Katy Byron is the editor and program manager of Poynter’s MediaWise, a non-profit project spearheaded by the Google News Initiative and funded by Google.org, which aims to teach 1 million students how to discern fact from fiction online by 2020. Other partners include the Stanford History Education Group, Local Media Association and National Association for Media Literacy Education.
Misinformation on the internet is difficult for everyone to detect, truly an age-agnostic problem. Many people think teenagers are better at spotting fake news because they grew up with the internet. A recent study supports that stereotype.
However, Stanford History Education Group research has shown that teens struggle deeply with these issues. And I spoke to dozens of teenagers last week about this and they all said the same thing: they need help.
So who can they turn to? Who can they learn from and ask questions?
That’s what the MediaWise project is all about — we are working to help teens think more critically when consuming content online. We want to make teens smarter to have a lasting impact.
Last week, MediaWise multimedia reporters Hiwot Hailu and Allison Graves and I went on tour in Houston with our fact-checking tips greatest hits. It was a whirlwind. We spoke to nearly 2,000 students and teachers at three schools in four days. For all the students who couldn’t fit into the auditoriums, we created an online video version of our teaching — and more than 3,000 students watched it in their classrooms.
This was the first time we went right into the schools to teach students in person. We have held events at other venues like at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in October. But this was my dream scenario — to get into schools to reach as many students as possible. And it worked.
For our first big event, we spoke to more than 600 students at Memorial High School. We showed them five tips they can use to do their own fact-checking online by using real-world examples of posts on social media. Then we had them vote through a live Instagram poll on our @MediaWise account, on whether or not they thought the post was legit. The looks on their faces when we told them to get out their phones to participate in the presentation — that an adult was telling them to actually use their phone in school — was memorable.
It was really fun, the teens were engaged and the feedback was incredible. Several students came up to my team and me afterwards and thanked us for teaching skills like lateral reading and reverse Google image search.
We sat down with a smaller group of students afterwards and took some quick polls. Only two out of 16 of them had heard of a reverse Google image search before our presentation. About half of them admitted to sharing fake news on social media in the past. And when I asked them if they even care about knowing if what they share on social media is real or fake — all of them said, “Yes.”
I chatted with Hanna Landa, a 16-year-old sophomore there, and asked her if she thought the event was helpful. She said, “Definitely. I think every time I read something I’ll be more careful.” I wanted to give her a hug.
The next day, we taught more than 500 teachers and students at Spring Woods High School nearby. One teacher thanked me after our workshop there, saying she has felt “powerless” trying to teach her students about digital literacy and that she’s so glad someone is out there trying to address these issues and arm teachers with these tools.
During our event at Spring Forest Middle School later that week, less than half of the eighth grade class of 300 students could tell a viral photo claiming to show Jason Derulo falling down the stairs at the Met Gala was fake.
We spoke to a small group of these 13- and 14-year-olds afterwards and they said they felt strongly these skills should be taught in their classrooms by their teachers. Some suggested this material be taught to younger students, as early as fourth or fifth grade, so as early as 9 or 10 years old.
In general, I think this age group is underestimated — grown-ups think they don’t understand the significance of fake news and misinformation. But they are wrong.
Many teachers last week recommended we hammer home how important it is to know what is reliable information online when speaking to students. But after speaking with teens directly, I am confident that they understand that their decisions IRL are directly impacted by what they read on their social media feeds.
They also appreciate that what they read online now will one day impact how they choose to vote. One eighth grader at Spring Forest, Austin LaRue, put it succinctly, saying, ”With politics, people try to sway your opinion based on your ignorance on the subject.”
Overall, I would call our Houston swing a huge success and I couldn’t be happier. And now, we’re getting requests from other schools faster than we can keep up. We’re talking to teachers and principals in Evansville, Indiana, Anaheim, California, the Appalachian region of Ohio, and many others. Momentum is building and the appetite for these teachings and this information is staggering. We’re just trying to keep up! (And if you want us to come to your school, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
One parting thought: If there is one thing I have learned in my short time managing this project, it’s that the demand is there. Teens want to learn how to discern fact from fiction online — and being a teenager today is really, really hard.