Students teach online misinformation avoidance

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 12/20/23


When the community converged in the Port Townsend High School library on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 7, they got to hear from the Port Townsend School District Librarian, and even from …

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Students teach online misinformation avoidance



When the community converged in the Port Townsend High School library on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 7, they got to hear from the Port Townsend School District Librarian, and even from a University of Washington professor and research scientist, but the real stars of the show were a group of ninth-grade students, who were trained to educate the grown-ups who arrived.

The “Media Mentorship Night” tasked the high school freshmen with mentoring their parents, families and other adults in attendance on how to recognize and fend off digital misinformation.

District Librarian Joy Wentzel introduced Mike Caulfield, of the UW Center for an Informed Public, who wrote the recently published book “Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions about What to Believe Online,” and also developed the four-step SIFT method of media evaluation, to which the students devoted their presentations that night.

SIFT stands for, Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context.

Wentzel noted that close to half of polled social media users admitted to getting a majority of their news online, with Facebook being the leading reported source, before she pointed out that a majority of Facebook users are adults, rather than younger people.

As a film crew from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction recorded the event, Caulfield compared the process of obtaining information from an online source to receiving a message in a bottle from a body of water, as he illustrated how even attempting to vet a claim with what might seem like sound critical thinking skills can leave out essential considerations.

Because traditional methods of exercising media literacy are vulnerable to the nature of online media, Caulfield emphasized the need to thoroughly contextualize any claims one encounters.

Throughout the library, teams of ninth-graders had set up poster-board displays outlining their own insights into SIFTing through such online material, with Crenna Stark and Frances Lynch both expressing surprise that Wikipedia could be conditionally useful.

“Like a lot of folks, I grew up being told it couldn’t be trusted, because anyone can edit its entries,” Stark said.“And you shouldn’t use it as a primary source, but you can use it along with other fact-checking sites,” Lynch said.

The duo agreed that the ease with which articles or videos can be shared through social media can lead to more impulsive dissemination of unverified rumors.

Abbie Hill, Gavin Pryor and Will Tran constituted another student team, which took the time to trace online allegations that McDonald’s french fries contain acrylamide, a chemical which was claimed to cause cancer, but what they found was that acrylamide naturally occurs in certain foods from high-temperature cooking, such as frying, and is unlikely to cause cancer by itself.

The trio echoed Stark and Lynch’s comments on Wikipedia, pointing out that controversial subjects on the site can be spotted by their edit histories, but can also be checked based on their linked footnotes.

They also suggested that misinformation which deliberately provokes strong emotional reactions can short-circuit the discernment of those who encounter such materials.

Wentzel and Virginia Grace, a ninth-grade English teacher at PTHS, were able to debut the “Media Mentorship Night” locally after working with folks from the UW Center for an Informed Public over the past two years, and observing similar misinformation literacy programs that have been conducted in Seattle since 2020.

“It’s so great to put them into the teacher role,” Wentzel said of the local students. “In the midst of learning tech skills, like how to do reverse image searches and create QR codes, they’re also learning how to create displays and organize data. It's great to see the evolution of their skills.”

In addition to providing students with “real-life, relevant skills,” Wentzel expressed jovial pride in teaching her own mother, and her accompanying book club, how to use QR codes, which they’d found intimidating prior to that evening.