Mission:Information — Tackling Misinformation with News Literacy Curriculum

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Mission:Information — Tackling Misinformation with News Literacy Curriculum

Mission:Information

In a running joke on the show Futurama, a character continually bursts into rooms shouting, “good news, everyone!” The joke here is that the news is usually not good. But the character shouting it rarely seems to realize this. In an era of post-truth and alternative facts and fake news, it can feel like someone is continually bursting into a room and disrupting your expectations. If you constantly feel like the information you encounter is yanking the rug out from under you, so to speak, what are the ramifications? And how do we address the problem?

From Fake News to Misinformation

In 2016 researchers at Stanford conducted a study with a few thousand teenagers and found, among other things, that upwards of 80% of the teens in the study had trouble distinguishing between credible and non-credible information online. This Stanford study was certainly timely and helped to demonstrate some of the real world impacts of fake news and the importance of news literacy skills, which includes the ability to spot fake content online.

But it’s worth noting that fake news is deeply entwined, and is even symptomatic, of a number of other issues that affect the way people consume, share, find, and use news and information online. The problem of fake news is much bigger than news. What we’re really dealing with here is misinformation, or unreliable information of all kinds, from agenda-driven fake content and misleading headlines, to sponsored content and doctored images. And many of the various types of misinformation that exist today are not new. Everything from conspiracy theories to propaganda to snake oil sales techniques have a long history that predates the Internet.

We can learn from the past in order to better grapple with current misinformation challenges, including what drives this content and how people get fooled. But we can also recognize what makes present fake news and misinformation challenges unique, notably how the Internet mediates and even dominates how we consume and share information. If misinformation and other fake content has flooded the main tool we use to share, find, and create information of all kinds, then we have a serious problem.

Exploring Collaborative Solutions

Education and news literacy skills play a key role in helping people recognize and push back against misinformation. News literacy can and should be about empowering people to be not only savvy consumers of information but also strong producers and distributors of information online. And when people have the skills to contribute online, and feel welcome to do so, they can help create news and information ecosystems, and an Internet, that is open, informative, dynamic, and diverse.

When people struggle to deal with a sea of misinformation they can start to feel anywhere from cynical to demoralized to apathetic. And the Internet itself can feel less like a welcoming place to exchange ideas and more like a system that is segmented and divisive. If the Internet mediates how we engage with information, then misinformation can mediate how we engage with, and how we feel about, the Internet and information itself.

What is increasingly vital today is the need for collaborative efforts to tackle the issues of misinformation from a variety of angles. No one group, be it educators or developers or journalists or politicians, is going to solve the challenges of misinformation alone (a lesson I took away from my time at MisinfoCon in February 2017). Misinformation, with its complex array of factors and causes and consequences, requires approaches that consider everything from algorithms to media funding models to fact checking tools to education efforts. The solutions to misinformation are going to have to be as wide-ranging and as complex as misinformation itself.

Mission:Information

My own journey to working on a collaborative, educational effort to tackle misinformation has been a winding one. When I first saw the 2016 Stanford study, my reaction was one of recognition more than surprise. As a librarian who works closely with teens, I’ve focused on helping teens build up their information and news literacy skills. And I’ve long been aware of how challenging that process can be for all people, but especially for youth. Librarians have helped people develop news and information literacy skills for a very long time, and when reactions to the current fake news epidemic began emerging I was eager to put my skills as librarian to good use.

For the past few months I’ve been working with a team as the lead curriculum designer to develop an open-source news and web literacy curriculum for teens called Mission:Information. This curriculum project started during a November 2016 breakfast meeting I had with a friend who works at Mozilla and snowballed from there. An opportunity to attend the first ever MisinfoCon at MIT really helped this project grow and expand. The collaborative spirit of MisInfoCon and the decision to map the curriculum onto Mozilla’s foundational Web Literacy standards really helped to bring the project together and to solidify the interdisciplinary approach of the curriculum which reflects tech, media, and educator perspectives.

Mission:Information was created with support from the Mozilla Foundation and the project team consists of partners from the Austin Monitor, Open Austin, Mozilla, and my own organization, Nucleus Learning Network. While we opted to address misinformation and fake news with a youth-focused education approach, the project team itself reflected a wide range of diverse perspectives, including educators, librarians, technologists, designers, and journalists.

The process of developing this curriculum was highly collaborative. A range of contributors met, consumed a variety of beverages, hashed out ideas, and iterated until we arrived at a set of three interactive, foundational lessons for middle and high school students. This curriculum is designed to work in a variety of environments, including classrooms, school and public libraries, and after-school programs.These lessons aim to empower students with the skills they need to be strong consumers, producers, and distributors of news and information online. We want youth to not only develop the news literacy skills they need to find, use, and create credible information but also to develop the web skills they need to fully participate in online news ecosystems.

The lessons in this curriculum are highly interactive and gives learners the chance to develop and unleash their fact-checking skills, to create and explore the ramifications of misinformation, and to sit in the editor’s chair and make decisions. But we also want to empower educators as well, from classroom teachers to librarians to out-of-school educators, with support materials and training opportunities so they can delve into this content with confidence.

As we’ve rolled out the curriculum this summer we’ve had the chance to test out content with students at an Austin, TX high school, who had some genuinely exciting “a-ha” moments when they uncovered fake content during an activity. We’ve also been able to offer presentations and trainings to educators to help them adapt and use the curriculum. So many educators are doing fantastic work with news literacy and we’re excited to support those endeavors with this curriculum.

Heading into fall we’re excited to find partners who want to test out this curriculum (and provide feedback) and who want to collaborate on future evolutions of this project. The Mission:Information curriculum is just getting started. The current curriculum aims to provide youth with a foundational news and web literacy skill set. But we’re eager to expand the curriculum to include more civics education content, computer science content, and to adapt lessons for younger learners. Misinformation is a complex set of issues and educational approaches to those issues need to embrace that complexity.

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