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Truth or Fiction: Teaching digital literacy to children is vital to combating online disinformation

We didn’t need the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6 to know our society is awash in disinformation. But the attack by far-right extremists reacting to former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a “stolen” election certainly provided a wake-up call about the dangers of such falsehoods.

Our democracy itself depends on a shared trust and belief in the facts. But the internet and the proliferation of media sources with dubious credibility have changed everything. Now, extremist propaganda and conspiracy theories like QAnon spread with the touch of a finger.

Young people are particularly vulnerable to the viral spread of false information, and educators play a key role in protecting them.

In the Fall issue of Learning for Justice magazine, Cory Collins, a senior writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice project, examines the ways in which experts are advising educators about the roots of online misinformation and how to counter it.

“Experts say schools and communities need to update and extend their commitment to digital literacy across all subject areas – in a way that directly addresses how information spreads, who it helps and who it harms,” Collins writes in his story, titled “Reimagining Digital Literacy Education to Save Ourselves.”

Children need to understand the relationships between digital information and systemic injustices. But too often, Collins writes, media literacy is taught in a way that simply helps students tell whether a source is “good” or “bad.” These lessons “often fail to provide students with transferrable skills they need to navigate today’s online spaces,” he writes.

The story also explains how the SPLC, in partnership with the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, has created a guide that helps educators decipher the warning signs of online radicalization and how to stop extremists from recruiting young people.

“If no actions are taken, polarization can increase the potential for youth to continually be on-ramped,” Wyatt Russell, a fellow for PERIL who helped create the guide, says in the story. “These problems don’t go away, and that’s going to mean continual instances of hate and bias within our schools, within our communities.”

Erin McNeill, founder of Media Literacy Now, a grassroots nonprofit advocating for policies that would make media literacy “an essential element in public education,” told Collins that educators can persuade school officials about the importance of incorporating digital literacy into the curriculum.

“There are steps, big and small, that educators can be taking,” McNeill says. “We’re trying to get more of a grassroots army of people who understand what media literacy is, recognize its value and are asking for it.”

Parents and educators can make a big difference, she says. If they learn more about media literacy and related resources, they can advocate for it to district leaders and school boards.

“Part of expanding digital literacy means providing students with skills and supports to inoculate them against extremist rhetoric and recruitment,” Collins writes.

To read the full story and all of the Learning for Justice magazine’s Fall edition, click here.

Also this week, the SPLC launched TechWatch, a new resource that tracks the role technology plays in perpetuating hate.

Illustration by Jianan Liu