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Teaching critical thinking to sort the fake news from the consumable content

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Teaching critical thinking to sort the fake news from the consumable content

Being able to critically evaluate the content we consume is fast becoming one of the most crucial skills we can teach young people when it comes to helping them navigate the online world. As we are inundated with copious amounts of new content every second of every day, the ability to determine the relevance, validity and truthfulness of those videos, photos, memes and articles, becomes increasingly difficult and problematic.

The term ‘fake news’ emerged to cover information that for whatever reason cannot be viewed as trustworthy. It may be the spreading of disinformation, whereby untrue content is deliberately and maliciously created and shared. It may be the skewing of news and events to support an underlying agenda. It may be the proliferation of misinformation as a result of limited fact checking, either due to time limitations or the lack of ethical practises by online blogs and websites not subjected to the same constraints of traditional media outlets. Advancing technology and the greater speed at which we do just about everything, has led us to impart greater importance on getting things done fast, as opposed to done right. Many political parties, groups and individuals have taken to social media sharing, to get their message out, win over a vote, sway those on the cusp or bolster the beliefs of those already on board. Whilst spinning stories, lies and deceit are nothing new, it is safe to say the speed and expanse to which they reach their targets, is unprecedented.

As such we need to be incorporating a whole new set of skills and thinking to cut through some of the fake, irrelevant or untrue. Teaching critical thinking comes under the banner of digital literacy and must be seen as something altogether separate from other information technology subjects such coding, programming or data science. We need to be teaching verification skills, validation, understanding behaviours, consequences for our online actions and how to sort through the masses of information presented to them every day.

So in what ways must we equip young people with the skills to view, understand and analyse the content they consume online?
A good place to start is by getting them to understand where the content came from in the first place.

Why was it written or produced?
They need to begin to ask themselves many questions pertaining to the origins of the content and the reasons why and how it found its way to their feed or turned up in their google search. So we must begin to encourage questions such as, ‘Why was this video produced?’. ‘Why was this article written?’ If we know why something was created we have a better chance at making sense of its purpose and hence its validity to ourselves. Is it created to inform and share knowledge or data? Is it to share news? Is it for entertainment? Who is it supposed to be entertaining? Is it indeed fact or opinion? What is the language being used? Is it emotive? Is it appealing to our fears or insecurities or prejudices? Is it trying to sway me to believe a certain viewpoint, or is it exposing many different viewpoints? Is it trying to sell me something? A product? A service? A way of life?
These are all crucial questions to ask ourselves when we are presented with content, and when we are deciding what to do with that content. We need to make split second decisions as to whether something is likely to be true, relevant and helpful in any way.

Who created, wrote or produced this content?
We also need to look at the author or creator of the content. Are they a journalist writing an expose? Are they a Youtuber living a vastly different life to the one you can relate to? Are they a reviewer or a blogger writing a sponsored post? Are they an academic sharing insight and research? Are they a social media influencer, influenced by the free gifts? Are they a member of a political party? Head of an activist group? When we are discerning about who has produced what we consume we have a better chance of viewing the content with a critical eye, that allows us to keep in mind the possibility of other points of view.

What are the opponents saying? Why? And who are they?
Once we have discerned who is writing or producing the content we are consuming, we need to ask ourselves whether there is any opposition to what we are being told. Are there other people who would rather us feel differently about this? And who are the opponents of this viewpoint? What data or points of view do they have that differ? Who do they have backing them up? What may have led each other to these various points of view?

Why is this seen as share worthy?
Many memes, articles, photos and videos can very quickly spread like wildfire and become viral in a very short space of time. So we should be asking ourselves, what is it about this content that makes it so shareworthy? Is it that they offer something different from the norm? Something controversial? Something everyone was thinking but had thus far been unable to articulate? Is it extreme? Is it offering something that seemingly backs up a predisposed belief? Once again, taking the time to analyse and understand more fully what we are consuming needs to occur in order for us to take the time to see whether such a “share” is actually warranted, and what sharing that content says about us, our beliefs, or our understanding of a particular situation.

Moving outside our filter bubble
As many of us surround our real lives with people we relate to, and people who we generally like and are generally very similar to, we begin to see the world in similar ways. When we are online, we also tend to follow people we like or admire, and we fill our social media feeds with those we already share some bond, some attachment or some preexisting beliefs and opinions of the world. When we do this however, we tend to see a repetition in the types of content we are served up. We are less likely to have our beliefs challenged or our way of thinking stretched as we are watching and reading content that we generally already believe in. This therefore only serves to reinforce what may or may not need greater attention to challenge and further analyse what we consume.

A healthy dose of scepticism
Of course we don’t want students and ourselves to become complete cynics, questioning and refuting everything we read and consume as false and irrelevant. But for that content that may affect our behaviours, our mood, or even our way of life, we do need to develop a healthy dose of scepticism. We need to look at these things with a questioning eye and a yearning for greater understanding to ensure we are getting the full picture. It is very easy to hear one opinion, one piece of data, one persons experience, and then run with this as truth. But there are very often many, many different experiences of any given situation. There are often many ways data can be interpreted and misinterpreted. Research is not always transparent. We must continue to strive for that truth.

Victims of scams
As young people are often targeted for in app purchases and buying extra tokens for extra ammunition, many games prey on the vulnerabilities of young people. They are often sent to 3rd party apps and software to purchase their loot, only to find it it is often not connected to the game and the money is never to be seen again. When a child uploads a free app to play a game they are often inundated with ads to purchase other games, other levels and tokens. When they don’t purchase or ignore the request they are sometimes faced with a sad faced emoji, thus further attacking their vulnerabilities.
People don’t always have our best interests at heart, and this is increasingly evident by the number of people scammed and the amount of money handed over willing to those who have become very good at fooling those who are inclined to be too trustworthy. And it is definitely not something that is isolated to younger generations. Adults are certainly finding themselves on the wrong end of many a scam. We need to work on those skills of validating and checking and double checking before we hand over money or private information.

Using our intuition
Aside from asking ourselves all of the critical thinking questions whenever we consume content or whenever we are making decisions based on what is put in front of us, we also need to go back to using some good old fashioned intuition. The old adage “if it’s too good to be true it probably is” needs to be taken heed of in many, many instances that originate online. We rarely get anything for free, and if we have a problem that is being presented with a quick fix solution…. we all need to be wary and do our due diligence.

Practising these skills
Every time we search for something with a child we can be helping them to employ these critical thinking skills. When we research for school work we can get them to look at what comes up in their google search. Why did that content appear on the first page of google? Is it reputable or have they paid good money for good SEO? When you are researching a holiday destination, we can talk to young people about the information we are seeing. Is something a review? Is it fact? Is it an advertisement? When we get an email from a bank or institution we can alert ourselves to the clues that this is legitimate and secure? What do I need to see before I would trust this email or website? And when I am engaging with other people online, and sharing content and ideas, we can help young people to think about the consequences of that sharing. What does this content say about you? Does it represent how you want the world to see you? Asking these questions of all of our daily online scrolling, researching and engaging can help to instil this critical thinking which ensures we are getting the most out of what we consume.

This very global and connected world means we are living in a world where we have access to all sorts of people with all sorts of agendas and with all sorts of life experience. As we are exposed daily to an avalanche of content, we must get really good at desiphering what is going to be helpful, what is true, and what is going to be relevant and worthy of our time.
Remember this is a learning that is not about technology alone. In fact it is far more about living and learning in society and understanding the way the world and its people interact. We are no longer needing to teach our children simply how to read, but instead we must strive to teach them to question everything they read and critically evaluate its worth.

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Martine Oglethorpe

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Martine is an accredited speaker with the Office of the eSafety Commission of Australia, has a background in secondary education, a Masters in Counselling and is a mother to 5 boys. Through her personal and professional work with families, she recognises the important role technology plays in the social and emotional wellbeing of young people.

Martine is a keynote speaker for parenting and education conferences, presents to parent groups, works regularly with students and provides professional development to teachers. She has a passionate interest in helping families safely navigate the modern world of parenting in a way that offers understanding as well as practical and realistic strategies to empower parents to teach, guide and support their children. She has recently released her new book “The Modern Parent: Raising a Great Kid in the Digital World” which is available for purchase from her website themodernparent.net

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