Recognizing Lies: Redefining Digital Literacy

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on April 20, 2017

truth or lie arrowsWhat is your take on these recent news stories?

A Chicago janitor made himself a millionaire 20 times over by taking out life insurance policies on teenagers and then murdering them to collect on the policies. (April 2017)

Mark Zuckerberg said that he is “disgusted with social media” and he plans to leave Facebook in the near future. (March 2017)

NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ has been cancelled thanks to low ratings. (March 2017)

None of these stories is true, but each was widely distributed across social media platforms in recent months. Does it matter to the rest of the nation if a murderous custodian is rampaging through Chicago, if Zuckerberg is ready to wash his hands of Facebook, or if SNL is being cancelled? Probably not, unless your job is to encourage tourism in Chicago or you are a stockholder in Facebook or NBC. However, other lies-disguised-as-news articles that may make a difference are flooding social media outlets daily.  Such articles are written specifically to influence readers’ thinking about an array of important issues, and  people whose primary news sources are Facebook, Twitter, or similar platforms may make decisions about these matters based on distortions of the truth or outright lies.

Take the U.S. 2016 election as an example. Pyotr Levashov, an infamous Russian spammer, was recently arrested and accused of using the Internet as a vehicle for manipulating the November election . He’s just one of many. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that up to 1000 Russian ‘Internet trolls’ worked to prejudice the U.S. election by publishing lies-disguised-as-news. At this point we don’t know how much influence these articles ultimately have on readers, but the surge in deliberate use of misinformation has spotlighted the limitations of Americans’ skill set when it comes to differentiating between fact and fiction in media.

What are our options for turning this around? Daniel J. Levitin, author of Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era (2017), says that educators need to step up right away to address this problem. “We have apparently failed to teach our children what constitutes evidence and how to evaluate it.” He acknowledges that misinformation has been around for a very long time, but is concerned that increased access to all sorts of deceptive materials coupled with our lack of ability to effectively scrutinize these items makes the need for direct instruction of these skills more evident than ever.

There is no quick fix for this. Yes, articles are popping up all over the Internet that offer tips for deciding if information is accurate.  There’s nothing wrong with sharing this information with colleagues and students, but for the long haul, it’s going to take more than a quick brush-up on rudimentary review strategies to fix this problem. It’s going to require taking time to teach students—and ourselves—to slow down a bit and look at information through a more critical lens.

Levitin suggests we can learn to identify misinformation by focusing on three key areas:

  • the ability to evaluate information presented in numerical form
  • identifying faulty arguments offered verbally or in print
  • using the principles of the scientific method to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Commonly accepted definitions of digital literacy typically refer to students’ abilities to find, evaluate, and use information. Now we need to get serious about what that means. Weaponized Lies offers an excellent foundation for educators who want to deepen their understanding of what’s required to think more critically about the waves of information washing over us all. I urge educators to read it. Then, armed with this information, we can make better decisions about how to bring these skills into classrooms.

Some additional resources you may want to explore.

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Cyber Vigilantism and Public Shaming—A Brief Overview for School Leaders

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on December 10, 2015

Cyber vigilantism: “…Online actions that are oriented toward monitoring the actions of others. It refers to individuals or groups that take grassroots action, rather than work through regional or national justice systems.” Techopedia (http://bit.ly/1SR5zKN)

A few days after the recent bombings in Paris, I heard a radio report about a 27-year-old man who had severe shrapnel injuries caused by one of the explosions that occurred outside the Stade de France. In the confusion when he was rushed to a nearby hospital, no one noticed his passport fall to the sidewalk. It was discovered a little while later, and within 24 hours members of the media posted online messages erroneously identifying him by name as a suspected terrorist. Why? It’s highly likely that the answer is because he is an Egyptian national. In reality, he’d traveled to Paris the week before with his mother and brother, seeking cancer treatment for his brother. He was simply waiting in line to purchase a ticket for the soccer game that had just started.

This is just the latest in a growing number of online incidents where members of the media as well as private citizens take the law into their own hands by using social media to post public accusations aimed at individuals or groups. This is a form of cyber vigilantism called public shaming. The problem is that it doesn’t matter if these denunciations are accurate or not—the end result is nearly always the same. Accusers use a worldwide forum to try and convict perceived wrong-doers with no due process. Guilty or not, their targets suffer consequences that are almost always disproportionate to the supposed crime.

Members of the general public are well aware of the harm that can be caused by students who cyber bully one another and there is broad consensus that cyber stalking and cyber harassment are unacceptable behaviors. But little has been done to curtail various types of cyber vigilantism, including public shaming. This is due at least in part to the fact that people who engage in acts of cyber vigilantism like public shaming believe they are doing a good thing and often receive a lot of public support.

Historic picture of two men in stocks
Public shaming c. 1900

Consider the public shaming this past summer directed toward a Minnesota dentist who killed a lion that had been lured from a game preserve in Zimbabwe for purposes of the hunt. Public outrage ran so high—thousands of people called for instant retribution—that within days the dentist, his family, and the employees at his dental office were all paying a high price for what he had done. He and his family became targets of death threats and were forced into hiding. His employees’ livelihood was imperiled when he had to close his dental practice due to threats. His second home in another state was vandalized. Later it was determined that the dentist had in fact not broken any laws. He did not know that the men coordinating the hunt were behaving illegally. But by then, the damage had been done.

How does this relate to educators and students? We encourage students to stand up for what’s right and hopefully model this behavior for them. But we need to insure that they don’t cross the line into cyber vigilantism in the process. Since members of the school community are most likely to have personal experience with public shaming, it’s a natural starting point for a study of cyber vigilantism. Here are three approaches for beginning conversations with students (and adults) about public shaming.

Begin the conversation

  1. Learn what it means to be a responsible member of an online community. By the age of 10, more than 50% of children in the U.S. are using some type of social media and most parents admit they don’t have a clue about ways to help their children learn appropriate online behavior. This is something we can address at school with both students and adults in the course of teaching digital citizenship skills. An important aspect of this concept is use of good judgment in online interactions as well as showing empathy toward others.
  2. Learn how to protect yourself online. This includes long-recognized strategies such as not sharing personal information online, thinking before posting, refraining from engaging with people who are verbally abusive online, and recognizing that social media may not be the best forum for discussions about serious or emotionally charged issues.
  3. Confront public shaming head-on through discussions and role-playing. Stocks, pillories, and other formerly sanctioned types of punishment based on public shaming fell out of favor many years ago when people realized how barbaric and ineffective these practices actually are. However, the Internet makes it all too easy to shame individuals and groups online. Some experts say that online public shaming is rising in popularity not because it is an effective punishment, but because it appeals to online crowds that delight in bullying others. Adults have difficulty refraining from this type of behavior, so it’s no surprise that students become eager participants. You can find multiple examples of public shaming by using the key words public shaming for an Internet search. Share and discuss these with teachers and students.

Educators must regularly modify or update their definition of what it means to be a good digital citizen as new, questionable behaviors show up on line. Public shaming is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cyber vigilantism, but it’s a good place to begin exploring this recent type of online behavior.

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