TMI! The new information environment

Lies, truth, misinformation, and disinformation

In Education Forum’s fall 2020 issue, Chris Samuel asked, “How do you write about facts in the era of Trump, Brexit, and Ford?”i In this time of information abundance, and for educators in particular, an extension of this question might be: What are the implications of lies, truth, misinformation, and disinformation for students and for teaching? With a near constant online presenceii and extensive use of social media, students are developing new literacies and meaning-making habits that aren’t always visible in their in-school behaviours. In this article, we look at the new information environment, changing patterns of student behaviours, and implications for pedagogy.

The new information environment
The new information environment is characterized by virtual spaces that are prone to overwhelming mis- and disinformation, posing risks and real-world consequences to society. Misinformation consists of information that is false or contradictory to expert knowledge, while disinformation is a deliberate effort to knowingly present and circulate misinformation in order to gain power, money, or status.iii Consumers of such information can be influenced by the opinions and attitudes expressed online.

On a global scale, mis- and disinformation has become a public health threat during COVID-19 and wreaked havoc on political processes, including elections in Canada, Britain, and the U.S..iv Throughout the pandemic, mis- and disinformation ranged from damaging health advice, such as the recommendations to consume bleach and disregard mask use, to politically- driven conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus and how it spreads. This misinformation played a major role affecting the public health behaviours of people, such as their willingness to obey public health measures or get vaccinated.v False and misleading information online also had a notable influence on people’s political beliefs, as various tactics, like conspiracy-motivated propaganda and imposter accounts, played a significant role in the American 2020 election.vi

Even when an individual takes it upon themselves to fact-check information, which can reduce the spread of mis- or disinformation, it is common for many to base their decisions on pre-existing attitudes, values, and political feelings.vii In that vein, young people are particularly susceptible, especially when the mis- or disinformation comes from sources with a large public following or is embedded within entertainment content.

Students as producers and consumers in the new information environment
With increasing amounts of time spent online and changing patterns of usage, students are inherently vulnerable in the new information environment. According to a Pew Research Report, 95 per cent of teenagers have or have access to a smartphoneviii, with many using online spaces as their preferred method of socialization. For many, social media has become the primary source for encountering information, affirming beliefs, and staying up to date on global news.ix In addition, students have moved into a more dynamic interaction with the information environment as both consumers and producers.x This is a major generational shift, as youth are moving away from conventional media content that has been vetted according to journalistic standards, to an unfiltered and open marketplace of ideas. On one hand, this new information environment offers benefits, including the ability to form new communities and to organize social movements locally and globally, as seen with both Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future climate activism and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement. On the other hand, the mostly unrestricted environment means that information is subject to manipulation in covert and harmful ways. These manipulations—through bot accounts, algorithmic screening, hidden monetization, filter bubbles, and echo chambers—can have a major influence on how students come to understand key issues. It shapes their early beliefs and their overall identity formation.

Our recent study revealed that both teachers and students were grappling with how to navigate the onslaught of information. Teachers shared how difficult it was to help their students parse truth from the overwhelming misinformation about COVID-19 and the emerging Black Lives Matter protests in online classes. Students also expressed their frustration and dismay at how much conflicting information was present in their feeds. This raises an important question: if our students are frequently facing mis- and disinformation in their everyday lives, how are they learning about it in school?

In our classroom observations and conversations, students and teachers made note of interesting trends and gaps in education, which align with key points discussed in Chris Samuel’s post-truth piece. Samuel noted that fact-checking can moderate false beliefs. In our analysis of student understanding, we see that students are consistent in applying some level of fact-checking technique when working in an academic context (e.g., on school research papers), but don’t consistently transfer that knowledge to their personal social media engagements. Despite the assumption that high engagement levels with social media equates to high levels of literacy or digital proficiency, this is not always the case. Most students acknowledged that they possess little to no knowledge of the types of manipulations that saturate their virtual worlds. Notably, when asked how they determine if information on social media is reliable and true, students said that one of their strategies is to see how prevalent that information is. When held against Vosoughi et al.’sxi findings that lies spread more rapidly than the truth, this strategy presents a clear problem: students use pervasiveness as a gauge of trustworthiness, yet algorithms and human behaviour combine to propagate lies more quickly than the truth. Samuel also wrote that fact-checking—though effective at reducing misinformation—does not significantly change political beliefs. This resonates with teachers’ comments that it is difficult to change students’ minds about established beliefs, especially if the beliefs are shared by celebrities or are iterated in echo chambers on Instagram and Twitter. This corresponds with Samuel’s third point: perceptions of a person’s credibility outweigh actual truthful content. As students strive to make sense of online information, one of their other common strategies is to base their evaluation on whether the link was shared by someone they trust, follow, or with whom they share affinities.

What do these shifts mean for pedagogy?
In our study, students expressed that schools have a responsibility to prepare them for the complexities of the new information environment, but many remain uncertain that any meaningful change is forthcoming. This skepticism is not unfounded, as Ontario curricula remains outdated and fails to mention the complexities of online engagement in any context. Our conversations with students revealed that their in-school education about social media was limited, often framed in the context of pragmatics (e.g., how to use the technology), or safety, bullying, and privacy. By consequence, most of their learning was dependent on trial and error, help from their peers, or the individual efforts of teachers who put in the time to incorporate these emerging literacy considerations into their own subject areas. Another major absence from the curriculum, particularly the English and Social Sciences curricula, is significance of affect and its role in literacy and identity formation.xii In our research, teachers discussed the significance of the relationship between emotion and knowledge, especially as students choose who to follow and believe based on early affinities. Despite noting how difficult it can be to change students’ established beliefs and values, teachers also expressed that the classroom can be an opportunity for students to be introduced to new ideas and information, fostering an environment where they can engage in meaningful and critical discussions and debates about current events and issues.

Education systems need to embody a multiliteracies approach that incorporates all the complex strategies that can help students foster meaning from and interpret information in various social contexts. While we, as educators, don’t all have to become avid users of technology or even participants in the social media sphere, there is pedagogical value in seeking to better understand the trends, challenges, and implications for how students make meaning and develop beliefs. In addition, it would be helpful if the next iterations of Ontario’s curriculum documents incorporated these new understandings of how virtual communities and literacies play a significant role in learning. More attention to how contemporary issues are taken up in these environments and more intentional classroom debates could foster the skills necessary for students to better navigate shifting information landscapes. This could include learning about mis- and disinformation, bias, technological manipulations, and consumer and producer culture. More comprehensively, it would mean recognizing the opportunities to embrace multiliteracies across curriculum areas, including: literacy and emotion, identity, and value formation; literacy and multimodality; and critical literacies.

The current lack of focused education jeopardizes social progress by allowing existing inequalities to compound. Such inequities are not limited to in-school success, but, more broadly, to political and social power. Beam et al. found that internet skill and ability to navigate information spaces can contribute to an individual’s willingness and ability to engage with political or social matters. Students who may benefit from a focus on relevant learning may be able to effectively recognize, comprehend, and apply critical skills when engaging with sociopolitical information they encounter. Conversely, students who are not given opportunities to engage with that learning in school can become less likely to participate in the sociopolitical sphere, which can exacerbate growing inequalities in citizen engagement.xiii To bridge this gap, there needs to be a call for action on an institutionalized level, where equal opportunities to teach and engage students with multiliteracy pedagogies can occur evenly across the system. Anything less leaves our students adrift, navigating whole worlds of information that increasingly render them isolated and vulnerable.

i Samuel, C. (2020). Fact-checking in a post-truth world. OSSTF/FEESO Education Forum.
ii Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2018). Teens, social media & technology 2018. Pew Research Center.
iii Swire-Thompson, B., & Lazer, D. (2020). Public health and online misinformation: Challenges and recommendations. Annual Review of Public Health, 41(1), 433–451.
iv Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211-36.
Munger, K., Egan, P. J., Nagler, J., Ronen, J., & Tucker, J. (2017). Political knowledge and misinformation in the era of social media: Evidence from the 2015 UK election. British Journal of Political Science, 1-21.
Morgan, S. (2018). Fake news, disinformation, manipulation and online tactics to undermine democracy. Journal of Cyber Policy, 3(1), 39-43.
v Roozenbeek, J., Schneider, C. R., Dryhurst, S., Kerr, J., Freeman, A. L., Recchia, G., Van Der Bles, A.M., & Van Der Linden, S. (2020). Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the world. Royal Society Open Science, 7(10), 201199.
vi Sebenius, A. (2020, May 14). Why disinformation is a major threat to the 2020 election. Bloomberg.
vii Samuel, C. (2020). Fact-checking in a post-truth world. Education Forum, 47(1), 22-25.
viii Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2018). Teens, social media & technology 2018. Pew Research Center.
ix Mao, J. (2014). Social media for learning: A mixed methods study on high school students’ technology affordances and perspectives. Computers in Human Behavior, 33, 213–223.
x Lapp, D., Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Gonzalez, A. (2014). Students can purposefully create information, not just consume it. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58(3), 182-188.
xi Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146–1151.
xii Parker, L. (2020): Literacy in the post-truth era: The significance of affect and the ethical encounter. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 53(6), 613-623. DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2020.1803834
xiii Beam, M. A., Hmielowski, J. D., & Hutchens, M. J. (2018). Democratic digital inequalities: Threat and opportunity in online citizenship from motivation and ability. American Behavioral Scientist, 62(8), 1079-1096.

About Lana Parker, PhD and Helen Liu
Lana Parker, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor and the editor of the Journal of Teaching and Learning and Helen Liu is a PhD candidate at York University, researching media, adolescent development, and international students.

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