How can our students distinguish fact from fiction or uncertainty? What was once a mundane task, “don’t forget to cite your sources!” has now become a literal pillar of our whole democracy. Educators and parents must teach and instill a sense of informed skepticism in our graduates.
Informed Skepticism: The Greatest Basic Skill Challenge In The History of Education
by Stuart Grauer
Introduction to Informed Skepticism
I've always been passionate about engaging with diverse people and perspectives, as well as experiencing colorful media. I love probing people and media sources for their unique views. A great example of some breaking media is the new Beatles song called “Now and Then”. Have you heard it? The artificial intelligence (AI) voices and images are created from actual Beatles voices. Images of Paul and Ringo, the two surviving Beatles, are singing along. All of it is amazing and realistic in appearance. But no one could possibly think that what they are watching is real, unless you did not know about the Beatles, and maybe about those strawberry fields. But then, if you were new to the Beatles, you could not possibly think the video is fake.
The song got 5.5 million views on social media in the first day.
The Increasing Challenge of Digital Media
It’s not all fun and entertainment on social media. Right now, voice actors all over the US are concerned that generative AI will steal their livelihoods, which was a major aspect of the recently settled writers and actors strikes. Tools like ElevenLabs, FakeYou Al and Uberduck can synthesize voices and make them say harmful and damaging things. Needless to say, over the past several years, our experiences with media have become more challenging, even fraught. Nobody could possibly think that a lot of the “news” that is being generated is real news, unless you did not know the background. Unfortunately, many of us do not. Nor has it traditionally been taught much in school.
“Presumptive Polarization,” A New Phenomenon
To complicate matters, a simple inquiry about someone's information source can seem personal or judgmental, igniting confusion, challenge, and even defensiveness. "Where did you learn that atmospheric carbon release is beneficial?" I asked someone not long ago.
"You sound like just another brainwashed liberal!" came his retort.
Wow! I tried clarifying, explaining my Socratic approach: "I'm not attacking your stance or claiming to know better than you; I'm only curious about your source, and your source is all I asked about."
I call it: Presumptive polarization, a new rhetorical form. As is common in our polarized world, he had assumed I was accusing him of spreading misinformation. I clarified that I was simply trying to verify, knowing we are all victims of disinformation. I got a half-hearted apology.
Sources matter. So why should simple Socratic method be a threat?
The Challenge of Educating Amidst Misinformation
And yet, this person still thinks the U.S. election was rigged, despite massive information from the most credible sources I’ve ever been able to find. He can’t cite verifiable sources. “I feel comfortable with my information, and I don’t like the liberal media,” he finally summed. It was as though he concluded that truth was impossible, so you just get to pick whatever feels okay to you… and then have a war or revolution over it. When I look back at history, it seems stunning how often this has happened—that we have allowed and continue to allow it to happen.
I can’t say I understand why people seem so driven to adopt commentary as fact, and to defend it as such. I would like to study the psychology behind this. Send me your theories.
Today, tensions are high on university campuses across the U.S. ignited by the war between Israel and Hamas which began a month ago. Why would university students who are ostensibly in college to learn scholarship take such strong sides when we know, objectively, that not a one of them knows more than a tiny fraction of what is real for the players in this war? Our students, like many among us, are peering through a little crack in a doorway and calling it “the world.” And there seem to be infinite doors to their perceptions.
The Phenomenon of Truth-Knowers
A couple weeks ago, a hospital in Gaza was bombed. Social media was instantly flooded with accusations that this terrible action was done by Israelis. The messaging had gone viral before any news agencies or the Israeli military even had time to respond. While Israel and Hamas traded blame based upon information that, from any scholar’s standpoint was obviously incomplete, it seemed like half the world claimed a clear sense of “knowing” based upon media campaigns. Protests broke out. Violence erupted. Blame was presumed. The whole thing could go down in a textbook chapter on bad scholarship.
Who can tell me they know who bombed a hospital in Gaza last week? Knowing full well that we are going to be overwhelmed with disinformation, it is amazing how many people act like truth-knowers. I’ve never seen such a fraught issue for educators, or a greater challenge. You would not believe how ridiculous the sources cited by people to support their beliefs can be, at least if the sources I am sent are any indicator. Whatever you want to believe, you can google the “truth” of it!
Meanwhile, online, Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq have also joined the fight online, along with extremist groups, like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, that were previously at odds with Hamas in what commentators are calling “a world war online.” “It is being seen by millions, hundreds of millions of people around the world,” said Rafi Mendelsohn, vice president at Cyabra, a social media intelligence company in Tel Aviv [see ISD, in references]. My point is not that world war is under siege online, but that education is being fought online. As scholars and teachers, how can we keep up with this explosion of disinformation flooding our media. How can our students keep up?
The Intrinsic Bias in All
No teacher is impartial. I have my theories. However, at my best, I am neither particularly liberal nor conservative, but rather an academic, in search of greater understanding and meaning. In that same sense, making academics out of our students is a basic, critical, and essential job of a school. We are Socratic. We seek first to understand. We do not pass judgement. Getting to something like evidence-based “truth” is a fulltime endeavor.
The Shift from Trusted News to Skepticism
Long gone are the days when Walter Cronkite or Eric Sevareid said it, so you were safe and trusting in bringing it to class as the “truth.” As the world dives deeper into the viral, digital age, “informed skepticism” is emerging as an essential skill for any student or teacher we will call well-educated. I hope it will emerge faster!
The Challenge for Students in a Digital World
What a time to be a student! What a time to be seeking “truth!” What a challenge for every teacher! Foreign governments push narratives that serve their own interests, often successfully targeting U.S. audiences. They create fake accounts on social media platforms or even establish entire news websites that appear legitimate. In school, our kids need to practice spotting those. The new skill is teaching students to recognize disinformation they encounter in their daily lives.
The Extent of Active Misinformation Campaigns
This challenge is complicated by international misinformation campaigns, such as those orchestrated by Russia over the past decades and getting worse. Their extensive "active measures" include fabricated tales about AIDS, elections, Israel, vaccines, Covid, and international conflicts such as Ukraine and Gaza. These are well-documented. Russians (and other sources) now are spending billions of dollars annually in spreading misinformation and disinformation, and our kids and families can and are easily be taken in by it—our teachers can be, too.
In the general U.S. election, held on November 3, 2020, Joe Biden won. Each state's election results were certified by the appropriate state officials after thorough checks and, in some cases, recounts and audits. This certification process is a standard part of the election to ensure the accuracy of the results. If you think President Biden did not win the last election despite the information we have from virtually all sources that we can actually trace, there are two simple explanations: (1) Our educational system has not prepared our citizens to rely upon credible sources, and (2) the Russians won.
The Responsibility of Educators
According to a study by Stanford University, 82% of middle school students couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled as “sponsored content” and a real news story. This poses an enormous teaching challenge. Teachers must foster a "scholarly perspective" in students, meaning that they are ensuring they can differentiate between credible sources and potential misinformation or disinformation. Our basic responsibility as educators is to equip students with the ability to discern fact from fiction (or from unsubstantiated information). Today’s teachers must encourage them to approach information critically and discerningly. This skill is crucial, and I hope students will find it fun, like detective work.
The Challenge of Social Media and Bias
The challenge intensifies and really boomerangs when perspectives are amplified on platforms like Facebook, X (Twitter), and YouTube. Those social media platforms are serious culprits. They spread “a firehose” of information with no way to know the real sources of it. In fact, a MIT study found that false information spreads six times faster than true information on X (Twitter).
If only we could get our kids off this kind of media. I want our kids to get the news from the branches of an apple tree instead.
If you remain on X or whatever it is, which I have not, and which is a cesspool of disinformation, I hope you are only trying to be amused.
Disinformation can arise from a variety of sources and can be propagated for different reasons, such as political gain, financial profit, social influence, or to create confusion and distrust among the public. Here are some of the main sources:
- Social Media Platforms (between October 7 and October 18, a total of 294 Iranian, 623 Russian, and 369 Chinese accounts on Facebook and X were formed in response to the Hamas attack, denouncing US and/or Israel [see ISD in references].)
- State Actors (Some governments or state-sponsored propaganda)
- Conspiracy Theory Networks
- Fake News Websites (which mimic legitimate sites)
- Political Groups or Figures (who discredit opponents, influence voters, or push an intentionally one-sided agenda)
- Internet Trolls and Online Communities (which seem like entertainment)
- Content Farms and Bots (pushing automated disinformation at high speeds, overwhelming factual content)
- Private Interest Groups and Corporations (seeking profit or influence)
- Individuals (sharing unverified information with their social circles)
Any individual claiming to be “informed,” “educated” or “correct” (versus entertained, if not armed) will need to be aware of these disinformation sources and be able to identify them.
We are not living in a wholly real world. We are making up social, economic, and political systems that we all conceive of differently, and then fighting about which of the made-up things are the real ones. I don’t find it amusing. Socrates was willing to drink hemlock for this problem several millennia ago.
Approaching All Sources with Skepticism
The biggest teaching of our lifetimes is that all sources short of an apple tree, irrespective of their supposed bias or balance, should be approached with informed skepticism. It is hardly a new problem, though.
Reflecting on History and Today
You could say World War II was fought over disinformation. The widespread dissemination of modern anti-Semitism may have begun with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The fabricated document, which contains passages lifted from several sources, claims to be the product of secret conclaves convened by Jewish leaders in the late 19th century as they devised a plan to destroy Christian civilization and gain global control. Russian czarists promoted the document in order to prove that the uprising—and Bolshevism itself—was but one prong of a broader Jewish scheme. It was upon this that Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” the rationale for killing between eleven and twenty million people, was said to have been based. Chalk that up to World War II.
The Importance of Educational Challenges
You may find all of the above to be a political problem, but I find it to be an educational challenge, and one of epic if not existential proportion. Therefore, I propose the Five Essential Skills for All Graduates in the Digital Age:
- Question Sources: Recognize potential biases in even the most trusted sources. Research them.
- Check Facts: Utilize reputable fact-checking organizations and refer to primary sources.
- Understand Context: Evaluate the motives behind the distribution of information.
- Detect Bias: Understand potential biases, including one's own.
- Balance Open-mindedness with Caution: Be receptive to new information but also discerning.
Practical exercises that can be implemented in classrooms include:
- Mock News Segments: Have students create mock news segments, challenging their peers to identify biases or false information.
- Source Verification: Assign students various online articles, asking them to trace back to primary sources or use fact-checking websites.
- Debate Sessions: Encourage students to pick sides on controversial topics, ensuring they back their points with credible sources. This also allows for counterarguments and more sources to be addressed, providing a balanced view.
But the real exercise is:
4. Open-hearted, Socratic probing and listening.
Some may state that teaching skepticism could make our students overly cynical or mistrustful. However, the goal isn't to create doubt, but rather to instill a healthy sense of discernment. The goal is to make our students resourceful and compassionate in their pursuit of understanding.
The goal is to make our students resourceful and compassionate in their pursuit of understanding.
In today's evolving digital landscape, the role of schools in fostering critical thinking based upon credible or at least stated sources is the new one plus one equals two.
Conclusion: The Imperative of Real-World Engagement
Today, many TV talk shows and podcasts are great entertainment, and it is incredibly attractive to view the big personalities passing along their edgy perspectives. Deepfakes and altered media are making their ways into schools and across campuses. How will our kids learn to spot them?
Informed skepticism is a new basic skill. Please pass along the Five Essential Skills for All Graduates in the Digital Age. Beyond imparting knowledge, it's our duty to equip students with the skills to critically evaluate information. With a focus on informed skepticism, we can ensure that our students are well-prepared to navigate the complexities of the digital age and the polarization it feeds. More important still, we must never stop telling our kids to get out of those virtual rabbit holes we all seem to be chasing presently, and back under the blue sky where the learning is real: “Get outside and climb a tree!”
- Operation INFEKTION:
- Boghardt, Thomas. "Operation INFEKTION: Soviet Bloc Intelligence and Its AIDS Disinformation Campaign." Studies in Intelligence 53, no. 4 (December 2009): 1-24.
- Russian Disinformation Campaigns:
- Disinformation and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
- Pomerantsev, Peter. "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia." PublicAffairs, 2014.
- PBS NewsHour Reputation:
- "PBS NewsHour." In Encyclopedia of Journalism, edited by Christopher H. Sterling, 1077-1080. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009.
- Satire Being Misinterpreted as Real News:
- LaMarre, Heather L., Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam. "The irony of satire: Political ideology and the motivation to see what you want to see in The Colbert Report." The International Journal of Press/Politics 14, no. 2 (2009): 212-231.
- The role of education in countering misinformation:
- Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, and John Cook. "Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era." Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 6, no. 4 (2017): 353-369.
- Reputable Journalism Networks:
- Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. "The elements of journalism: What newspeople should know and the public should expect." Three Rivers Press, 2014.
- Watchdog Organizations:
- Graves, Lucas. "Deciding what’s true: The rise of political fact-checking in American journalism." Columbia University Press, 2016.
- ISD (Institute for Strategic Dialog). “Capitalising on crisis: Russia, China and Iran use X to exploit Israel-Hamas information chaos. 25 October 2023.
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