Students who qualified for free or reduced lunch did about half as well at evaluating evidence as other students. Those whose mothers had an advanced degree fared far better than those whose mothers had not finished high school. Students who received mostly A’s on their report cards scored higher than those who got mostly C’s and D’s.
What all this suggests, then, is that America’s disinformation problem isn’t all that much different from pretty much every other educational problem in this country. The same class and race disparities exist in standardized testing, grade point average and even the quality of essays students write for college applications. They also show up in vaccination rates and in levels of mistrust of public health officials. We live in a country where profound inequality affects nearly every part of a person’s life. Why would we expect disinformation resistance to be any different?
Lessons that work
So how do we create a more disinformation-resistant public in a country with such rampant inequality?
As of last year, there were 14 states that offered some form of mandatory media literacy education, but there’s a lot of variation in what “media literacy” means. Florida, Utah and Texas are seen as leaders in media literacy education, but it’s difficult to gauge how effective their programs are. Bad information morphs so quickly from, say, an erroneous and dubiously sourced article into a social media post to even a newsletter that lands in your inbox. Given the fact that disinformation is such a moving target, it’s possible that any lesson about it may be out of date before it can land on a student’s desk.
Joel Breakstone, the director of the Stanford History Education Group, believes that there needs to be more attention paid to what, exactly, is taught in these media literacy programs. Frequently used lessons like the memorably named Currency Reliability Authority Purpose (CRAP) test ask students to put their information through a gantlet of questions. But Breakstone believes they do not really work for a variety of reasons, the most salient being that most people don’t really know how to check sources and the reliability of information.
What he and his group suggest, instead, is a more comprehensive approach that teaches kids how to assess not only the reliability of the specific information they’ve found online but also who published it and for what purpose. In doing this, students are looking at the whole ecosystem in which the information resides, which improves their ability to question things that may seem to come from sources that look reputable enough. When Dr. Breakstone and his group incorporated these lessons into a 12th-grade civics course, they found almost immediate improvement in the students’ ability to think critically about that information.
These efforts won’t magically increase the vaccination rate in America or keep your uncle from taking on some very strange beliefs, but they seem to be the only viable solution to a problem that looks designed to exploit the American traditions of inequality and mistrust.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”