If you’ve ever worried over how thousands of grown adults believe Tom Hanks and other celebrities are part of a cabal of pedophiles, you might have comforted yourself with the thought that the next generation will be better. Kids today grow up with the internet and social media. Surely they’ll be more sophisticated about spotting misinformation online, right?
Think again. According to a 2019 study from Stanford’s History Education Group, 96 percent of high school students believe claims found online without investigating the source. Fifty-two percent of students in the survey thought a falsified, grainy video shot in Russia was “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the 2016 election.
The struggle has far-reaching effects for both democracy — misinformation proliferated online during the pandemic and the 2020 election — and for children’s safety. The viral TikTok NyQuil Chicken Challenge, in which people claimed they boiled chicken in cold medicine and then ate it, is just one example of how students will sometimes engage in impulsive behaviors promoted online. In September 2022, fear that the challenge would become widespread spurred the FDA to release a public safety warning.
As misinformation continues to spread online, lawmakers are starting to take action. Last month, New Jersey’s state legislature became the first state to require public schools to teach students how to separate fact from fiction, passing an information literacy mandate for kindergarteners through 12th graders.
“There’s an urgent need for news literacy for people of all ages, so they know who to trust, what to believe, what to share, what to act on, not only in their personal and professional lives but also their civic life,” says Shaelynn Farnsworth.
“We wanted to ensure that all students will not only know how to properly vet information, but what to do with information, how to share it, how to cite it, how to explore it, how to develop it,” says Tricina Strong-Beebe, a librarian and advocacy chair with the New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL), a statewide professional organization that has spent years advocating for the bill to become law.
The state’s Department of Education is now working on curriculum standards for students in every grade level. The goal is for students to be able to evaluate all types of information, from newspapers and textbooks to social media. And though the curriculum isn’t yet in effect, other states — including Pennsylvania — are taking notice.
Students play active role in spreading misinformation
NJASL began advocating for a statewide K-12 information literacy law in 2016. Back then, states — including Pennsylvania — began introducing information and media literacy education bills due to the proliferation of misinformation during the 2016 election. Fake news sites ran articles with headlines like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump For President” or “WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS … Then drops another bombshell.” Online trolls, many of which were bot accounts, then spread this information using Twitter and Facebook in an effort to influence the election.
Since then, the problem has only gotten worse. It’s also been connected to real-life acts of violence. Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, was beaten with a hammer by a man known to engage with QAnon, the conspiracy theory based on a fabricated idea that a number of high-level government officials, Nancy Pelosi included, are involved in a Satanic child sex ring that tries to control politics and media.
In another instance, a Michigan man shot his wife and daughter after becoming entrenched in online conspiracy theories about modern medicine, 5G Towers and other QAnon claims, the Washington Post reported.
“There’s an urgent need for news literacy for people of all ages, so they know who to trust, what to believe, what to share, what to act on, not only in their personal and professional lives but also their civic life,” says Shaelynn Farnsworth, senior director of education partnership strategy with the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that works with school districts and state agencies across the country to provide resources for information literacy education programs.
Adults across the country are falling for rampant misinformation, so lawmakers started asking how they could prevent these issues from affecting the next generation. Farnsworth notes that it’s important to start teaching people to identify misinformation at a young age so that they continue to build skills as they grow older.
Schools, she says, should start teaching young students basic skills like how to identify the differences between fiction and nonfiction and where they can safely access accurate information about their interests online. “If they don’t have time to build the foundational knowledge and build the foundational skills, then that learning is lost,” Farnsworth says.
Students have also played an active role in spreading misinformation. Eager for likes, comments and other forms of engagement, young people may share a controversial story without properly evaluating the claims it makes. Strong-Beebe notes that students often tell her they want careers as influencers, and many are careless about what they post online.
“If they are going to be influencers, we want to make sure they have all the tools to make an informed collective with their information,” she says.
At the same time lawmakers were introducing bills aimed at increasing information literacy education, public primary schools were struggling to recruit librarians — one of the most valuable resources for teaching students how to identify reliable sources.
Philly has the worst librarian-to-student ratio in the country. In 2020, the district had only six librarians for over 125,000 students and 215 schools.
During the 2015-2016 school year, a survey conducted by NJASL and the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) found there were 20 percent fewer school library media specialists in the state than there had been in 2007-2008. Ninety-one school districts had no librarians, and more than 150 of the state’s school library media specialists worked in more than one school.
That’s part of why NJASL and NJLA were major advocates for the bill. Unlike classroom teachers who may specialize in particular ages or subjects, school library media specialists are trained in information — how to find it, how to evaluate its credibility, how to understand new types of information. They play a key role in passing this knowledge on to students, whether it’s through visiting classrooms to teach students how to conduct research online or through helping them find accurate nonfiction books in the library.
How New Jersey’s information literacy effort will work
The New Jersey bill was first introduced in 2016 as Bill A4858 by sponsors Assemblyman Wayne P. DeAngelo (D) and Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (D) and reintroduced each year until it passed with bipartisan support — a rarity these days. Securing bipartisan support was important for the bill, Strong-Beebe says, because providing students with the resources they need to find accurate information shouldn’t be politicized.
“School librarians have always had an unbiased approach to information,” Strong-Beebe says. “Our goal is to aid students to safely and effectively navigate that information. It’s not to teach children what to think, but how to effectively research so that they can make the final choice … We don’t want the narrative to be one-sided. We worked across the field because we really, truly believe that’s been our goal.”
The New Jersey State Board of Education will develop the standards and then hold public hearings to review them before implementing them in schools. The goal is to ensure that students learn about and know how to evaluate all different types of information, including digital, visual, social media, and printed texts.
Lessons could include how to identify the difference between primary and secondary sources, the differences between facts and opinions, and how to identify the differences between peer-reviewed articles and those that might appear on a blog or in a newspaper. The curriculum will engage both librarians and classroom teachers so that students are constantly building and reinforcing information literacy skills.
Other states, including Delaware and Illinois, have passed media literacy education mandates, but their scope is more limited than New Jersey’s. Illinois law, for instance, only requires one unit for high schoolers. Delaware’s law, passed in January, includes all K-12 students but focuses only on media literacy.
Strong-Beebe says that the difference between information and media literacy is that information literacy focuses on seeking and evaluating all types of sources. Media literacy focuses on new technologies, like the internet and social media, whereas information literacy covers all of that and older tools, like books, television, and other print media.
Like New Jersey, Pennsylvania legislators have also spent a number of years trying to get a bill passed that would mandate teaching students how to spot misinformation. For years, Representative Tim Briggs, a Democrat from King of Prussia, has been trying to get a media literacy education mandate passed.
He started in 2017 with a bill that would have required media literacy to be added to social sciences curriculums for grades one through 12, Philly Voice reported. The bill focuses on teaching students how to spot fake news and how to evaluate information they see online or on social media.
Since then, he’s continued reintroducing the bill and broadening its scope, expanding it to include students K-12. Why not expand it again to include all forms of information, like New Jersey has done? Strong-Beebe says New Jersey’s legislation can easily be adapted to other states interested in achieving similar goals.
And like New Jersey, Pennsylvania struggles with school librarian shortages, preventing students from learning to engage with traditional forms of information and new media. Statewide, 115 districts had only one school librarian, and 23 districts had no librarians at all, according to 2019 staffing data from the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.
Philly has the worst librarian-to-student ratio in the country. In 2020, the district had only six librarians for over 125,000 students and 215 schools, according to the Pennsylvania School Librarian Association.
Organizations like the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association have tried to address some of the resulting lapses in information literacy by helping connect journalists with local classrooms, where they can explain how they source and fact-check stories.
But the approach is imperfect. While trained to evaluate information, journalists aren’t librarians. They aren’t working with students every day of every age. That’s why the association remains supportive of media literacy education mandates like those championed by Representative Briggs.
“Our children, like the rest of us, are at our best when we can make decisions based on factual, reliable and trustworthy information. The ability to do this makes us better citizens, which strengthens not only our communities but also our democracy as a whole,” Barbara Hough Huesken, manager of legislative affairs for Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
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Information literacy is key to democracy's future. Photo by Photo by Giovanni Gagliardi on Unsplash