False information pops up on seventh-grader Evalyn York’s social media accounts at least several times a week, and she finds it isn’t always easy to tell what’s real and what isn’t online.
“I didn’t even know what a verification check mark meant,” said York.
But York and other O’Maley Innovation Middle School students can now better protect themselves from fake information online with tips from a presentation on digital literacy Thursday, .
The presentation was given by the Poynter Institute as a part of the MediaWise project, a Google News Initiative that is funded by Google.org and looks to educate 1 million teenagers on how to spot fake news online by 2020. The event was part of a partnership between Poynter and The Gloucester Daily Times.
“A lot of people think that because teens spend more time online than anyone else, they’re always good at discerning information,” said presenter Mel Grau, a Poynter marketing and communications writer. “That’s not the case. The more time they spend online, the more likely they are to run into false information. Everybody gets fooled by it.”
A recent Pew Research study found that more than half of Americans have willingly or unintentionally shared fake content on social media.
Identifying fake content online can even be difficult for Grau and fellow presenter Katy Byron, a program manager for MediaWise who is also a professional journalist and fact checker.
“Even the two of us who were trained to look for this kind of stuff can get fooled,” Grau told the sixth and seventh graders gathered in the O’Maley auditorium. “It is so easy.”
To help determine if information they see online is true, Byron and Grau told the students to ask themselves three critical questions: who is behind the information, what is the evidence behind the information and what do other reputable sources say about the information?
The presentation also outlined several easy methods that can be used to quickly assess information online
If a blue-and-white check mark appears next to user names of celebrities, famous politicians, brands and major businesses or organizations on social media, it shows the accounts have been verified by the social media platform as the real accounts of the user. Images can also be traced back to their original source by doing a reverse image search.
The presentation discussed the growing presence of “deepfakes,” or images and videos that have been edited by online artificial intelligence machines to show realistic but ultimately fake footage of people or events.
Byron and Grau showed the students how easy it is to create fake images, videos and headlines online by comparing a real online news article to a doctored one.
The first article shown to the students was written by The Salem News about two cases of measles that were recently reported in Massachusetts. But with the help of online fake news generators that take less than five minutes to use, the presenters were able to distort the story into something untrue.
The new fake headline read “Measles outbreak in Gloucester,” and even though the article wasn’t real, it still looked like it was published by a credible source.
“The quality of our information directly shapes the quality of our decisions, and the quality of decisions, of course, shapes the quality of our shared experience of humans,” said author John Green, who partnered with MediaWise to create digital literacy content for teens, in a video shown to students during the presentation.
While O’Maley Principal Lynne Beattie said social media and the internet often introduce students to false information or other threats, it is still an important part of modern life.
“It is an amazing tool we can’t live without, so it’s important for students to learn to be critical consumers,” Beattie said.
O’Maley will likely introduce a library media course all sixth graders must take starting next year. Beattie said the course will introduce new lessons in digital literacy that will teach similar information MediaWise is trying to provide to youth across the country.
The Stanford History Education Group, a grant partner of MediaWise, is writing a new curriculum that will teach teens how to spot false information online based on the methods used by professional fact-checkers find real information on the internet.
MediaWise is also launching a teen fact-checking network, where high school and middle school students across the country will assist the MediaWise team in creating and publishing content on the project’s social media accounts that will help teens decipher what is real and what is not on the internet.
As of December 2018, more than 1 million impressions had already been made on MediaWise’s fact-checking content across its social media accounts.
Famous journalists, including NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt and NBC host Savannah Sellers, the Local Media Association and the National Association for Media Literacy Education have also partnered with MediaWise to enhance digital literacy education for teens.
Gloucester was the last stop on MediaWise’s tour of middle and high schools on the North Shore this week. The presentations in Salem, Beverly and Danvers were also arranged in partnership with the North of Boston Media Group, the parent organization of The Gloucester Daily Times.
“Teaching media literacy to our youth is vitally important to our democracy,” said Karen Andreas, the Times’ publisher. “Educating the kids to have a healthy skepticism about what they’re reading, and how to fact-check, will allow them to be part of the solution instead of contributing to the problem of fake news.”
MediaWise has presented to more than 30 schools across the country so far, and is planning to travel to 60 more schools in New York, Las Vegas, Denver and other parts of the country.
“We’re teaching (students) how to tell what is real, what is accurate, what is fake and what is reliable or unreliable, because it is really hard to that nowadays,” Byron said.