When Illinois high schoolers go back to school this month, they’ll have new coursework that lawmakers and Stanford researchers hope will prepare students to better detect misinformation and search for ulterior motives before trusting online news, social media and information sources.
In 2019, Stanford researchers showed more than 3,000 American high schoolers a grainy, anonymously posted Facebook video of people stuffing ballots into bins and then asked them to figure out if what they saw was “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the United States. More than half of the high schoolers said they believed it was, even though reputable news outlets had published articles explaining the footage was actually shot in Russia. A paltry three high schoolers figured this out.
In 2021, Illinois, which has around 600,000 high schoolers, became the first in the nation to require a unit of media literacy instruction in their high school curriculum, and the law takes effect this school year. In most schools, the media coursework will be folded into one or more existing courses; Chicago public school students returning this week can expect units about navigating online media to be included in many of their classes.
The same Stanford researchers who conducted the 2019 survey have also studied pilot instruction programs run across the state, including for 9th graders at Neuqua High School in Naperville, Ill. After freshman biology and geology teachers at Neuqua peppered media literacy coursework into the curriculum throughout the school year, students showed statistically significant improvement in source evaluation, according to Stanford researcher Joel Breakstone.
In one class taught at Neuqua, the biology teacher asked students to decide whether they should trust the website foodinsight.org for accurate information about caffeine consumption.
“Because it’s a ‘dot-org’ URL, students often think it means that the site is more trustworthy,” Breakstone said. “But if you leave, and open up a new tab and do that ‘lateral reading,’ you discover that foodinsight.org is actually supported by big beverage corporations that have a vested interest in caffeine seeming trustworthy.”
The go-to strategy for vetting sources online is what researchers call “lateral reading,” or moving across the web to sites like Wikipedia to figure out more about the people who have posted information you’re reading online.
Most high schoolers failed to consider the funding of online sources in the 2019 Stanford survey: 96% did not think to question a website about climate change that had links to the fossil fuel industry.
Neuqua librarian Carrie Ory said good media literacy instruction entails unlearning some rote rules about how to conduct internet research.
“We actually recommend that kids go to Wikipedia, which is something that in schools we were pushing kids away from. But Stanford’s research found that Wikipedia is a great place just to find out about the source,” Ory says.
Another practice to help teens build good media hygiene is to pause for a full day before sharing or commenting on an upsetting story, in part to see if missing context or corrections roll in, suggests Yonty Friesem, a co-founder of the Illinois Media Literacy Coalition and one of the professors who is helping build teaching aids for teachers.
Friesem has not heard many objections from parents or politicians worried about political bias in the instruction, though those arguments arose when the state legislature was working to get the law on the books. State Representative Adam Niemerg protested around that time that the media unit requirement was “anti-Trump, anti-conservative.”
“That’s why we made sure to go public and explain that media literacy is about inquiry and it’s not about indoctrination,” said Friesem, who is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago.
Illinois is the nationwide leader in media literacy education, but at least 13 other states have made some effort toward coming up with statewide policies on the subject according to advocacy group, Media Literacy Now.