’t end with primary school. Public service announcements offer tips on avoiding false online claims and checking multiple sources. Additional programs are geared toward older adults, who can be especially vulnerable to misinformation compared to younger users more at home on the internet.
In the U.S., attempts to teach internet literacy have run into political opposition from people who equate it to thought control. Lee, the Seattle teacher, said that concern prevents some teachers from even trying.
Several years ago, the University of Washington launched MisinfoDay, which brought high schoolers and their teachers together for a one-day event featuring speakers, exercises and activities focused on media literacy. Seven hundred students from across the state attended one of three MisinfoDays this year.
Jevin West, the University of Washington professor who created the event, said he’s heard from educators in other states and as far away as Australia who are interested in creating something similar.
“Maybe eventually, someday, nationally here in the United States, we have a day devoted to the idea of media literacy,” West said. “There are all sorts of things we can do in terms of regulations, technology, in terms of research, but nothing is going to be more important than this idea of making us more resilient” to misinformation.
For teachers already struggling with other classroom demands, adding media literacy can seem like just one more obligation. But it’s a skill that is just as important as computer engineering or software coding for the future economy, according to Erin McNeill, a Massachusetts mother who started Media Literacy Now, a national nonprofit that advocates for digital literacy education.
“This is an innovation issue,” McNeill said. “Basic communication is part of our information economy, and there will be huge implications for our economy if we don’t get this right.”
The driver’s education analogy comes up a lot when talking to media literacy experts. Automobiles first went into production in the early 20th century and soon became popular. But it was nearly three decades before the first driver’s education courses were offered.
What changed? Governments passed laws regulating vehicle safety and driver behavior. Auto companies added features like collapsible steering columns, seat belts and air bags. And in the mid-1930s, safety advocates began to push for mandated driver’s education.
That combination of government, industry and educators is seen as a model by many misinformation and media literacy researchers. Any effective solution to the challenges posed by online misinformation, they say, must by necessity include an educational component.
Media literacy in Canadian schools began decades ago and initially focused on television before being expanded throughout the digital era. Now it’s accepted as an essential part of preparing students, according to Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, an organization that leads media literacy programs in Canada.
“We need speed limits, we need well-designed roads and good regulations to ensure cars are safe. But we also teach people how to drive safely,” he said. “Whatever regulators do, whatever online platforms do, content always winds up in front of an audience, and they need to have the tools to engage critically with it.”