We began the annual unit I call “Finding Truth in a Digital World” last week in my Media Literacy classes. The first lesson involved the Pacific Northwest tree octopus.
“The Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) can be found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America,” according to a website dedicated to the strange creature. “Unlike most other cephalopods, tree octopuses are amphibious, spending only their early life and the period of their mating season in their ancestral aquatic environment.”
If you’re skeptical regarding the existence of such an organism, good for you! It doesn’t exist. The Pacific Northwest tree octopus is a mythical creature used to test the digital literacy skills of students. When the elaborate website was introduced in 2006 to 25 middle school students in Connecticut, not one of them detected the hoax, and 24 of them labeled the website “very credible.”
These were the findings of Donald Leu, a Neag School of Education professor at the University of Connecticut. In an interview one decade following the study, Leu lamented that “we have wasted 10 years” in our teaching of internet literacy.
“I don’t necessarily like to use this term in public, but … we have a generation of digital natives who are also digital doofuses,” said Leu. “They are natives when it comes to video, social networks, and texting, but they are doofuses when it comes to information. They do not know how to locate information or evaluate information, and they do not know how to communicate information in a richer context beyond text messaging.”
Sadly, it’s not limited to kids. Countless adults nowadays are also digital doofuses, a fact demonstrated emphatically by what happened at the U.S. Capitol last week when “hundreds of pro-Trump rioters swarmed the building, leaving four people dead and forcing the Senate to evacuate and Vice President Mike Pence to be ushered to safety.”
Of the 62 lawsuits filed by the Trump legal team alleging voter fraud, 61 lost in the courts – the only successful case involved votes in Pennsylvania that did not change that state’s election outcome. In similar fashion, all of Trump’s conspiracy theories regarding voter fraud in Georgia – several of which he parroted in a phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2 – have been repeatedly debunked.
But that didn’t stop angry Trump supporters from storming the Capitol in a planned protest of the election encouraged by the president himself.
“As a reluctant chronicler of our poisoned information ecosystem, to me none of this is very surprising,” wrote New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel. “It is the culmination of more than five years of hatred, trolling, violent harassment, and conspiracy theorizing that has moved from the internet’s underbelly to the White House and back again. While that hate and violence has on occasion spilled into the streets, it appears we’re only beginning to understand its true impact.”
“For years now, professional grifters, trolls, true believers, and political opportunists have sowed conspiratorial lies, creating intricate and dangerous alternate realities,” added Warzel. “We are now witnessing the reaping. It is likely to get worse.”
Farhad Manjoo, another Times columnist and author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” noted how Trump’s phone call to Raffensperger involved conspiratorial fodder affiliated with QAnon, “a wide-ranging, completely unfounded theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media.”
“In that phone call, I heard a president who is somehow both rabbit and rabbit hole – as much a rabid consumer of online conspiracy propaganda as he is a producer of it,” wrote Manjoo. “The plot to undo the 2020 election isn’t Trump’s alone – it is also the product of a sprawling online phenomenon whose goals, logic, and methods are as unpredictable as the internet itself.”
Manjoo explained how the current information ecosystem consists of hyper-partisan media outlets and social media platforms that enjoy a “symbiotic relationship” in which they act “a bit like jazz musicians improvising, each one punching up the other’s riff.”
It’s a poetic description, but beneath the poetry lies a society on the precipice of chaos, underscored by the chilling events in Washington last week.
So, what to do?
Many have called for more action on the “production side” of the misinformation avalanche, notably social media platforms like Twitter, which last week permanently banned Donald Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
But that’s a controversial move, questioned by some free-speech advocates and a topic worthy of its own dedicated discussion. My focus here is squarely on the consumer side, especially the kids.
I place my hope with the younger generation. Many adults have become hopelessly obsessed by their views, a reality demonstrated on my own Facebook feed by a small but vociferous cabal of FB “friends” who remain faithful to their conspiracy theories, immune to any evidence-based fact checks I send their way. Our impressionable youth, on the other hand, can still learn anew about the power of digital information and how to discern fact from fiction.
The middle schoolers of 2006 might have been fooled by the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, but media literacy education offered today in all grades can teach kids ways to recognize all of the insidious misinformation out there. It’s a strategy already endorsed by the Connecticut Department of Education, so let’s get moving – now!
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.