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The United States Congress hauled Mark Zuckerberg to Capitol Hill in October for a round of hard questions. What has he been doing about fake news? When will his army of Facebook fact-checkers get better at deleting disinformation? Why won’t he follow Twitter’s suit and ban political ads that threaten elections and democracy around the world?
Half a world away, in the classrooms of Europe that host Lie Detectors' news literacy project, schoolchildren couldn’t care less about Facebook or Twitter. “Video is king,” one journalist told us after spending a morning speaking with teenagers about disinformation and journalism. When children log in to see what’s happening in the world, it’s not generally news channels or even online dictionaries they consult. Visuals trump words and the channels of choice are in constant flux. Platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the big favourites, TikTok has emerged as a pre-teen favourite despite its age restrictions, and many use Twitch, gaming platforms and fandom sites.
Read Lie Detectors' report Tackling Disinformation Face to Face: Journalists’ Findings From the Classroom, with an external contribution by Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills, OECD
Fact-checking falls short
Diverse as these platforms are, they share a vital characteristic: they are increasingly hard to monitor for harmful content. Text by bots and trolls often circulates via screenshots in pixel form, invisible to artificial intelligence algorithms designed to detect them. In this landscape, disinformation travels unchecked internationally and across socio-economic divides. Rumours circulate in private chat groups, far from content moderators, fact-checkers or Facebook War Rooms. Savvy splicing of fact and fiction – a preferred method for distorting reality - make it almost impossible to tag or remove “fake” content without triggering accusations of censorship. And the elephant in the room is the expansion of deep fakes: the next generation of increasingly sophisticated doctored video content.
Regulatory options pose challenges
Faced with this, where should policymakers focus their attention?
Regulating “fake news” outright can turn all too easily into regulating free speech. In unusually blunt and stern wording, the European Commission dismissed efforts by the social media platforms to self-regulate - via the European Union’s Code of Practice - as falling unacceptably short of transparency or safeguards. This is hardly surprising given that many social media business models are based on triggering outrage and other emotions immune to logic and reason.
Not all is lost on the regulatory side, however, as more indirect forms of regulation hold some promise. On the telecoms side, India for instance has attempted to end so-called Free Basics bundles. These services give smartphone owners a cheap but narrow and potentially toxic window onto the world by combining a phone connection with a single app such as WhatsApp, but no access to other internet-based sources of information. Privacy regulation and a review of Europe’s e-commerce directive may be another avenue to regulate disinformation. And use of antitrust tools to rein in disinformation is gaining increasing traction as regulators consider whether Facebook and Google are monopolies or abuse their power. While promising and potentially necessary, all these options are politically fraught, likely to take time to pursue and restricted to individual countries or regions.
Resilience is key
Alongside all of these options, then, public resilience to false narratives and distorted representations of truth must play a central role in bolstering democracy for generations to come. Luckily, a growing number of media literacy and news literacy initiatives exist, and some forward-looking governments have started paying attention. An essential focus must be placed on schoolchildren and their teachers. In this context, our findings from hundreds of classroom visits in Germany, Austria and Belgium show strong appetite for this approach.
How should this be done? Mandating media literacy in school curricula is a positive step. But it’s not enough. A growing number of teachers are aware of a pressing need to raise the topic with their students, but many feel ill-equipped. They need support and training to address media and news literacy in every classroom, regardless of class subject. Children must be made aware not only of the dangers of the online universe, but also of the value of distinguishing between a truth, a lie and an opinion. If we are to avoid a creeping “fake fatigue”, in which citizens capitulate to a sense of pervading uncertainty, we must empower young people with tools to spot and unravel false content. The most elemental of these tools is their own ability to think critically. The OECD’s Director of Skills and Education, Andreas Schleicher, wrote recently that 21st century literacy involves the ability to “triangulate, evaluate and build knowledge”.
Any journalist reading Mr Schleicher’s description will recognise it as exactly what good reporters do every day. One solution – and one that Lie Detectors works with – is therefore to deploy journalists into schools to start a conversation on this tricky subject: one that will bridge the growing digital gap between old and young and address the growing reliance among young people on visual rather than text-based information sources. Yet journalist resources are scarce, and this should only be an interim fix. Encouraging social media platforms to enter the education field themselves may seem a quick solution. But media literacy – and the guarantees it affords to democracy – is too big a responsibility to be outsourced to a largely unregulated private sector with conflicts of interest.
A long-term and durable solution is for the OECD’s own PISA to include a stronger focus on critical thinking and a literacy adapted to the 21st century. Governments should make this 21st century multi-source literacy a part of all teacher training curricula. Generations ago, governments around the world set a target that every child should be able to read, write and count. In the 21st century, the healthy functioning of democracies will rely on every child’s ability to learn to check a fact.