Help wanted: 2017 is seeking discerning digital citizens

Jenny Luca explores what it means to be global citizens in the digital age.

Image of Jenny Luca, head of digital learning and practice at Wesley College, Melbourne
Image: Jenny Luca, Head of Digital Learning and Practice, Wesley College, Melbourne

Early days

If you’re of my era (quite some time ago!), you may remember an evening in 1977 when a BBC program called Alternative 3 was aired. For two hours I sat in my lounge room, transfixed, watching a documentary that was feeding a 12 year old’s fascination for UFOs and what I now know are called conspiracy theories. There I was, hearing of the deaths and disappearances of scientists, a mysterious lunar base that would provide a way station to Mars and the fact that interplanetary travel had been happening for years. Fascinating stuff, all of it an amazing revelation to my young mind, and none of it true.

A video of documentary title Flying Penguins from the BBC's World Penguin Day

A hoax. Originally planned to be aired on 1 April in the UK, but delayed from telecast until June, and not aired in Australia until even later than that date. At the end of the screening it was revealed that none of it was true. This shattered my young impressionable mind, but taught me a lesson that helped me through life.

Never take things at face value. Question. Apply critical thinking.

A good lesson to learn when you’re 12. And now, it seems, an even better lesson to learn when you’re 12 and living in 2017.


2017 is right off the back of 2016 where ‘post-truth’ was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year and the US presidential campaign saw a plethora of fake news stories stream through social network feeds. Stories circulated suggesting that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, and that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring working out of the basement of a pizza shop in Washington. This last story resulted in Edgar Welch driving from North Carolina to Washington to investigate these claims. He was armed with an assault-style rifle and was taken into custody by police after firing shots and searching for hidden children and secret chambers that didn’t exist.

Yes, we’ve got some work to do if we are going to help the population become discerning citizens in the age of the internet.

Alternative facts

‘If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.’

Barack Obama (The New York Times, 17 November 2016)

It seems our strong connections to the social networks we inhabit, and the stream of information that flows to us, are guided by powerful algorithms that reinforce what Eli Pariser describes as the ‘filter bubble’ in his 2011 book of the same name and the powerful TED talk he delivered that year.

‘A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn ... (since there is) invisible auto propaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas.’

Eli Pariser (The Economist, 2011)

The basic premise is this. As you use your preferred social network, you click on links, share content and ‘like’ what’s being shared. All the while, the algorithms that power the network are creating a profile of your preferences, determining the things you are interested in and finding ways to channel content to you that matches your preferences. Sounds quite helpful on the surface, doesn’t it?

If I think back to me as an impressionable 12 year old, fascinated by UFOs, missing scientists and interplanetary travel, then the interests I had would have channelled some rather interesting conspiracy theories my way if a social network like Facebook existed in 1977. I would have had my confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories) confirmed. My ability to take on board the assertion that ‘Alternative 3’ was a hoax may have been in question, if I was inundated with information that reinforced my thinking.

Researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education recently conducted a study with 7,800 students from middle school, high school and college.

Some key findings they discovered were:

‘Most middle school students can’t tell native ads from articles.’

‘Most high school students accept photographs as presented, without verifying them.’

‘Many high school students couldn’t tell a real and fake news source apart on Facebook.’

‘Most college students didn’t suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group.’

‘Most Stanford students couldn’t identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source.’

The researchers concluded, ‘Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there … Our work shows the opposite.’

What can educators do?

So what can we as educators do to help our young people become discerning digital citizens? How can we help them grasp the workings of social networks, the power of algorithms, and understand the effects a personalised stream of content may have on shaping their thought processes?

To start with, it’s imperative that we acknowledge that it is important to find space or place within school curriculum to address how we help our students to become discerning digital citizens. We’ve entered new territory, and it’s territory our profession needs to understand in order to impart learning to our students.

I’d posit that there are many adults with a lack of knowledge about the workings of the internet, and many existing teachers would fall into that category. Hopefully your school community has a Head of Teaching and Learning actively seeking ways and means for discerning digital citizenry to become embedded with the curriculum structure and a committed teacher librarian in your midst who is keeping abreast of change. Information professionals of this calibre are key to assisting teaching staff with the knowledge required. Many would leap at the opportunity to work in a co-teaching capacity with classroom teachers to impart the message, especially if it can be interwoven into existing curriculum offerings.

The Australian Curriculum provides a passage with the General capabilities. Critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, and ethical understanding all lend themselves as key tenets of what it takes to be a discerning digital citizen.

Creative teachers, who are shaping their curriculum with thought being given to these capabilities, find ways to weave discussion into the threads of their curriculum content. When I taught English classes, I would make way for important discussion about topics affecting young people’s lives. I would often begin a class with what would be considered something ‘off topic’. What this did was frame the lesson - students would be encouraged to think and share, and this seeded the climate for the learning that would take place that was ‘on topic’.

Our profession is a human one - finding time within content-heavy curriculum to build relationships and assist our young people to navigate new territory is never time wasted.

Infographics to share

Some useful infographics have been shared online in recent times and these could be shared within your school community via email, newsletter or within your school intranets. Think about posting laminated versions of infographics like these in areas where students mill - the school canteen, common rooms, near commonly shared printers, homerooms, and more.

One of the most effective poster campaigns we ran was to post key internet safety information on the back of toilet doors within the school. Nothing like seeing a message umpteen times to have it sink in!

The following, from EasyBib, provides very sound advice to assist students in analysing online news and applying critical thinking skills to verify the content. EasyBib encourages readers to post, print and share it with students.

Image: Evaluating a news article infographic by EasyBib

The following fake news infographic from WNYC suggests that you cut it out and paste it near your computer or television. Better still, what about the back of the toilet doors at your school?

Image: Breaking news consumers handbook. Fake news edition

IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) has produced the following infographic on their website and encourage people everywhere to share it widely. They value the power of the commons, as can be seen from the following quote taken from their site:

‘The more we crowdsource our wisdom, the wiser the world becomes.’ IFLA

Behind the News (BtN), the ABC TV programme aimed at school children from upper primary to lower secondary, has made a really useful video about fake news and how to spot it. Common Sense Media from the United States also has a very helpful post about spotting fake news.

Five ways to spot fake news by Common Sense Media

I’d encourage all educators to take a look at the Common Sense Media site. Their K-12 digital citizenship curriculum scope and sequence can be easily adapted to Australian schools. It provides teachers with lesson plans, support materials and resources that parents can use. All resources within their curriculum are based on the research of Dr Howard Gardner and the Good Play Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

There is an enormous amount being shared to help people grapple with the need to become more discerning in their analysis of web content. I’ve listed some useful posts below that can help you gain more understanding and find resources that may assist you in imparting the message to students.

Useful links

  1. Frank W. Baker’s Fake news: Recommendations
  2. Alan November’s Mission critical: How educators can help save democracy
  3. Aly Colón’s You are the new gatekeeper of the news
  4. Laura Sydell’s We tracked down a fake-news creator in the suburbs. Here’s what we learned
  5. Amber Jamieson’s and Olivia Solon’s Facebook to begin flagging fake news in response to mounting criticism
  6. MiddleWeb’s Students need our help detecting fake news

No article about helping our students become discerning digital citizens can end without mentioning the original internet identifiers of fake news - the stellar team at Snopes. Google search describes Snopes as the ‘definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation’. I’d have to agree. Many times I’ve referred to Snopes before on sharing information because in the back of my mind a tiny voice was saying, ‘Is this really true?’ Subscribe to their newsletter and a daily debunker will arrive in your inbox, clarifying for you what you should believe on the internet, and what you shouldn’t.

For those hoping that things might slow down and we can all take a bit of a breather from the pace of the digital world, well, I’m sorry to say, it’s just not going to happen. Yes, it’s moving fast and keeping pace with change is difficult. The fact is, this is the world we inhabit now.

As educators, there’s a moral imperative for us to understand the workings of the internet and the ways it can shape young people’s lives, both positively and negatively. Newington College shared this on Twitter recently and I liked it.

Perhaps Twitter are using their algorithms right now to direct more of the same to me. That’s the kind of personalisation of a news feed I’d appreciate.

References and further reading

‘5 ways to spot fake news!’, Common Sense Media, accessed 30 April 2017.

ACARA, ‘General capabilities’, Australian Curriculum (AC), accessed 30 April 2017.

‘Alternative 3’, Wikipedia, accessed 30 April 2017.

Baker, F.W. ‘Fake news: Recommendations, Media Literacy Clearinghouse, accessed 30 April 2017.

Colón, A. 2017, ‘You are the new gatekeeper of the news’, The Conversation, accessed 30 April 2017.

'Digital citizenship’, Common Sense Education, accessed 30 April 2017.

Domonoske, C. 2016, ‘Students have “dismaying” inability to tell fake news from real, study finds’, NPR, 23 November 2016, accessed 30 April 2017.

Filucci, S. 2017, ‘How to spot fake news (and teach kids to be media savvy)’, Common Sense Media, 20 March 2017, accessed 30 April 2017.

Fisher, M., Cox, J.W. & Hermann, P. 2016, ‘Pizzagate: From rumor, to hashtag, to gunfire in D.C.’, The Washington Post, 6 December 2016, accessed 30 April 2017.

Gladstone, B. & Garfield, B. 2016, ‘Breaking news consumer’s handbook: Fake news edition’, WNYC, accessed 30 April 2017.

Harris, G. & Eddy, M. 2016, ‘Obama, with Angela Merkel in Berlin, assails spread of fake news’, The New York Times, 17 November 2016, accessed 30 April 2017.

‘How to spot fake news’, IFLA, accessed 30 April 2017.

‘Invisible sieve’ 2011, The Economist, 30 June 2011, accessed 30 April 2017.

Jamieson, A., & Solon, O. 2016, ‘Facebook to begin flagging fake news in response to mounting criticism’, The Guardian, 15 December 2016, accessed 30 April 2017.

Kirschenbaum, M. 2017, ‘Identifying fake news: An infographic and educator resources’, EasyBib, 01 February 2017, accessed 30 April 2017.

Moseley, A. 2016, ‘Fake news’, BtN, ABC, 29 November 2016, accessed 30 April 2017.

November, A. 2016, ‘Mission critical: How educators can help save democracy’, November Learning, 22 December 2016, accessed 30 April 2017.

Pariser, E. 2011, ‘Beware online filter bubbles’, Ted talks, accessed 30 April 2017.

Snopes, accessed 30 April 2017.

‘Students need our help detecting fake news’, MiddleWeb, 20 November 2016, accessed 30 April 2017.

Sydell, L. 2016, ‘We tracked down a fake-news creator in the suburbs. Here’s what we learned’, NPR, 23 November 2016, accessed 30 April 2017.

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