It was just another day on Facebook a few weeks back as I scrolled to a particularly provocative post:
“I just saw this video of David Hogg and it looks suspicious to me,” wrote the poster, referring to a student at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of last month’s horrific shooting. It seems Hogg was not really a student, but a “crisis actor” — at least according to the video accompanying the post.
My response to the post, which included several sources refuting the “conspiracy theory,” was met with increasing doubt: “If that’s true, then why did YouTube just take the video down? That seems even more suspicious.”
In short, every reasoned response supported by credible evidence was, ironically, seen as more evidence for the conspiracy theory.
“The Parkland story line,” reported the Washington Post, “took advantage of emerging details about the surviving students — and even how they looked or talked during interviews with television reporters — to portray them as ‘crisis actors’ playing the roles of victims in a ‘false flag’ attack, a hoax designed to mislead the public and build support for gun control.”
“The success of this effort would soon illustrate how lies that thrive on raucous online platforms increasingly shape public understanding of major events,” added the Post story. “As much of the nation mourned, the story concocted in anonymous chat rooms soon burst onto YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, where the theories surged in popularity.”
Conspiracy theories — including those following the Sandy Hook and Las Vegas shootings — thrive on catastrophic events, and the internet facilitates their rapid dissemination. Indeed, a recent MIT study found that “falsehoods are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth” and that “false news reached 1,500 people about six times faster than the truth.”
Fittingly, my high school Media Literacy class was immersed in a unit called “Finding Truth in the Internet Age” when the Florida conspiracy theories were circulating.
Similarly, the Connecticut State Department of Education (SDE) recently initiated its Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety, and Media Literacy Advisory Council whose goal is to recommend “best practices” amid the increasingly complex media landscape.
Headed up by Dr. Melissa Hickey, SDE’s Reading/Literacy Director, the Council includes 12 members representing schools, parent-teacher organizations, and professionals with expertise in digital literacy. Regular meetings commenced in November.
“The Council’s priority right now is developing their document — The Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety and Media Literacy Advisory Council Guidelines — which they will then recommend to the State Board of Education for approval,” Peter Yazbak, SDE’s Communications Director, told me. “The Council is preparing guidelines for the field and consulting with experts, researching evidence-based practices, and compiling materials that would best assist stakeholders with instructional practices and methods.”
The name of the council outlines its areas of focus. According to meeting minutes Yazbak forwarded to me, these are the council’s specific objectives:
1. Digital Citizenship: Every student should “fully participate in 21st century society as a critical thinker” and “act responsibly and respectfully while using the internet to positively participate in a global community.” Clearly, “the younger we educate students about digital citizenship, the better.”
2. Internet Safety: Schools should support the “safety and security of individuals through interpersonal interactions in cyberspace that mirror the expectations we have for face-to-face interactions.” In particular, kids should be able to “recognize signs of cyberbullying” and protect their identities by understanding that they “leave a digital tattoo” with every online engagement.
3. Media Literacy: Schools should teach students to “critically analyze and evaluate websites, social media, and media content” so they can “use media as a resource to enhance, and not stunt, [intellectual] growth.”
It’s a tall task. After more than two decades teaching Media Literacy as a high school English elective, I can vouch for the growing complexity of the topic. But it’s also more relevant than ever. If so many adults nowadays can’t discern fact from fiction, imagine how challenging it can be for kids whose imaginations are even more susceptible to the typically “novel” and “surprising” qualities of false news, as the MIT researchers explain.
Let’s hope the essential work of the SDE’s Advisory Council is soon incorporated into school curricula in a significant way. This increased focus on digital literacy — perhaps more than any other current initiative — will have crucial and wide-ranging implications in the future.
Barth Keck is a father of three and an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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