Teaching about misinformation in schools

Michael Evans looks at ways in which Government guidance can help schools to teach children and young people how to manage online safety and identify sites that promote misinformation, disinformation and hoaxes.

Teaching online safety in school

Teaching online safety in school published by the Government in June 2019 has wide ranging guidance on ways that pupils can be helped to stay safe online. The scope of this article is limited to the identification of misinformation, disinformation and hoaxes, together with ways of spotting and dealing with fake websites and online fraud.

The problem of online misinformation

Online misinformation, often known as fake news, is now a very real problem. For instance, wild, false and misleading stories have circulated on social media about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccine, with many widely shared posts claiming that it is dangerous. One widely promoted claim was that it was all part of a Bill Gates conspiracy to rule the world, by using mass vaccination to inject microchips into the world’s population.

Such misinformation can do real harm and there are calls for the introduction of financial and criminal penalties that would force tech giants to remove false and misleading posts and stories.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, said that there should be a legal framework for social media companies to work within and that decisions on what is classed as harmful content should not simply be left to them.

In fact, Facebook, Twitter and Google have already pledged to speed up their response to anti-vaccine Covid-19 disinformation.

A disturbing survey

Since misinformation and disinformation had such a strong emphasis in the June 2019 guidance, the media literacy charity The Student View conducted a survey of 6,521 teachers in order to find out just how much effect the guidance had actually had on schools.

The results were rather disturbing, with 47% of the teachers reporting that they had never even heard of the guidance and only 13% saying that they had actually read it. Just 14% reported that their schools had implemented any of the recommendations.

The formation of an All-Party Parliamentary Group

This news led to the formation of an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), and the commissioning of an independent inquiry to consider media literacy in schools, to be chaired by Damian Collins, former chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and its Disinformation Sub-Committee.

Damian Collins strongly believes in the need to promote digital and media literacy as a fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths. It is important, he said, for children and young adults to be able to identify safe sites that they can trust. They can then appraise the content of what they read and make informed choices about news they share with others.

Working within the existing curriculum

Although the guidance given in Teaching online safety in school is quite extensive, it is intended to complement the existing curriculum, with no implication of any additional content or teaching requirements.

Pupils are continually reminded that content on social media and the internet is not necessarily what it seems to be.

Misinformation, disinformation and hoaxes

Suggested areas of concern include:

  • misinformation – being aware that false and misleading information can be shared deliberately or inadvertently

  • disinformation – why individuals or groups choose to share false information in order to deliberately deceive

  • online hoaxes – information that can be deliberately or inadvertently spread for a variety of reasons

  • the importance of being able to evaluate content that is seen online and to measure and check its authenticity

  • the potential consequences of sharing information that may not be true.

Areas of the existing curriculum in which these topics might be covered:

  • relationships education and health education at all stages, relationships and sex education for secondary pupils – the law ‘Pupils should be made aware of the relevant legal provisions when relevant topics are being taught’

  • computing curriculum for key stages 2 and above – ‘Use search technologies effectively, appreciate how results are selected and ranked, and to be discerning in evaluating digital content’

  • Citizenship: Key Stage 3 – ‘Pupils should use and apply their knowledge and understanding while developing skills to research and interrogate evidence, debate and evaluate viewpoints, present reasoned arguments and take informed action’

  • Citizenship: Key Stage 4 – ‘Pupils should develop their skills to be able to use a range of research strategies, weigh up evidence, make persuasive arguments and substantiate their conclusions.

Fake websites and scam emails

Pupils should be made aware that fake websites and scam emails are used to extort data, money, images and other things, with the aim of potentially harming the targeted person or to sell on for financial or other gain.

Suggested areas of concern include:

  • ways to spot fake URLs and websites

  • understanding what secure markings on websites are and how to assess the sources of emails

  • understanding the risks of entering data to an insecure website

  • what to do if harmed, targeted or groomed as a result of interacting with a fake website or scam email, including who to turn to and the range of support that is available.

Areas of the existing curriculum in which these topics might be covered:

  • relationships education and health education at all stages, relationships and sex education for secondary pupils – the law ‘Pupils should be made aware of the relevant legal provisions when relevant topics are being taught’

  • all key stages of the computing curriculum – ‘Use search technologies effectively, appreciate how results are selected and ranked, and be discerning in evaluating digital content’.

Online fraud

Online fraud can have serious consequences for individuals and organisations.

Suggested areas of concern include:

  • how to identity fraud, scams and phishing

  • the need to keep everyone’s information secure and not just their own, and to never pass on personal details or financial information of parents or carers if targeted to do so

  • be aware of what ‘good’ companies will and won’t do and to remember that a bank will never ask you to share a password or move money into a new account.

Areas of the existing curriculum in which these topics might be covered:

  • relationships educational core content – online relationships – ‘that people sometimes behave differently online, including pretending to be someone they are not’.

  • all key stages of the computing curriculum – ‘use search technologies effectively, appreciate how results are selected and ranked, and be discerning in evaluating digital content’.

Finally

The internet has brought enormous benefits to society, but it also provides a golden opportunity for those engaged in illegal and criminal activity. It is important for young people to be able to identify and understand what is good and what is bad. The guidance given in Teaching online safety in school can go a long way in helping to achieve this.

Summary

  • Teaching online safety in school – Guidance supporting schools to teach their pupils how to stay safe online, within new and existing school subjects. DfE – June 2019.

  • Online misinformation – wild, false and misleading stories.

  • A survey of 6,521 teachers revealed that 47% had never heard of the Guidance.

  • An All-Party Parliamentary Group will consider media literacy in schools. Media literacy is regarded as the fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths.

  • Teaching online safety in school is designed to complement the existing school curriculum, with no additional content.

  • Suggest areas of concern with respect to misinformation, disinformation and hoaxes, together with areas of the curriculum where these might be covered.

  • A consideration of fake websites and scam emails, with suggestions as to how these might be covered within the existing curriculum.

  • How to identify online fraud and how this might be incorporated into the existing curriculum.