FACT! LIE! Sad! We can barely open our internet browsers these days without being swamped by rival factions claiming territory over the truth in the news. Diametrically opposed viewpoints argue their case with vociferous energy, castigate their enemies and fight for airtime on conventional news websites or the pages of social media outlets. We seem to be living in a world of confusion and combativeness, and it isn’t likely to change soon.
How do we equip youngsters today to cope with the often quite pernicious effect of “fake news”? Up to now, when we were faced with rumours or scare stories, it was relatively easy to combat them. Newspapers were the august records of the day; anything reported in The Times could be said to be authoritative and, whilst the relationship between the tabloid press and the truth could be a little more tangential, there was a journalistic pride felt in writing the history of the future. Television too would be studiously impartial, balancing both sides of an argument to an almost paranoid degree.
Today’s landscape is much more complex. Perhaps the effect has been heightened through recent political events, but the partisan nature of much news reporting is too readily apparent. More worrying is the role of social media in the relaying of news events. On the positive side, outlets such as Twitter provide a literally up-to-the-minute guide to events taking place. However, no rules of journalistic balance or, in some cases, integrity apply and there is often no corroboration of the “news” event being claimed. This was seen most powerfully in the American presidential election, where the effect of sharing of bogus news stories, manipulation of statistics and the telling of downright lies is only just becoming apparent.
Even as adults, we need all our powers of perception to cut through the hollering voices to hear the truth. We also need to be aware of our own confirmation bias, and the dangers of the echo chamber inherent in following only those with whom we agree politically. What hope then for our children? No doubt they are sophisticated in their use of modern technology and their awareness of the newest platform, but that savviness ends when they encounter some of the more extreme cases of modern day propaganda where they may least expect it. And, whilst few youngsters will be radicalised into extremism or terrorism on the internet, a much wider number will find their political beliefs challenged and possibly moulded by some of what they see on their timelines. “The picture Facebook doesn’t want you to see…”, “The TRUTH about Hillary…” and many more headlines have a cumulative and corrosive effect on their world view.
Surely this calls for a 21st century approach in education? We need to equip our pupils with the skills needed to challenge the prevailing opinion and critically assess the information with which they are bombarded. We should be incorporating technology wherever possible in schools to make our children aware of its capabilities; A wealth of information is at their fingertips and all we need to do is to teach them how to access it.
On the contrary. I would argue that it’s more necessary now than ever to equip our pupils with knowledge as well as skills. The “just Google it” approach is fraught with difficulties as the websites accessed by search engines proliferate without moderation. Pupils need the secure foundations which allow them to challenge the seemingly plausible. Our youngsters need the bedrock of science principles and laws which they can use to critically evaluate evidence on climate change; they need the historical knowledge in order to assess the reliability of claims from modern sources; they need the cultural and literary hinterland which allows them to appreciate the richness of modern art and media. The irony is that in this age of instant information, the need for knowledge in the hard drives of our brains is more important than ever. We need to make sure our pupils have access to “the best which has been thought and said” not merely for its own sake, but as a survival kit essential for navigating the virtual jungle of the 21st century.
Kieran McLaughlin, Headmaster at Durham School